Positive Feedback in Motivation: Less is more when you trust Isaac Newton

Motivation is an ever-present theme in sports and exercise psychology.  Whether we as researchers are looking at motivation in elite athletes or casual exercisers, the properties of motivation continue to intrigue, delight, and often frustrate us considerably.  Take, for example, the ultimate irony: the researcher or student who is attempting to finish a paper on motivation, yet is having trouble due to a lack of…you guessed it…motivation.  In my view, however, there is one very simple and cyclical way to view motivation: positive feedback.

The construct of motivation has been simply defined as the direction and intensity of one’s effort (Sage, 1997).  However, this same construct has been split into viewpoints (Trait, Situation, and Interaction), been teased apart to give us guidelines focusing on environment, motives, and outside influences, and sprung multiple theories that will allow a coach or sport psychologist to push his / her team (Self-Determination Theory, Attribution Theory, Achievement-Goal Theory, etc.).  As a pragmatic thinker and an applied sport psychologist, I prefer a much different and more simple theory: an object at motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will remain at rest.  Sounds familiar, right?  Well let me explain why Mr. Newton’s first physical law is so useful to us sport and exercise practitioners.

Studies have shown that even individuals in the most depressed state who exercise in the slightest (short walks outside of their homes) will begin to show improvement at a faster rate than those who remain sedentary.  In this way, they are slowly beginning to become in motion, and therefore, unless acted on by another force, will stay in motion.  Luckily for most of us non-clinical sport or exercise psychologists, we do not deal with the deeply depressed, but more likely with those who simply would rather watch TV and have some chips than head to the gym and get some work done.  The trick is not to teach our clients about different theories of motivation or “zen” them into being more mindful about their behavior, it is rather to spark a series of positive-feedback interactions with very simple, non-intensive suggestions.

Positive feedback is not only defined as encouraging words or a pat on the back after a good performance, it is a concept seen often in physiology, for example, as when a reaction continues to happen again and again, building on itself.  Motivation, whether increasing or decreasing, works in the field in a similar way.  Motivation or demotivation builds onto itself, again and again, usually until a person reaches a very high or very low state of motivation.  Our job in the field is to get this reaction going in the positive direction and step back, only to intervene again if another “force” comes into our clients lives and might push them back on the demotivating path.

Consider a practical example:  A student athlete feels completely overwhelmed in attempting to balance her reading assignments for class next week, preparing a presentation for a seminar, going to training everyday, and finally dealing with guests coming on the weekend.  This athlete comes to you in a state of panic and feeling completely demotivated on where to begin, stating that the anxiety is definitely going to hurt her performance in the upcoming big match. Goal-setting, time management, breathing techniques are all options that could help this young girl, and yet I propose that we as consultants stick by a different principle: less is more.  Suggest she “leaves” all her emotional baggage in your office and goes for a jog, and when she gets back, ask her where she wants to begin.

You see in my short experience in working with those dealing with motivational issues, giving the athlete time to do something as simple as a jog or a quick trip to the gym can already start the blood flowing and allow the body’s own form of a positive-feedback cycle to begin. There is often no need for long speeches, explanations of theories, or a complicated intervention. In recent years studies have shown that we are over-medicated, over-stimulated, and over-analyzed. Therefore I say let us begin to let the laws of nature work: start your athlete in motion, and let them stay in motion.


Sage, G. (1997). Introduction to motor behavior: A neuropsychological approach (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addision-Wesley.

Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations in Sport and Exercise Psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

About the Author: Peter Schneider is currently writing a PhD at the University of Leipzig (Germany). He attained a B.A from Kalamazoo College (USA) in Biology and received M.Sc. from the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) in Sport and Exercise Psychology and a M.Sc. from the University of Leipzig in Diagnostics and Intervention. His area of focus is currently career transition and termination of athletes. Peter also writer and editor in EMSEP Sport and Exercise Psychology blog, which you can visit here: http://emsepblog.tumblr.com/

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