Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Achievement motivation in ultra running, ironman and endurance sport

I've not written a blog in a while, and for the masses that are wondering what happened in Transalpine 2012 after my last post - I'm going to be lazy and refer you to Lotte's race report (part 1 and part 2) :-)

The seed for this post was actually planted during my participation Transalpine this year, and relates to that of achievement motivation in endurance sport. Its a topic that I have been chewing over for a while now, and even after extensive thought, I'm still not sure I've got to the bottom of it. Anyway, here goes:

What first appealed to me about endurance events (ultras, marathons, ironmans etc) is that to just to finish was an achievement. The battle to be had was with the race itself. Not that there isn't a competitive aspect to every "race", but there was fundamentally something welcoming and encouraging about the fact that my performance wasn't going to compared so much with my competitors (a competitive climate) but with myself (a mastery climate).

The fact I, (and many others) have been drawn to this aspect of endurance sport isn't surprising. There is research to suggest that mastery climate fosters task involvement, where persistence, and personal improvement are rewarded. In competitive climates however, only the best prosper and it can be an extremely debilitating environment for those who are less able.

According to Nicholls' (1984) Achievement Goal Theory, there are two basic stable personality orientations: task or ego-oriented. The former prefers to participate in a given activity more for the opportunity for self-improvement, whilst the latter head out and like measure success relative to those directly around him/her. Although this is a somewhat simplified description of the theory, I think its enough to go by. Cury et al. (1997) showed how task-oriented people are far more likely to select challenging tasks so that they have the opportunity to assess their development that they have achieved through persistence. It follows, that those who tend to participate in endurance events, are likely to be task-oriented the scraps of research that have been conducted on the topic would seem to point in this direction also; Krouse et al. (2011) found that female ultra runners had a tendency to be task-oriented.


Now not to get too far into this, but musings have led me to consider the bigger picture. I believe within each race (lets call this the micro-level) a mastery climate is more or less predominates. On any given day, while the ego-oriented amongst us are free to look at just how far up the 2nd from last page or results they came, most will contextualize their performance relative to their personal goals, reminisce and head home. Only a small percentage really seem to care that much about how they did relative to others, and thats perfectly ok.


When you zoom out a little, I think the mastery climate is somewhat diminished. People naturally begin to compare between races (lets call this the macro-level). You get all the talk of the toughest, the hardest, the longest etc. (a blog post in its own!)  In doing so, I don't think its unfair to say that maybe what an individual has achieved say in a less difficult race, might often be overshadowed by more 'impressive' achievements, even amongst those in the know! Personally however, I like to think I value some of my less notable achievements far more than some of the more "impressive" ones.  A good example of this came up at a recent race I attended. During the race briefing, the organiser spent a few moments welcoming the group, then went on to specifically mention a few of the more outstanding achievements of the competitors toeing the start line. I'm all for celebrating success and was it inspiring? Sure. Also, was it important to recognise the influential names who's opinions might help define the success of the event in future years? Definitely. But I can't help but think what those taking part in their first ultra may have thought when the goliath challenge ahead of them was effectively devalued amidst the trans-national and trans-contienental accolades of their very immediate others. It reminded me of animal farm a little actually.....

"All ultra runners are equal, but some are more equal than others"  

Ok, maybe that was a bit far, but hopefully you get the jist? Now there was no negative intent at all in the organiser's words, quite the opposite, but I think it shows how when you look at more than just one race, the aspects of a competitive climate begins to surface. Needless to say, this comparison of races is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine, and something that I think is kind of missing the point! (but thats just my opinion - each to their own).


The final level it made me consider was the contrast between those who participate in endurance sport and those that don't participate at all (let's call it the meta level). Here, I think the balance between the mastery/competitive climate is heavily in favour of the latter. Even though all your mates  might ride 100 miles every weekend, get up at 5.30am to go running all the time, or train 15 hours a week, you are in the minority.  I suppose it feels like a collective narcissism of sorts, where it the 'why' and 'how' of what you do are lost, and people 'looking in' only see the number....... 26.2, 112, 50, 100.....

I've tried to conceptualise the three layers below. Red denotes a competitive climate, and blue a mastery climate. The Micro-levels are the races, where the mastery climate predominates. In the context of this environment, for the most part, the task-oriented can thrive and prosper. As you begin to look at the broader picture and the wider endurance scene, denoted by the pill shaped area - the competitive climate starts to make itself known. Here the substance and value of personal goals can be lost amongst someone who has gone harder, faster and longer.  Finally, at the meta-level, where those that do and those that don't are compared, the entire world of endurance sport is nearly enveloped, where what you do, seems to start to say something about who you are.

As far as I can tell, I'm task-oriented, which might explain why the comparative nature of the ego-oriented types, and their influence on the endurance environment bothers me a little. This post didn't turn out how I expected it to, and its pretty loose on the ground in terms of theory. It's certainly not watertight and I've not even really touched upon achievement motivation in competition - a pretty relevant topic. I've more tried to explain my perspective (very crudely) of how the dynamics of competitive and mastery climates interact in different contexts within in endurance sport.

If you want to test whether you are task or ego oriented you can do so here. Doesn't mean much on its own, but might explain why its important to you that came 655th NOT 656th in your the 12th wave.....on the Saturday, not the Sunday......

I hope you enjoyed reading, and welcome all comments.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting blog. i used to be ego-oriented but somehow seem to be edging away from that into the red task-oriented area. Maybe its because my distances have increased, maybe its because running and triathlon have different "vibes" and the latter is more competetive than the former, or maybe in time I've just mellowed into enjoying the experience, not the result.