Several years ago, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin struggling to come up with an idea for my dissertation on the effects of competition on intrinsic motivation. Much of my interest in motivation stemmed from my own experiences in athletics and academics. I had long been fascinated why some individuals had tremendous passion for what they did, whereas others did not.

One summer evening, still searching for ideas, I went for a bike ride through Madison's Elver Park to clear my head. As I biked into the park, I saw a couple dozen men playing pick-up basketball. I biked on and saw hundreds of men and women playing co-ed softball. Finally, as I exited the park, I saw several games of youth soccer taking place. I was struck by a simple, but testable hypothesis: individuals enjoy activities where they can simultaneously cooperate with their teammates in competition against another team.

To date, the vast majority of research on competition had pitted it against either non-competitive or cooperative conditions. Judy Harackiewicz (my graduate advisor) and I conducted four years of research at my summer basketball camps ( In those studies, we had kids shoot free throws the first day of camp.

To simplify things, let's assume all kids made 6 out of 10 free throws in a pre-test of performance that was measured on the first day of camp. On the second day of camp, we gave kids a goal after assigning them to one of four experimental conditions. Each participant shot 10 free throws, either alone, as part of a team, as part of a competition, or as part of a team competing against another team:

Individual - kids shot alone and tried to meet a goal (e.g., try to make 7 out of 10 free throws)

Pure cooperation - kids shot with a teammate and tried to meet a groupgoal (e.g., try to make a total of 13 out of 20 free throws)

Pure competition - kids tried to make more free throws than an opponent (e.g., the winner was the camper who made more free throws out of 10)

Intergroup (team) competition - a team of two campers tried to make more free throws with a teammate than another team of two campers (e.g., the winner was the team that made more free throws out of 20).

After shooting free throws, campers were informed whether they met their goal or won the competition. Campers then completed a questionnaire that measured their enjoyment of the activity, a commonly used self-report measure of intrinsic motivation.

Across four studies, we found clear and consistent evidence that kids enjoyed shooting free-throws more when they were part of a team in competition against another team (intergroup competition) compared to when they were simply cooperating, competing, or shooting alone. This led us to conclude that both competition and cooperation can provide unique benefits to individuals (and that each may have some drawbacks when experienced alone). Thus, this combination of cooperation and competition provides the best of both worlds to participants, and helps explain why team sports are so popular around the world.

Competition is pervasive in our culture, and can be a double-edged sword. Part of the reason team sports are so appealing in our culture is that they provide individuals the opportunity to compete and cooperate at the same time.

In a subsequent post, we'll examine factors that determine when the millions of children who participate in youth sports derive the intended benefits of intergroup competition and when they do not. In the meantime, I'm curious to read examples when you've seen children benefit or suffer in team sports, as opposed to individual sports, and why.


Tauer, J.M., & Harackiewicz, J.M. (2004). The effects of cooperation and competition on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 849-861.

About the Author

John Tauer Ph.D.

John Tauer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and Head Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas. He is also the author of Why Less is More for WOSPs: How to be the Best Sports Parent you can Be

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WOSPs, Unstructured Play, and Intrinsic Motivation

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Organized Sports Has Killed Unstructured Play in Children