It Absolutely Kills me that I had Motivation All Wrong

I had the right idea; possibly incorrect execution. Let me start there, even though I may be letting myself off the hook a bit too easy.

My way of going about motivation was all wrong. This will all make sense in a minute.


Those of you that have paid to see me speak - which is something that I still can’t believe happens - will note that I’m fairly quick to admit when I’m wrong or even *GASP* change my mind. Part of this is simply good science, but another part of this is understanding the dichotomy that is life: we only can understand things in context to a standard. That is to say, I can’t understand what success is without making mistakes and - yes - failing occasionally. Incidentally, this is also how we learn and grow.

Recently I was in the process of putting together a comprehensive course on Motivation Theory, and even had a mini-course lead magnet on my site that I phased out rather quickly. I wouldn’t say that it sucked. It was relevant for the COVID-19 thing, but it wasn’t exactly converting as well as I hoped. The gist of it was yet ANOTHER Self-Determination talk, in “course” format, that dealt with the continuum of motivation.

See? Read that again and see if you care about signing up for that. Most of you are probably totally amotivated (see what I did there?). I almost dozed off thinking about it and this shit is my jam!

I had this stuff all wrong. Something is needed and this just ain’t it.

Much of this revelation came from some conversations with my coach, Rebecca de Acevedo, and with Che Jay Davis, a fantastic transformation specialist and friend. The TL/DR is this: what courses I want to provide might not be the courses that people actually need, especially when considering my audience. More to the point, though, is that even my perceived audience might not necessarily need all of this and (again, in context!), this might do more harm than good.

I had to laugh writing that paragraph because, as someone trained in Sport Psych, it should have been common sense to me. This is a “duh” moment. I have them occasionally.

We need theory, we really do, But we need to learn practical shit too. Let’s be honest.

I gave a talk via Zoom a few weeks back to a bunch of pain scientists, psychs, and other brains. Essentially, I was the dumbest person in the (virtual) room. I found myself thinking about why I was going out of my way to do this training. The crux of the talk was SDT, with an emphasis on Organismic Integration Theory (OIT), the subtheory of SDT that mainly deals with extrinsic motivation as it exists on the continuum from external to internal regulation.

Read that sentence again.

Now, tell me if this is something you really care about outside of practical implications it might have for leadership/coaching/management. Most people don’t need deep dives. Some people want them. A minority of people demand them, but the majority of people would do better with some practical training and feedback; perhaps some skills and checklists, etc.

Amusingly, I once had a vision of creating a set of posts about the various theories we see in motivation. It even had a working title: The Theories Series. I never got it finished. No one cared. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Like, three people cared, so we sat down and drank beer and talked about it and I then decided I no longer needed to waste time bloviating via blog posts on the topic.

Man, I had this all wrong.

Really, though, all of this internal mindset shift was a long time coming for me. Over the course of the last few years, I have taken my foot off of the gas when it comes to speaking about the pure theoretics of motivation. At first this was because I simply got tired of explaining basic concepts over and over again. Particularly operative definitions and the concept of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, and especially the concept of discipline.

A couple of reasons for this:

First of all, this resulted in me arguing - often semantics - with people that don’t have my education and experience on the topic. This is a classic problem of social media, where the odd concept of “relative expertise” arose. The basic premise is: if you know more than your client about (insert any topic, but especially “fitness”), that makes you an “expert” because you are more knowledgeable relative to them. Knowing more than someone that knows nothing about a topic does not automatically make one a subject matter expert in said topic.

Another reason, admittedly is…

This stuff gets boring after a while.

It’s been done to death.

Psych research - at least, the core concepts - don’t really change that much. You can peruse the literature and find the concepts being validated in highly specific and nuanced ways, but SDT for example, is largely the same SDT it was when Deci and Ryan published Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behavior….in 1985. Bandura? That’s 1977(ish). You’ll still learn about Maslow in a 100 level personality development course...that was 1943!

I’m often jealous of people in other areas where the research publishing speed is breakneck, which is why I’ve become obsessed with the emerging pain science. Erica Suter, a youth soccer coach and close friend of mine, is always geeking out on developing speed and agility research. Rightfully so, as measurement techniques and training methodologies change, a TON of research gets published on this that changes the game. Literally.

Motivation theory? It’s been done. To death. Over and over. And don’t even get me started on the replication issues in psych research, that’s a whole other can of worms that further complicates things and leaves me banging my head off the way. (RRR on ego depletion, anyone? Yeah, I had to essentially cut a whole unit out of my mindfulness course because of that one.)

That being said, Motivation theory was - and still is - a passion project for me. I’m not abandoning it. I’m fascinated by the implications of SDT and how those mechanisms might explain motivational interviewing. I’m fascinated by equity theory and how it explains employee or player morale in some instances. I still go back to Maslow, as even that context provides insight into performance - if someone’s basic needs aren’t even met, how can they actually perform.

But SDT isn’t the totality of what’s out there. In a VERY roundabout way, this is the point I’m trying to make in this article, and yet another area where I was dead-wrong. Or, at least, I was spending too much time talking/writing/thinking about shit that wasn’t necessarily the answer. Or, rather, I was generating answers for the wrong questions - or questions not yet even posed.

Did I mention I had a lot of this wrong?

Fine, I might as well stir up some shit:

Most people in the fitness and wellness industry are drawn to Self-Determination Theory because

a) They don’t know anything else about psych and this shit has been trendy for the last few years or

b) It fits their confirmation bias neatly.

The second one is really important and we need to talk about this. I'm not the exception here. I love SDT and nerd-out on it, but I’d be lying to you if I said that my love-affair wasn’t due, in part, to the concepts it espouses. SDT is about autonomy and agency and how we can take control over every aspect of our lives. Most people want to believe this is 100% true. It might not be.

Not surprisingly, this is the reason why many rabid SDT lovers hate behaviorism in all waves (nyuk, nyuk), shapes and forms.

As you might be able to tell, I find it hilarious when coaches shit on behaviorism while simultaneously preaching about the importance of developing good habits, a practice that is deeply rooted in behaviorism. I wake up every day, sleepwalk into the kitchen, and grab the same coffee cup, from the same location, and prepare my coffee in the same order every time, much to the chagrin of Vanessa, who often yells at me because my sequence of said coffee production results in dripping and grinds exiting the Keurig in some odd, explosive fashion.

Being self-aware enough to realize I do this makes me pretty reluctant to slam behaviorism, as many pure SDT folks are wont to do. Frankly, I’m terrified to track what percentage of the day I am operating on auto-pilot. Including when I’m writing articles like these.

Perhaps that automaticity is part of the reason I got this shit wrong.

Interestingly, my educational pedigree covered motivation, but expertise in SDT wasn't the main focus. In fact, one of the benefits of sport psych, that I'm often quick to trumpet, is that Sport Psych folks aren’t necessarily married to any particular theory, but rather we use the literature to inform decisions while hashing out best practices. Personally, I like diving deep, but the bottom line is:


So, without droning on much longer, here are some issues that you should ponder if you are obsessed with one particular route, and especially if your training in said route consists of reading popular self-help books as opposed to actually following a curriculum.

In no particular order:

1. One Theory May Not Be The End All Be All.

Let me be more blunt. One theory

then end all be all.

When it comes to motivation, there's more than one way to skin the cat, but perhaps more importantly: there are many feline pelts to be pulled and just as many modalities to employ. Confining yourself to one theory or one train of thought, especially in psych, is limiting at best and detrimental, at worst.

2. We tend to Major in the Minors

More specifically, we tend to fixate on stuff that might not even have the effect of helping people. For example, I know many coaches - most better than I - that could name a single motivation theory or break down the levels of extrinsic motivation a la Deci and Ryan. I cringe when I look back on moments when I correct a coach based on a theoretical nitpick. Yeah, I may have felt smug at the time, but good coaches are in the trenches most of the time, not off elsewhere stomping their feet over minutiae. Which leads me to...

3. Experience in Coaching and Leadership Counts

Good coaches take the literature and apply it to their techniques. They constantly hone their craft, adding what works and cutting away at what doesn’t. Many of them won’t even engage in an internet argument over trivialities because they know what works for them, having applied it in the field and tested it in real situations.

Don’t misconstrue me here and claim that I don’t value education. I do. It is critical. But it amounts to jack shit if you use it to argue rather than using it to create a better environment for your athletes/teams/employees. Semantic arguments are a waste of time if you have a formula that works.

I could roll on with this list for days, but the bottom line is motivation theory is only as good as how you apply it, and marrying a theory because it fits your confirmation bias is just a recipe to morph yourself into an ineffective asshole.

I have been guilty of all of the above, at various moments in time.

It Absolutely Kills me that I had Motivation All Wrong.

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