Internal vs. External Motivation

AppleTVI bought AppleTV for my wife over the holidays but I it turned into more of a present for myself than her I think…

If you have AppleTV go to the “HBO to Go” app and watch the 1981 classic Chariots of Fire while it is available.  I have watched it a few times and I did so again this morning, which led to the inspiration of this post.

Chariots of Fire is a deep movie that tells the true story of two athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who both achieve a gold medal for their sprinting at the 1924 Olympic Games.  The interesting part of the movie is what drives each to compete.  Harold is driven externally by a need to win and Eric is driven internally by expressing his inner-self through running.

So how does this all relate to tennis?  When a player makes a decision to commitment to put their all into tennis they can do so by being motivated externally or internally.  Either means of motivation is necessarily better than the other.  Champions athletes have both been motivated either externally or internally as is the case with both gold medalists in the movie.  However, there are distinct differences that arise when an tennis player is motivated externally versus internally.

When a player makes a commitment through external motivation they are driven by a product such as winning or playing #1 on the team.  Often times what can happen when a player is driven by product is that they validate who they are based on their results.  They wrap their entire self-worth up in winning and losing.

In the movie Harold was so obsessed with winning the gold medal when it came time to compete the fear of either winning or losing was tremendous.  Preparing for the competition was filled with stress and anxiety.  The whole process was filled with the feeling of burden.  These feelings all make sense when you look at how Harold’s self-worth was wrapped up in the future results.  When he did win the gold medal it was not very fulfilling,  In fact, winning was more of a relief and feeling that a burden was lifted than a joy.  These same feelings can happen to tennis players as well who are driven by the product of winning.

On the other hand Eric Liddell was driven by internal motivation.  Sprinting was not a way to validate himself, instead it was the means of expressing his inner-self.  Training and competition were fun and joyous experiences.  Winning the gold was an incredible satisfaction and filled with happiness.  Losses were certainly disappointing but the joy came from the process of training and competing even when the product was not attained.  These same feelings can happen to tennis players who looks at tennis as the means with which to expression themselves.

If you are a player go watch Chariots of Fire and I bet after reading this you will see the depth and brilliance of a movie made 32 years ago.  If you are a parent sit down with your children and use this movie as a great teaching experience.


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