• Jason Lampkin

Are footballers intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Motivation is the experience of desire or aversion. Simply put; you either want or want to avoid something.

Motivation has both an objective aspect (a goal or thing you aspire to) and an internal or subjective aspect (it is you that wants the thing or wants it to go away). There is also a clear distinction between the two different types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic motivation

Extrinsically motivated: This is where you are motivated to earn a reward (or avoid punishment). You’re basically engaging in behaviour not because you find it satisfying, but because you want to get something in return (or avoid punishment).

Intrinsically motivated: This is when you’re engaged in an activity because you find it personally rewarding. There’s no trophies, rewards or accolades, but rather the activity and process itself is its own reward.

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are important ways of driving behaviour, but studies do seem to suggest that the latter is a bigger predictor of success.

Which type serves us best?

In a large-scale study, researchers followed 11,320 West Point military cadets and assessed their motives for attending the academy over a 14-year period.

What they discovered was that those who enrolled because of internal motivators were more likely to graduate, receive promotions, become commissioned officers and stay in the military compared with those who enrolled due to external motives. Intrinsic 1, extrinsic 0.

Another example of this was mountaineer and explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 became the first person to scale the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.

After his incredible achievement he was celebrated by the media as an example of how humans had managed to stand on the roof of the world and conquered Mother Nature’s toughest terrain.

But upon reflection (and in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998) Hillary was philosophical about his motivations and said, ‘It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.’

Elaborating on this further he added, ‘What I generally say is that it’s the sense of challenge, the attempt to stretch yourself to the utmost and overcome the considerable difficulties. If you can do that, you get a great sense of satisfaction.’

What motivates us to move (or scale) mountains?

Ever since Hillary’s conquest, adventurers the world over have tried to follow in his footsteps.

It seems like a record number of climbers are attempting to do so year-after-year, and it’s led to traffic jams at the summit, with hundreds of people waiting in line to reach Everest’s top.

Climbing Everest is no walk in the park. Icy temperatures, fierce winds and limited oxygen make it an undoubtedly dangerous climb. More than 200 people have died on the mountain since 1922 and the rate of successfully scaling the mountain stands at only 29%.

There were about 11,000 attempts to reach the summit between 1922 and 2006 according to, so quick calculation determines that around-about 3,190 people can claim to have been closest to the heavens without perishing.

Considering the perilous ascent, I was actually expecting a much slimmer success rate.

Last year, ‘The Economist’ even reported that climbers’ success rate on the world’s tallest mountain is higher than any other Himalayan peak. Perhaps essence of Everest is not such ‘rare air’ after all. Comparatively, it is actually much more mainstream than becoming a professional footballer.

What motivates a footballer?

The statistical truth is that only 0.012% of aspiring footballers that enter an academy system will go on to scale the summit of the soccersphere. Yes; you really are 2,416 times more likely to be the closest earthbound human to the stars in our galaxy than to actually become a soccer star.

It is a startlingly low success rate, and one that we might not stomach in any other career, industry or endeavour. Would the approximately 800 people that attempt to climb Everest annually accept such a foreboding, seemingly fatal forecast?

Coming full circle; I guess you’d have to ask them what exactly they’re doing it for.

Do they do it for ‘the great sense of satisfaction’ that Sir Edmund Hillary described, or simply for the ability to play a trump card in pub-chat conversation?

Likewise, would you say aspiring footballers are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated? Do they do it for the love of the game and the enjoyment they feel whilst playing it, or is it all about the money, fast-cars and fame?

Perhaps a mix of both?

I personally would have played football professionally for free; to me, the riches are simply consequences of being one of the best in your chosen business and a yardstick of sorts to gage how skilled you are at your craft.

The world’s top lawyers, dentists, accountants, doctors, authors and actors get paid the most because they occupy the top spots of their chosen field. It’s no different in the world of football.

According to IMDB, Johnny Depp was handed a $55,000,000 paycheck for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. Was he worth it? I’d like to think of that as a rhetorical question. Who would go see Captain Jack Sparrow played by anyone else?

Perhaps Lionel Messi isn’t an entertainer in the same way Johnny Depp is, but he is still the star attraction in a business built around entertainment and is commensurately rewarded for it.

Think you could do what Messi does? You can’t. Neither can Johnny Depp, and to be fair Messi doesn’t strike me as a swashbuckling sea-rover either.

What motivates Messi?

For almost two decades it has been abundantly clear that Lionel Messi is a supremely talented footballer with phenomenal skill, but what exactly it is that has motivated him to achieve relentlessly and remain at the very top of the game for so long?

It is likely that intrinsically, Messi’s performance has been influenced by his personal desire to play the game and the internal genuine pleasure he experiences from learning and playing football. Similarly, it is likely that extrinsically he has played football for his salary, endorsements, and the recognition of being the GOAT. You can never have too many Ballon d’Ors.

A harmonious balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors together have enhanced and sustained Messi’s motivation.

Of course, I wouldn’t turn down a six-figure salary or the opportunity to play on the sun-soaked Spanish coast – who in their right mind would? – but I found the opportunity to become a world-class athlete and achieve my childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer a much more alluring prospect than the Ferrari’s and fake-breasts that often come with accomplishing it.

What do you think? Are footballers intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?

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