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Motivation enhances motor skill learning

This is an excerpt from Motor Learning and Development by Pamela Haibach, Greg Reid, and Douglas Collier.


The learning environment must be structured with motivation in mind. Motivation influences activity initiation and persistence. Self-motivation is also an important dimension in the forethought phase of self-regulation (Zimmerman, 2000). Motivational ideas for practitioners emerge from competence motivation theory (Harter 1978, 1981), self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000; Vallerand, 1997, 2007), self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1997), and achievement goal theory (Nicholls, 1989). Teachers, therapists, and exercise leaders can enhance and maintain participation in physical activity by following the steps explained next (Kilpatrick, Hebert, & Jacobsen, 2002; Ntoumanis, 2001; Vallerand, 2007). Developmental differences are noted as appropriate. Many of the recommendations are cast in self-determination theory because teachers and therapists can influence factors such as achievement and choice. An extensive body of research supports these factors as affecting perceived competence, autonomy, and relatedness, the three needs posited in self-determination theory. In other words, these factors increase or decrease intrinsic motivation via modifying perceived competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Vallerand, 2007).

  • Promote achievement. The learning environment should provide much opportunity for successful experiences. Not surprisingly, positive past achievements enhance personal self-efficacy and competence as an important mediator of intrinsic motivation. Success can be increased by professionals who create the positive affective environment discussed earlier, who manipulate environmental and task constraints, and who encourage learners to be actively involved in the discovery learning process. This does not mean that the environment should be manipulated to avoid failure on all attempts or trials, for learning can result from analyzing why something went wrong and trying a new way. But repeated failure is destined to decrease motivation and result in little interest in the form of physical activity that produced the failure. Learners seek out opportunities to demonstrate their competence and are usually intrinsically motivated to learn physical skills. Even observing someone succeed who is similar to oneself can have a positive impact on self-efficacy and performance (Bandura, 1997).
  • Promote a mastery climate. A mastery climate encourages participants to improve their skills, and success is judged by a positive change in one’s performance, not in comparison to others. This contrasts with an ego-involved climate, which encourages participants to improve their skills to outperform others. In the ego-involved climate, success is defined in comparison to other people in the group or some idealized model. Generally speaking, before children begin school they are largely unaware of how they compare to others in terms of movement skills. Most children are intrinsically motivated to move and are eager to explore and learn. The elementary school years produce many opportunities for comparison in physical education classes or community sport and physical activity programs. If the star athlete is always held up as the idealized example of performance, the underlying message is that others should aspire to such skill levels. If the children adopt this perspective as truth, many will generate a sense of incompetence and have reduced intrinsic motivation. The mastery climate champions personal improvement as the important yardstick of success. Teachers, fitness professionals, and clinicians who point out improvement, regardless of how others perform, are creating a mastery climate that is conducive to self-determined forms of motivation.
  • Provide positive feedback. Positive feedback to learners promotes learning, intrinsic motivation, and self-confidence with the given task. As we will see in chapter 15, there is no need to provide positive feedback on every trial, but in general, most people of all ages appreciate the therapist or parent saying “Good effort, I see you are working hard” or “Yes, you have it, that step with the throw really added distance.” If verbal feedback or encouragement is not realistic, learners will quickly become aware that their capabilities do not match the words of others. Negative feedback is usually associated with a decrease in intrinsic motivation. Henderlong and Lepper (2002) cogently pointed out that other dimensions of praise can have unexpected consequences. For example, if the praise is not considered sincere, it can have the effect of negative feedback. Also, the style in which the feedback is presented is important. If the words convey autonomy (e.g., You should do this to improve performance), the participant will feel in control. On the other hand, if the message is controlling (e.g., You have no choice but to do this), intrinsic motivation will likely decrease.
  • Provide choice. Choice facilitates intrinsic motivation. Allow participants to select their own music to accompany exercise; the size, color, or texture of a ball; or in some cases the task. “When the music stops, move to the locomotor skill station of your choice and practice the activities on the task card” (Kilpatrick et al., 2002). Choice promotes autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Physical education teachers and therapists may be constrained to some extent by required curricula or traditional practice, but choice can still be afforded the students or patients within the required activities. With adults, every effort should be made to include participants in a broader decision-making process of actually selecting the activities, as well as amount of time for instruction, self-directed practice, or play.
  • Promote goal setting. Preschool children will not require goal setting since they generally play and practice for intrinsic reasons. As instructors sense that younger school-aged children might benefit from setting goals as a means to promote activity and provide a barometer of success, the children will need assistance in selecting realistic and specific goals. “You swim the length of the pool with the backstroke in 40 seconds, do you want to aim for 35 seconds?” Goal setting is consistent with a mastery climate in which personal improvement is emphasized and is supported as a means to improve performance (Kyllo & Landers, 1995). Participants should be encouraged to set moderately difficult personal goals, and adults may benefit from both short-term and long-term goals. The instructor may say, “Yes, I agree that you should try to bump the volleyball six times to yourself today, but 10 times with Fred can probably wait for a few sessions.” Setting one’s goals is consistent with autonomy. The achieved goals provide a sense of self-satisfaction, competence, and hence intrinsic motivation. We will discuss goal setting further in chapter 13.
  • Use competition wisely. Competition with others will arise at some point in many physical activity programs. Readers are cautioned against thinking that competition must be a huge part of all programs; think of practice that emphasizes personal skill improvement in swimming, skiing, or gymnastics quite outside the context of competition. A run can be conceived as a personal method of having a good workout or as a race against others. Realistically, however, competition will be part of units of track or basketball, since even one-on-one “drills” are inherently competitive. The early motivation literature with physical tasks showed that competition had a detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation. The sport literature confirmed this finding in those who lost. For winners, or those who did well, intrinsic motivation was enhanced (Vallerand, 2007). Practitioners are cautioned against using too much competition or placing too much emphasis on the outcome when only a few can “win.”

A series of basketball studies by Tauer and Harackiewicz (2004) is informative. The researchers assessed the impact of competition, cooperation, and intergroup competition on enjoyment by children with a basketball free throw task. In the competitive situation, enjoyment increased for the winners but decreased in losers. This was consistent with the intrinsic motivation literature. It was expected from earlier research that cooperation would lead to more enjoyment than competition, but competition and cooperation did not differ in this respect. In fact, intergroup competition resulted in the highest levels of enjoyment. Even though intrinsic motivation and enjoyment are different constructs (although related), Vallerand (2007) tried to explain these surprising findings by postulating that “trying to do well” was emphasized by the researchers. Perhaps the children did not perceive the competitive environment as one of “win at all costs” and thus did not perceive a controlling dimension, so enjoyment was not reduced. In summary, practitioners should be mindful that too much competition in a program and excessive importance placed on winning may be viewed as controlling and therefore reduce intrinsic motivation for that activity in many of the participants. Rather, learners should view competition as one way to extend their skills, recognizing that competitors who try their best against them will make them a better player.

  • Provide a rationale for activities. Providing reasons for some activities (“Many of our activities today are designed to help improve range of motion in your knee and will speed up your recovery”) should provide knowledge about the activities and facilitate a sense of competence and autonomy (Kilpatrick et al., 2002). Therapists and instructors should encourage questions and discussion about the rationale of activities.
  • Promote social interactions. The desire to be with friends and make new friends is a motive mentioned often by children for participating in sport (Weiss & Williams, 2004). Social interaction or relatedness is also a need postulated by Deci and Ryan (1985) in self-determination theory. It is expected that creating social relationships in physical activity environments will enhance enjoyment of the activity. Ways to accomplish this include partner and small-group activities that promote new interactions among people.
  • Use rewards wisely. The use of rewards has been extensively researched in laboratory tasks (e.g., Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999, 2000). Rewards are things like trophies or other tangible items rather than positive verbal feedback. In these situations, rewards decrease intrinsic motivation if they are presented for participating or completing an activity or for reaching a certain level of performance. They undermine autonomy. If the rewards are unexpected and not related to task achievement, they do not decrease intrinsic motivation. Thus, a participant trophy or certificate of practice given to all team members at the end of the year is unlikely to undermine intrinsic motivation if it is unexpected. However, if people participate in sport or exercise to receive a trophy or money from parents, intrinsic motivation toward that activity will likely decrease. This effect is even greater in children than in college-age students (Vallerand, 2007). Likely reasons are that children begin at a higher level of intrinsic motivation or that because of inexperience they do not expect any reward for something they enjoy. Rewards may be useful when a person is reluctant to participate; and our hope is that once the person attempts the activity, it will become appealing in itself. More research is needed on this issue, but the thoughtful therapist, teacher, or coach should use rewards sparingly and with awareness that rewards may detrimentally affect intrinsic motivation, which in turn will lead to a decrease in participation.

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