Peak Performance: in the NFL, Fortune 500, and Life

Where do you find your motivation? Ask Peyton Manning.

Posted Jan 17, 2010

Here they are - some tried and true ways to improve your performance:

Work on your focus; you know, don't take your eye off the ball.
Develop a clear goal; like getting a promotion at work or running the NY marathon.
Break your goal into smaller steps. No one goes from couch potato to running 26.2 miles in one try; but you can go from running around the block to running around town, to finally running that marathon.
• And, finally, reward yourself for your efforts - whether it's celebrating milestones with your buddies or buying the new Blue Ray TV you've always wanted.

These are all good pieces of advice. But they miss one very important element... the source of your motivation. You can have extrinsic motivation (originating from outside yourself); wanting all the goodies that go with success - awards, recognition, money - as well as avoiding the downsides of failure - like job loss and poverty. And, you can have intrinsic motivation, which is pursuing your goal because it inherently feels good - you're excited about meeting a challenge or just keenly interested in a particular activity. Working hand-in-hand with intrinsic motivation is a feeling of autonomy; the sense that you are choosing to do something, free from control or pressure from others. Although both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can both help people improve their performance, intrinsic motivation has been shown to be particularly effective.

Intrinsically motivated people are generally happier socially and have a better sense of well-being. When compared with those who chase financial success or fame, they experience less depression, have fewer physical problems, and feel more joie de vivre. Their performance is also superior - whatever their activity of choice. This is true across a wide array of domains in life; such as:

Sports: Research has shown that athletes are better performers when they are intrinsically motivated to compete. For instance, one study looked at top Canadian swimmers with coaches who were particularly supportive of their sense of autonomy (encouraging the athletes' inner motivation to perform rather than pressuring them). These swimmers showed more intrinsic motivation, which predicted their continuing to compete for a longer period of time. In addition, other studies have shown that encouraging the intrinsic motivation of high school students to be more physically active resulted in them choosing to do more physical activity outside of school.

The importance of intrinsic motivation often comes through in interviews with top athletes. For instance, consider the comments of Peyton Manning, the Super Bowl XLI MVP. In explaining what's important in a football player's attitude, he said he would play for free. "Obviously, I wouldn't tell my owner that, but I would. I think you want to be around those kind of guys, guys that love it, guys that are thinking about it... That means you love what you do," he said. Although Manning was not using the terms autonomy or intrinsic motivation, he clearly recognized the importance of being internally motivated.

Work: Research studies of a Fortune 500 company and an investment bank have shown that when managers support the autonomy of workers, those workers were more satisfied with their jobs, more engaged in work, and performed better.

Health Care: When providers in weight loss clinics and smoking cessation programs supported clients' autonomy, those clients were better at meeting their goals. Similarly, when physicians support patients' autonomy, the patients are more consistent in taking their medication.

Friendships: Those who support the autonomy of a friend are more likely to get similar support. Not surprisingly, those who get autonomy support from a friend are more likely to give it, too. And the result of being in such high autonomy supportive relationships? People are more secure, feel closer, and rely more emotionally on each other. They are also likely to have a higher level of psychological well-being than those without much autonomy support.

The findings from the above studies are supported by much more research, all confirming the value of choosing goals that are important to you. No doubt, the traditional tools for enhancing performance are helpful - but they work best when they build on existing intrinsic motivation. If you want to achieve peak performance, it is essential that you begin by pursuing a goal that grabs your heart... and surround yourself with people who help breath life into that dream.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.