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  • Brian Pendergast

Goals vs. Expectations, and the Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Have you ever set some time aside to sit down and think about what your athletic goals are? Setting goals is a vital first step to success, athletically or otherwise. Goals set a direction for you to take, giving you something to work towards as opposed to aimlessly playing or training. Once you have spent time coming up with a goal, these intangible ambitions seem more real and concrete as you take the first steps towards developing a plan for success. Goals motivate and jump start your accountability because once a goal is stated, you are the one responsible for any shortcomings or success experienced. However, it is very easy for athletes, and really anyone, to make the common mistake of setting expectations for themselves as opposed to goals. What's the difference?

First, let's define what goals and expectations are. A goal is "the object of a person's ambition or effort; an aim or desired result." A goal is a constant work in progress. Goals are fluid and can be revisited, changed, and expanded. An expectation however is defined as "a belief that someone will or should achieve something," essentially something will happen in the future. Immediately, you see a discrepancy between goals and expectations.

So you've thought about what you want to achieve this season, set your goals but during the process of working towards your goals, you discover that there are options presented to you along the way: you can change your goal, you can change your approach of how you will realize your goal, or you can keep doing what you are doing to yield success. At times, you may find that in setting your goals you are unintentionally under-ambitious. Let's face it, we are not the best judge of our abilities as we spend far more time looking at others and listening to what others think about us. Any self-doubt or insecurities underline our opinions of ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, especially when we perceive they are supported by our peers. Add to this our general inability to judge our level of talent, skill, or potential objectively. Therefore, our initial goals may be inappropriate.

During the pursuit of your goal, the discovery that you could strive for more ambitious success may present itself. You could learn that your assessment of your abilities or willingness may have been off, based on the knowledge you gained in the beginning stages of your journey towards completing your goal. This works in reverse as well; you may realize that you over-estimated your abilities or level of willingness so it would behoove you to adjust your goal to find success on a smaller scale. Since goals can be adjusted and changed, you can easily adapt your goal at any time without the need for negative feelings as the knowledge gained in your journey to completing your goals, in turn, left you with a better understanding of yourself. When we become more aware of ourselves, we have the opportunity to accept who we are and what we do. We can become much more accountable to the consequences (good or bad) of our actions or inactions. Anything that we don't like, we have the ability to change. This directly results in higher self-confidence and greater drive to continue success, no matter how big or small.

Even unrealized goals yield positive results and never have to be viewed as failures. The seemingly negative event of unfulfilling a goal is just another positive opportunity to learn and acquire first-hand knowledge. When we are aware of our shortcomings, we can decide to reflect and analyze why they happened. Was our perceived level of effort or willingness not up to par with what was required to accomplish the goal? Did we take an effective approach to our goal or were we not really sure how to accomplish it? What could we have done more of, did we evaluate our progress, and did we make any adjustments to our plan? Are we willing to continue our pursuit? When answering these questions using critical thinking, we learn from our shortcomings and can apply the information to our revisited or new goals so that we may be more successful. Better yet, we don't have to wait for a "failed" goal to ask these questions and learn this information. Reflection, leading to a change of approach in achieving our goals, is necessary for any sustainable and consistent success. As we do this, we start to acquire wisdom.

Even when our path to achieve our goals is going to plan, rarely does it stay completely smooth. During these times though, we can choose to keep doing what we are doing to bring us closer to achievement. However, be aware that without a willingness to adapt, we will most likely stumble at some point. Goals can be viewed as stepping stones on your journey. As your goals evolve and your journey unfolds, you begin to realize that the distance traveled towards your goal is less important than the experience gained on your path. The pursuit of your goals is not a linear one, but rather a twisted and winding road that through discipline, persistence, and positivity, you experience success along with moments of joy and wisdom.

On the other hand, when we delve deeper into expectations we see a different story. An expectation is a foregone conclusion. Expectations are fixed and rigid with no room for evolution or adaptation. You either succeed or you fail. If you succeed, great. But when you fail, what's next? No one likes to fail as our self-worth and value are challenged and feel defeated, resulting in a swing of negative thoughts and emotions reinforced by neurotransmitters firing off a surge of defense hormones flooding your brain. In a game like baseball, where it is said that it is a game of failure, we need a more sustainable source of well-being to thrive consistently. Where goals provide platforms to productively deal and even grow with failure, expectations simply label and deny. Our immediate emotional responses towards expectations come with minimal reflection, analysis, and therefore no change in plan.

Why are expectations set? Again, we are usually not the best at objectively judging ourselves or our environment so picking arbitrary numbers and statistics (like a certain batting average or earned run average) and setting them as expectations to achieve is ill-advised. Expectations are simply attempts to control situations that cannot be controlled. But why should you expect anything in the future to happen for sure? Let's say you do expect to hit .300 this year. Would you rather hit .300 but most of your hits were weak singles on pitchers' pitches not driving in runners when you had the chance instead to hit the ball consistently hard, swinging at pitches in your favor, but end up hitting .280? Even behavioral expectations set by coaches, such as always sprinting on and off the field, aren't the best protocols. Yes, it undoubtedly looks much better to see athletes sprint on and off the field to their positions. It shows a level of enthusiasm, intensity, and excitement to be playing. However, by setting this as an expectation instead of a goal, when an athlete fails the expectation, there is no emotional room to use it as a learning experience. The result is just: "You didn't sprint out to your position. You failed." There is no analysis of why so there is no opportunity to learn and to make the conscious choice for the athlete to change his behavior and actions. There is no empowerment, just the perception of letting down oneself or one's teammates. This negative energy is not the answer to long-term sustainable success.

Simply put, goals allow for imperfection; we are imperfect beings who gain most of our knowledge and positive experience through failure. Failure is the teacher of persistence, determination, and mental resolve. Constant success without adversity results in complacency and a false sense of wisdom. We all fall from time to time, it's what we do after we fall that means the most. Perfection equals completeness, nothing to advance to or improve upon, nowhere to go. Expectations represent perfection, an unrealistic and unobtainable idea. Goals celebrate work, progress, even failure and lead to discovery of oneself, which is true success. Theodore Roosevelt said it well in his speech Citizenship in a Republic:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

As mentioned earlier, goals have the ability to prompt motivation. This type of motivation is called extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when an outside influence dictates our level of action. Examples of these influences can include rewards, obligations, or deadlines such as studying for a test to get a good grade, cleaning your room so your parents don't scold you, or training hard for a sport so that you can be recruited by a college in time to gain a scholarship. Although this type of motivation may be very helpful to jump-start our willingness to work, problems arise when we solely rely on extrinsic motivation as once that outside stimulus is gone, there is no reason to stay motivated. There is another type of motivation called intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is not influenced from outside factors, therefore yielding persistent and consistent behavioral patterns. Being intrinsically motivated is derived from personal satisfaction or accomplishment from performing or working towards your goal.

Unfortunately, in the sports world, we are overly bombarded with extrinsically motivating tactics and gimmicks to improve ourselves athletically. We constantly are exposed to workout walls where the top five lifting numbers are posted for certain exercises, we have performance stats readily available online highlighting highest batting averages or lowest earned run averages, and there are numerous all-star or elite team selections in which to participate. All of these motivators are ego-based; we try to fulfill our goals, our self-worth and therefore our self-satisfaction by comparing ourselves to others instead of being ok with doing the absolute best we can, day in and day out, appreciating the process and journey of achieving our goals. When we become too accustomed to performing tasks solely based off of receiving a reward, the over-justification effect takes place, resulting in a drastic decrease in intrinsic motivation. By relying only on outside influences to dictate our execution, it is very easy to become unmotivated and give up once our plan goes wrong, our reward vanishes, or we perceive that we aren't good enough. Accountability disappears, along with the ability to objectively reflect, as the reason for our motivation was never about us.

The key here, as in most everything in life, is balance. Balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation allows for long-term consistency and success. Using extrinsic motivation to accomplish something that you may perceive as unpleasant or even undesirable may jump-start you into action. Let's say you hate running but realize that you need to work on your top-end sprint speed if you want to play baseball at the Division I college level. You can use playing DI baseball as your extrinsic motivator to initially get you to complete the task of running sprint after sprint to help accomplish this goal. As you continue working on your sprint speed and find some early success in getting faster, if you discover value in your hard work and satisfaction in accomplishing something that you once found difficult to do, your perspective towards running may change. This change in perspective turns your drive into intrinsic motivation, giving you continued long-term success and accomplishment. Whenever we have the ability to motivate ourselves intrinsically, finding satisfaction in ourselves and what we do, and coupling this with choosing goals for ourselves over expectations, we are well on our way to achieving success. 

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