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Maximizing Motivation, Minimizing Fear

May 16, 2007

What keeps some people motivated to return to your classes week after week, while others have a harder time? According to experts, they may be afraid. “People avoid situations where they think they may fail,” says David Conroy, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the sport psychology lab at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. This is especially true in what Conroy calls a “performance or socially evaluative situation,” in which people are socially judged or assessed by others in a public or semipublic forum.

Conroy points out that fear of failure can take several forms. The most significant is the fear of shame or embarrassment. Instructors who comment on mistakes in a group setting confirm a participant’s worst fears. We know to avoid obvious humiliation, such as laughing at a participant’s inflexibility or chastising someone. But some kinds of humiliation are more subtle.

Have you ever counted up the number of negative comments you make in a single session? Consider the impact of cues such as “Don’t lock out your knees,” “If you can’t do this version, do the easier one” or “I’m not seeing any focus!” Such comments not only deprive participants of rewards but also emphasize punishment. People who already have a heightened fear of failure will only become more anxious in this kind of setting.

The remedy to this kind of situation is easy. Emphasize the positive over the negative. Cue participants to “Do A” instead of stressing “Don’t do B.” As long as we prioritize outcome—be it positive or negative—we will perpetuate their fears of failing to achieve that outcome. And they will leave and never come back. Instead, we need to emphasize the process.

Process Instead of Outcome
What specifically can we do to keep people coming back for more? Conroy offers several practical suggestions.

Up the Fun Factor. Think about why kids choose certain activities. The answer is they want to have fun. And the reason they reject an activity is that it stops being fun. Guess what? Adults are no different. Like kids, they stay active and interested when four factors are present:

1. The activity is fun.
2. It allows an opportunity for mastery.
3. It reinforces a person's sense of competency.
4. It provides a chance to be with friends.

According to Conroy, having fun is one of the most powerful “process motivators” wellness professionals can employ to help retain clients.

Encourage Risk Taking. Another way to increase motivation without putting undue emphasis on an outcome is to encourage and reward reasonable risk taking in your classes. For example, after presenting an unfamiliar set, say, “Who tried at least one new move today? Congratulate yourselves!” Set the mood for risk taking: “I’m excited by the number of you who were willing to move out of your comfort zone.” (Note that this is not the same as singling someone out in a negative fashion!)

Avoid Comparisons to Others. Nothing is more deflating than being compared to others in class. People are far more receptive and motivated when their progress is contrasted to their own past performance, rather than to another’s. Imagine how motivating it would be for a participant to hear an instructor say, “Your posture has really improved over the past few weeks” or “Have you noticed how much your balance has increased when doing this pose? You really hold your form better each time.”

Stress the Successes, Not the Mistakes. You may be conscientious enough to refrain from drawing attention to participants’ mistakes. But how often do you make a concerted effort to comment on what people are doing well? Diligently correcting bad form is almost ingrained in us. To counter this tendency, look for opportunities to comment on what members are doing right. (You won’t have to look too far!) When your class is following your directions well, say so. If participants are listening to your cues, let them know you appreciate it and can tell by their quick pickup. If you see a few people struggling but not giving up, compliment their persistence and bravery.

Talk Openly About Failure. Make failure a safe topic to discuss by using yourself as an example. Let your participants know about the time you attended another teacher’s class and couldn’t do a full round. Or tell them how you took a new class at a recent convention and felt like a novice. Also encourage your participants to share their own fears. Ask them what they think is the worst thing that could happen. Then tell them how you survived a similar situation. The message you send out using this technique will be powerful.

Focus Your Feedback on What Participants Can Control. It isn’t that we must avoid evaluating participants altogether, but we should try to focus our comments on things that are under the exerciser’s control. An example of something that is within a person’s control is effort. An example of something not within a person’s control is being able to follow an instructor’s cues perfectly. Keeping evaluative feedback relevant to control reduces anxiety, because participants do not have to worry about getting punished (or not getting rewarded) by outside variables.

Masters at Motivation
In order to encourage participants to motivate themselves intrinsically, you need to understand the factors that motivate people. Conroy says motivation first serves to “energize or initiate” behavior. Next, it “directs” that behavior. Finally, motivation “sustains” behavior. In fact, in the final analysis, the quality of motivation is best assessed by its ability to maintain behavior over time.

Verbal praise is the most common reward exercisers can get from instructors. Researchers have found that people report an increased interest in and persistence at an activity when they are praised for it (Deci, Koestner & Ryan 1999). Positive comments are consistently associated with enhanced intrinsic motivation. The motivational value of appropriate verbal praise is clear and strong.

We need to look for opportunities to highlight how participants feel as they move and to comment positively on how they feel. We need to offer praise, positive reinforcement and leader-to-participant interaction. We need to remind participants how well they are doing, emphasize how much they are doing for themselves simply by moving and give them every opportunity to succeed, not fail.

Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. 1999. A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-68.


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