It’s Hard to Beat a Person Who Never Gives Up

Meeting an athlete’s basic ‘psychological needs’ increases motivation

Paolo Candelo — Unsplash
There was no denying it, running this far hurt.
Why was I doing this?
What possible reason could I have for trying to run this far?

What is motivation?

Motivation is what maintains, sustains, directs, and channels human behaviour over an extended period of time.

It positively impacts the ability to focus, increases the willingness to achieve excellence through mental and physical effort, and importantly, it energises and directs behaviour.

The result, in behavioural terms, is persistence. Indeed, according to the legendary American baseball player, Babe Ruth:

“It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”

Motivation is strongly linked to the adoption of a sporting mindset and forms part of a process that is essential for successful performance.

For the endurance athlete, in particular, success relies on a state of both heightened motivation and enthusiasm. This enables the athlete to balance high volumes of training, extreme demands of competition, family commitments, illness, injury, and work pressures.

Though researchers have identified training intensity and volume as predictors of success in sports, it remains unclear the role, or impact, of motivation.

Despite a number of psychological theories being proposed to explain exercise adherence, the Self Determination theory (Ryan and Deci) stands out due to its focus on people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs.

The theory offers an organismic (mutually interdependent processes, gathered in one organism) perspective based on the assumption that humans have evolved to be both curious and intrinsically motivated to be physically active.

Matteo Vistocco — Unsplash

The Self Determination theory

According to the theory, human motivation is based on people’s inherent tendency towards growth, and the degree to which their behaviour is self-motivated.

Ryan and Deci (2017) propose that humans have an evolved ability, and propensity, to realise their human capacities and attain healthy psychological, social and behavioural functioning.

The Self Determination Theory suggests that humans are adapted to be innately curious, socially and physically active, and that motivation results from the constant interaction between human nature, social, and contextual factors.

As a result, activity is most likely when an individual feels they are intrinsically motivated and has control over their behaviour.

Intrinsically motivated people behave as they do because they find the activity they are taking part in inherently interesting and appealing.

On the other hand, extrinsically motivated behaviour is usually driven by participating in an activity that has an external consequence, for example, receiving payment, or the avoidance of chastisement.

Surprisingly, the introduction of extrinsic factors, even when individuals are free to follow their own desires, can lead to a movement in the origin (locus), of causality, and a corresponding reduction in intrinsic motivation.

Providing rewards (extrinsic factors), such as payment, for a pastime that an individual takes pleasure in, can negatively impact the enjoyment someone has in their activity.

This has obvious impacts on the motivation of children, or even adults, in the participation in exercise. Financial, or other similar, rewards, given for taking part in a sport they already enjoy, may reduce their incentive to continue involvement.

Retaining an internal centre of causality provides autonomous, intrinsic motivation, and the perception that the individual is the origin of their behaviour, and not simply subject to external forces. For example, simply giving an athlete control over when they eat, or a say in their training may provide them with the sense that they have some autonomy and control.

Autonomy increases the perception of control.
Tommy Lisbin — Unsplash

Human performance

Deci and Ryan (2017) propose a set of psychological needs that are both innate and universal — we are born with them, and they are common to us all.

Psychological needs act to motivate behaviour and provide essential nourishment to ensure the psychological health and well-being of the individual.

Optimal performance and the maximum perception of well-being are most likely to occur when three basic psychological needs are met:

  • Relatedness — a sense of belonging, feeling significant to others, and the need to feel connected to family, peers, and society
  • Competence — feeling capable of operating effectively within important life contexts, identified with the desire to be open to new experiences and to learn from them.
  • Autonomy — stems from the desire to feel free to make decisions and choices within situations, in harmony with one’s authentic (genuine) interests, and is indicative of improvements in performance, persistence, and adherence. A person high in autonomy orientation tends to display greater self-initiation.

Autonomous motivation is essential to intrinsic motivation. In contrast, controlled motivation is more closely related to feelings of self-consciousness, being under pressure, and adopting a more outward focus — delivering specific outcomes that arise from forces believed external to the self.

Contexts that enable satisfaction of the basic psychological needs are proposed to enhance autonomous motivation.

Life with a focus on intrinsic goals is more likely to increase psychological needs satisfaction and positive effects on well-being, whilst a focus on extrinsic goals may result in mental health issues and a lack of general wellness.


The Self Determination Theory provides a useful framework to study human motivation, and a means to measure enduring motivational orientation, by testing typical, social and achievement-oriented situations.

Research has identified that individuals with high scores in the autonomy orientation have more positive relationships, health-related behaviour, and self-actualisation.

Despite primarily being a psychological model, the theory has been applied to evolutionary, biological, and cultural settings - including family, human rights, education, business and economic factors, such as capitalism.

As a result, five mini-theories within SDT have been proposed that correspond to multiple aspects of psychological integration and motivation, rather than the traditional fields, and elements, of psychology.

The third mini-theory, known as the causality orientations theory (COT), explores the personality and developmental aspects, where individual differences constitute the developmental outcome as the individual interacts with the social environment over time.

I sat down on the kerb, at the side of the road next to the food station. I was wrecked, I didn’t want to go on. I was 40 miles into a 52-mile race through the mountains.
I needed a reason to continue.

Measuring motivating

To better understand the motivation of athletes and top sports performers it is necessary to identify individual differences in causality orientations (a reflection of an individual’s propensity, or disposition, over time and across contexts) and whether they are acting autonomously, even in controlling situations.

Intrinsically motivated people identify meaning, and act according to their own internal goals, without submitting to the objective, external, characteristics of the situation they find themselves in.

Two studies, attempting to better understand the motivation to run, reported that ultra-marathoners were more internally motivated (intrinsic motivation).

A further two studies comparing motivation and fitness found that health-related motivation was positively linked to the amount of distance covered in a time-limited ultra-marathon, and identified a strong association between intrinsic motivation and performance in a shuttle test, a commonly used technique, to measure aerobic fitness and predict VO2 max.

I looked at my water bottle — my children’s names were still there, only slightly rubbed off.
I got up, and finished the race.

In summary

The Self Determination Theory has been extremely successful in explaining (1) variation in health-related exercise behaviour, and (2) how the satisfaction of basic needs, including autonomy, relatedness, and competence, predict positive sporting outcomes.

Research findings suggest extrinsic motivation, which focuses on the outcome of exercise, may be a key factor in the adoption of exercise, whilst intrinsic motivation facilitates longer-term participation in exercise.

Furthermore, from Ryan and Deci’s proposal that humans have evolved to realise our capacities and be innately curious, it may be speculated that ultra-marathoners by their nature, are motivated to participate in races for personal achievement and push the limits of experience and capabilities.

Such motivation may be present in all of us, as an inherited predisposition to participate in, and even enjoy, endurance activities, necessary to ensure the survival of our human ancestors.

A greater understanding of an athlete’s motivation, and the links between motivation and endurance success may enable the sports professional to better support the ultra-marathoner in both training and race situations and potentially reduce the likelihood of burnout — where perceived demand exceeds personal resources.

In addition, motivation has been identified as one of the key characteristics of mentally tough performers and may function as a buffer, enabling the individual to observe setbacks as part of the process to success and optimise an athlete’s performance.

By fostering an appropriate environment for the athlete — building on basic needs, including autonomy, relatedness, and competence — it is possible to increase intrinsic motivation leading to an improved adoption, and adherence to training regimes

Basic needs of the athlete may be met by facilitating:

  • A sense of belonging amongst the team, the setting, and fellow athletes (relatedness)
  • Improving understanding of training methods, physiology, and psychology (competence)
  • Increasing engagement in designing training plans and setting goals (autonomy)

If met, optimal performance and the maximum perception of well-being are more likely to follow.

Jeremy Sutton is a writer, speaker, researcher, and ultra-marathoner.

He was awarded his PhD in Human Endurance in 2018, and continues to explore the psychological, physiological, and philosophical factors of extreme endurance through research and running. He has a BSc in Cognitive Science and an MA in Philosophy.

You can find more of his work in the new Medium publication ‘Explore the Limits’, please click on the link at the top of the page.


See also, within Medium: limits of endurance, adaptation, mental toughness, evolutionary endurance, aerobic fitness, 10,000 hours, impact of exercise on cognitive impairment

Also found at

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology ,49(1), 14–23.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, 109–134.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1980). The Empirical Exploration of Intrinsic Motivational Processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Advances in Experimental Social Psychology,13, 39–80.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.