What Motivates People to Practice Over Time?
Over the past few months, I've been preparing for a research study on fear, action, and movement. Due to Covid-19 social distancing restrictions, I've had to pause this project as the next step involves close proximity with research participants.
Like many people, I'm adjusting to life amidst a prolonged pandemic. This has prompted me to think more creatively about my past research on motivation to teach martial arts and/or self-defence, and questions that have lingered around the broader motivation to engage in movement, exercise, and/or sport.
Motivation studies typically focus on two questions: (1) What causes behaviour? and (2) Why does behaviour vary in its intensity? (Reeve, 2018)
I am also interested in how and why behaviour might change over time.
Take a look at the literature on motivation to engage in these three domains - movement, exercise, and sport - and you will find yourself exploring intrinsic and extrinsic motives to engage. For example, a national survey of 360 yoga students and 156 yoga teachers found that early motives for both groups focused on exercise and stress relief. Some practiced to relieve anxiety or depression, get in shape, or improve their flexibility. Over time, spirituality became a primary factor in why both groups continued to practice (Park et al., 2014).
These findings suggest largely intrinsic motives but given the study was based on survey findings, and not in-depth interviews to verify reports, to what extent are the findings reliable?
As a former yoga teacher, I found myself wondering if other factors influenced the students' motivation to engage. Did the social environment pull them? Was the yoga studio location easy to get to? Did they enjoy learning movement skills? Did their yoga teacher inspire them? As for the teachers' motivation to engage, I wondered if they loved learning about yoga and therefore felt drawn to share it? If so, was it the teacher's love of yoga philosophy or anatomy that took the lead, or was this equally balanced? And to what extent did the teacher's interests here influence the student's engagement?
Such questions aren't easy to glean from a high volume survey. They take time to unpack and reflect on. Why do any of us do what we do, especially over time?
Roberts and Treasure (2001) suggest that to understand motivation, we need to understand the psychological constructs that energise, direct, and regulate achievement behaviour. This points in the direction of achievement goal theory, a social-cognitive theory that assumes the person is behaving in an intentional, rational, and goal-seeking manner. This is all well and good until you sit down with a yoga practitioner who tells you they are motivated by spiritual factors.
How we use and relate to language matters in research. Take, for example, participants in my earlier research study to teach martial arts and/or self-defence (Higgins, 2019). The qualitative study with nine participants suggested that intrinsic factors such as creativity, compassion, or hope, and extrinsic factors such as chance or adversity, led them down the teaching path. Their language during interviews didn't include goal setting or achievement so why, as the researcher, would I impose this on them?
At the same time, this study had its own shortcomings. I only met once with the participants so was unable to probe further on their answers. The first and only round of interviews resulted in positive responses. Even the memories around fear and violence as motives to take up, continue, and teach martial arts or self-defence put the experience in a positive light. None of the research participants exposed darker motives to train and eventually teach.
What about ego, I found myself thinking after the study was completed and my Masters degree was done and dusted. What about the dark side of martial arts and self-defence? I had no doubt that my research participants were good people with positive traits, but given that I consider myself to be in this boat and that I myself have had dark motives at times unnerved me. Surely it wasn't only me who sought feelings of power and at times, power over another person, even just for the sake of a gold medal?
This feeling of dis-ease lingered for a very long time. I've met some dark and doubtful characters on my martial arts and self-defence path, and some have been my teachers. Looking back, those dark elements mattered within such a context. Would I stand up to a teacher who attempted to bully me? Would I call out a teacher who had been physically violent to his wife? The answer was yes on both counts.
What about standing up for myself when a training partner I perceived as weaker than myself in that moment took advantage of my kindness, resulting in an injury that took half a year to recover from? That answer was an unfortunate no.
Despite experiences such as these, I continued to train in martial arts and go on to teach self-defence. Why? Because the "good" ultimately outweighed the "bad". I had mostly positive experiences in martial arts over the years and looked forward to my training. I love learning how to move, particularly when the stakes are moderately high (you probably won't catch me doing anything that risky like hanging off a cliff!).
My motivation to engage didn't waver yet it differed in dynamics depending on the martial arts practice. In karate, I trained to better myself and deal with emotional pain but in judo, I trained because I enjoyed the social environment and wanted to win. In self-defence, I trained because I was scared I wouldn't know what to do in a real-life attack; I was then motivated to teach self-defence because I loved learning about psychology, physiology, and biomechanics, and wanted to share this knowledge with others. Teaching had much less to do with violence prevention than I first thought.
My motivation to take up yoga and teach it was also fueled by a love of learning, this time about yoga anatomy and sequencing poses. A similar love of learning led me to take up fitness and later train as a fitness instructor and personal trainer. Yet I quit teaching yoga after a few years when the love of learning waned and any spiritual connection I had felt faded. I felt like a fraud teaching from such a space so I withdrew and used my yoga knowledge for myself. As for fitness, I translated that knowledge into taking better care of myself and exploring links between psychology and exercise.
What my experiences have taught me is that practice is a journey in itself. There may be a definitive moment in time when we can say yes, this (X) motivates me to do that (Y). Yet X and Y can both change over time as our motivation evolves. Perhaps we move countries and this triggers a change for our motivation style or pursuit. Maybe we encounter a life crisis and this throws our practice upside down, as we call to question everything we believe in. We may subsequently quit our practice but do the same dynamics of seeking something continue elsewhere?
Life is more complex than survey results. As a qualitative researcher, that fascinates me. People fascinate me, at least with regard to why they do what they do.
So when the pandemic showed no signs of abating, I shifted gears. I reversed on my research path to tend to the questions that lingered. I wanted to know why people are motivated to practice any form of movement - be it dance, martial arts, yoga, physical exercise, or an individual or team sport - and what really kept them engaged (or not) over time. I wanted to peel back the layers with a small number of willing participants to explore together the ins and outs of their relationship/s with and motivation to engage in their chosen form/s of movement, exercise, and/or sport.
Why does this matter so much?
This was the second question my research supervisor asked me. The first was, So what? Not exactly a motivating response! But he had a good point.
It matters because I'm tired of reading study after study that promotes the benefits of a form of movement, exercise, or sport and seeing how little of this research looks at the complex layers of the why and how. People often aren't short on information or desire. If anything, thanks to the internet they struggle with information overload, and a limited ability to think critically and discern information sources. Desire can then run mayhem.
For example, a person I know learned that physical exercise will assist her weight loss efforts. She hired a personal trainer and engaged in fitness. A year later, she was heavier than ever. I knew that she loved swimming and being in water, not stuck in a noisy gym, yet she was motivated by fear (a loathing for her own body) and hope in the form of Instagram images touting gym-based fitness as the route to the "perfect body". These images inspired her to start but they didn't inspire her to continue. Her mid-term motivation was off. Shame then kicked in and she took refuge in food.
Had she understood that her motivation to move was about feeling physically supported and practicing deep breathing to reduce stress - experiences that swimming once gave her - she could have made a different decision about how to engage in physical exercise. She was also seeking more positive experiences in her life and needed to tell a few people (and social media channels) to stop draining her battery. That might have energised her more to engage in a fitness practice over the long-term.
I also felt for her personal trainer! I've known trainers who struggle with "difficult clients". The kind who say they want to achieve (X) but bail out, usually when the going gets tough. Their level of motivation isn't sufficient to keep them engaged during the discomfort that so often accompanies any kind of change yet the message, "you mustn't want it bad enough", not only lacks precision and clarity but also, it raises the question of what the client does want. Clients can be complex and a lot more digging might need to take place before that question can be adequately answered.
Let's take another example. A former coaching client. He was motivated to participate in squash as he loved his game. He didn't feel obliged to participate; it happened naturally. Curiosity led him to take it up when he moved to a new country. He enjoyed the social aspects of the sport, especially the late night buffet after league matches. Being a little overweight didn't bother him, what mattered was the joy of playing and the social engagement. He went on to play his sport on and off for many years.
Then there are people I've met in my former life as a humanitarian. Those in confined places. Like the kids in Gaza who wanted to play football as a football was what they had to play with. Or the political prisoners in Israel who played table tennis as this was what they had to play with. Or the political prisoners Beirut who played basketball because that was what they had to play with. And what about the humanitarian and human rights workers who came to my free yoga classes after work on a mission where there were movement restrictions and we often lived under curfew?
All of us may have lacked choices but we certainly had a common desire to play and move. Was it the restriction of movement and control of our freedoms (albeit to much more significant degrees for the children and prisoners) that led us towards play? What would we have done if we had encountered more choices? Did lack of choice also bring us together? Did it increase our gratitude or make decision-making easier?
I could reel off many more examples based on observation of myself, other people, and life over several decades. These stories of how and why without the inspirational messaging matters so much. So too is the removal of judgment and offering people narrow prescriptions on how to move their bodies and why.
Maybe we all go through phases of motivation that vary from dark to pride-worthy, and meander from the superficial to the profound. Isn't that all part of what a life well-lived is all about, the process of becoming and embracing the whole?
We might take a few steps forwards and then swing a left turn or grind to a halt, and in my view, it may help to understand what is driving us or who is in that driving seat, and why, particularly over time.
As this new phase of research takes shape, I'm excited to be joined by several research participants coming from a variety of practice backgrounds. I'm also looking for several more so if you would like to participate, please see below.
Would you like to participate in this study?
Research participant eligibility criteria includes:
- History of practice in your chosen area*
- Skill set acquired to direct your own practice
- Available for 4 x 1-hour interviews (via Zoom) over a 6-month period
Participation is voluntary (i.e. no payment) but I do hope you'll benefit in other ways (e.g. evolving insights into why you practice).
You're may start your 6-month participation any time between February and June 2021.
If you are interested, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will share the full research participant pack with you.
*Areas may include physical exercise or fitness (e.g. running, weightlifting), an individual sport (team sports are fine too if you can practice them during Covid-19 social distancing restrictions, or adapt your sport to individual practice), or a form of movement (e.g. dance, yoga, martial arts). You may also combine areas if you have a multi-layered practice (e.g. fitness, yoga, basketball).
Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.
Higgins, C. (2019). 'What motivates people to teach martial arts and/or self-defence?' Masters Dissertation. Manchester Metropolitan University.
Park, C.L., Riley, K.E., Bedesin, E., Stewart, V.M. (2014). 'Why practice yoga? Practitioners motives for adopting and maintaining yoga practice.' Journal of Health Psychology, 21(6), pp. 887-896.
Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding Motivation and Emotion. John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Roberts, G.C., Treasure, D. (2001). Advances in Motivation in Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics (3rd edition).