Sports, Drugs & Motivation




It’s been quite a week.

Last Wednesday, the voting members from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America selected this year’s slate of players to induct into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The names of the new inductees?  Nobody.  To make the cut,  you need 75% of the writers to put  you on the ballot.

There were some first time nominees, men who have dominated the sport:

Barry Bonds, with 762 career home runs, the all-time home run leader in the history of the major leagues.

Roger Clemens, 7 time Cy Young award winner as the best pitcher in the league (the most in baseball history).

It would seem that with statistics like that, Bonds and Clemens would be shoe-ins for immediate Hall induction.  In a competitive game in a competitive culture, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than #1.

Yet, here are the ballot results:

  • Bonds: 36.2%
  • Clemens: 37.6%

Why the low grade?  It’s the asterisk, stupid.  I almost forgot.

Bonds: 762 home runs*

Clemens: 4,672 strike outs*

*You know what this asterisk is all about.  Tainted stats based on allegations (and grand jury trials) regarding steroid use.  And lying.  And obstruction of justice.

If that wasn’t enough for one week, yesterday the news broke that bicyclist Lance Armstrong is (finally!) admitting to illegal drug use during his career. You could (almost) say that Lance is coming clean.  Almost.  His admission of guilt comes on the heels of years of vociferous denials, even after his teammates confessed and implicated him in a giant doping ring, with Armstrong as ringleader.

From baseball to biking, what do these guys have in common?  Extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain an outcome.  It’s not about the bike:  it’s about the prize.

This differs from intrinsic motivation, which is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external pressure.

For Armstrong, Bonds, and Clemens, the outcome was to win…at all costs.   Their desire to win (and willingness to cheat to do so) was quite likely fueled by the gigantic carrot dangling in front of them as well.  Multi-million dollar salaries, endorsement, fame, etc.  The lure of money and fame was too much.   They’re not alone.  In The Day American Told the Truth, James Pattern and Peter Kim report:

  • About 25% of Americans would be willing to abandon their entire family to receive $10 Million.
  • 7% would kill a stranger for $10 Million
  • 3% would put their kids up for adoption for $10 Million

Suddenly, a little steroid injection or blood transfusion doesn’t look so bad.

After all the obfuscation dust settled, it was well documented that Bonds (and company) knew what they were doing.  They knew that should they get caught, their long term legacy would be tarnished.   They were willing to  take that chance.

There’s more to this story than just motivation and rewards.  There’s something else at play:  your mental health.

In research comparing extrinsic vs. intrinsic goals, researchers Richard Ryan and Tim Kasser asked subjects to rate what they aspire to–what their goals were.  The choices ranged from extrinsic goals such as “wealth, fame, and beauty” to intrinsic goals such as “satisfying personal relationships, contributing to their community, growing as individuals”.

Using a statistical procedure, Ryan and Kasser crunched the data to index the results.  What they found was fascinating:

If any of the 3 extrinsic goals was very high relative to the 3 intrinsic goals, those subjects also demonstrated poorer mental health:  anxiety, narcissism, depression, poorer-functioning.

The reverse was also true:  if subjects rated intrinsic goals high relative to extrinsic goals, their mental health also improved.

The irony of all this is that extrinsic goals are means goals.  People want them not for their own sake, but for what they think they will do for them. People want money for the stuff they can get, or the status and perceived power they can wield with their fiscal status.  People want fame for what they think fame will do for them.

It’s also been shown that after a set amount (around $75,000/year in the US), more money won’t make you happier.   You just think it will.

If that weren’t enough, a focus on extrinsic goals reduce people’s interest (and enjoyment) in performing an activity.   Because they focus on the result, they just want to get through the task.

For a quick litmus test to see if your goals are intrinsic or extrinsic, notice how you feel about doing something.  If it energizes you and makes you feel more fully alive, you’re probably intrinsically focused. If you just want to make it to the weekend, you’re living in extrinsic city.

Bonds, Clemens and Armstrong all mortgaged their legacies for short term gain.

What do you want your legacy to be?

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