I was a considerably motivated child, but, the truth is, my ability to reach my utmost potential was mostly a credit to extrinsic incentives. Admittedly, I was driven to achieve goals for tangible rewards or pressures, rather than solely for personal fulfillment.
It started as an elementary school student. I would bring home my homework, read the directions, barely, and then rush through it as quickly as possible like it was a race. Everything was a race to me — even in school. Whether it was solving math problems, reading a chapter book, or even writing an essay. Unfortunately, I didn’t fall under the category of “genius,” so the quality of each assignment was definitely insufficient.
On the soccer field, it was clear from an early age that I separated myself from others in talent. However, my dad strongly believed there was still fuel left in my tank, room for improvement in skill, and a gear that had not yet been reached.
My dad was confident that I had the ability and caliber to excel in both school and soccer. He encouraged me to devote more time and purpose into school work by offering me rewards. For every book I read and comprehended, I earned a dollar. There was something so enticing about completing a task and getting a present. I was determined to focus more, work harder, and strive for a higher quality.
I was extremely competitive in nature, no matter the objective. Challenging myself on the soccer field was never an issue, but when compensated, I was always able to switch to a higher gear. So, when my dad offered me the Adidas fleece I had been dying for if I scored three goals, my hunger to produce became insatiable. In addition, a dollar for every goal gave me the extra boost to fight, battle, and work to hunt down the ball and kick it in the back of the net. It was evident that the extra incentive played a significant role in pushing me past my threshold.
My dad spent endless time with me. Without a doubt, he was extraordinarily dedicated and committed to my successes. He recognized my potential, enticed me with rewards, and I became determined to earn them. Sure, I was intelligent and athletic, but the dangling carrot definitely provided me with a desire to overachieve; to outwork my classmates, peers, and teammates. Perfect report cards, goal scoring, and even making new teams became the benchmark in my life.
Throughout the years of competing in school and soccer, I earned many rewards– gifts, cars, money, clothes, and more. There were many benefits to being an extrinsically motivated person. The “carrot and stick” approach inspired me to challenge myself in uncomfortable ways. I truly believe this fundamental component allowed me to elevate my youth career to new heights. Without that extra motivation, I would not have been as successful.
However, in college, extrinsic rewards ended up negatively affecting me and my performance. As stated in, What’s The Best Motivation for Athletes? by Patrick Cohn, “When your primary motivation is extrinsic, you may sense a greater amount of competitive pressure and anxiety, compare yourself unfavorably to other athletes, devalue your self-worth, find it difficult to deal with failure, or view your sport more like “work” than a “game.”
I accepted a full-ride athletic scholarship to Michigan State University. I was no longer motivated by my dad’s gifts, but by the considerable amount of money invested in me as a player by the university. Full-ride scholarships were few and far between, and with this honor, came immense pressure through both spoken and unspoken expectations. And this, I believe, contributed to my downfall, ultimately manifesting in an eating disorder due to severe stress, anxiety, and depression. My passion for soccer had become nonexistent.
The monetary value of a college scholarship was overwhelming to me. It resulted in the first glaring glitch of the extrinsic motivation pattern, where otherwise it had only positively impacted my life. This was until I was offered a reward when I was in the deepest and darkest period of my eating disorder. The gift became an incentive to gain weight. It helped jumpstart my recovery from anorexia, and provided me with motivation, inspiration, and hope. That gift… I will forever believe saved my life.
….Next blog: The Life-Saving Gift