Motivated students are required in every martial arts academy as it will drive them to want to improve. While multiple theories of motivation exist, one that has been extensively studied in education settings is Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory

In Self-Determination Theory, unmotivated students are said to suffer from Amotivation, which describes a feeling of indifference to training or only training because you have no control over if you do, which may be the case for kids’ classes.

But for adults, no one who enters a martial arts academy suffers from Amotivation; otherwise, they would not have joined or gone to the gym to start training in the first place.

From the first lesson, keeping and building on that initial motivation should be the goal so that they never go backwards or lose the motivation to train.

The Two Types Of Motivation

Self-Determination Theory defines two primary sources of motivation; those being Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation.

Intrinsic motivation occurs internally for pure satisfaction gained from the training itself, whereas extrinsic motivation is for an external reward or to avoid punishment.

External motivations are inbuilt into most martial arts; belts and grades are a common means to develop extrinsic motivation and give students an easily identifiable goal.

But If training is fun and interesting enough to cause the motivation to come from within, then people will continue to train without an external motivator.

Self-Determination Theory: The Three Basic Needs

The Three Basic Needs of Motivation

To develop a source of Intrinsic Motivation, you must have these three basic needs addressed. 

  • Autonomy: Having a choice over what you train and how you learn to feel as if you have some control and independence.
  • Competence: The ability to feel like you are successful at what you do and that you can attain mastery from your training.
  • Relatedness: Social connections among those you train with to feel as if you are not training alone.

Developing Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness leads to greater student engagement, resulting in more reliable performance, creativity, and attendance.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation

Ideally, we develop intrinsic motivation in ourselves or our students so that they continue to train regardless of external influences that are temporary or out of their control.

We can do so by addressing the three basic needs.

Basic Need: Autonomy

  • Autonomy refers to the level of independence or choice a student has over the required tasks, drills, or techniques taught in training.
  • Students need to feel that they have some control over their training direction, behaviour, and lives.
  • Developing autonomy within students will make them feel like they can take charge of their martial arts training.

Autonomy: Giving Students Control

  • Autonomy can be developed by offering different techniques or drills for students to practice in the same class.
  • You could also have separate class streams that simultaneously work on different techniques or elements.
  • It can also come by asking more questions about techniques and encouraging them to ask questions to involve them rather than telling them all the answers.

Basic Need: Competence

  • Competence refers to the ability of the student to be successful or attain mastery in their training.
  • Being competent will give people a positive feeling that they are being effective and developing their skills.
  • Autonomy will not fully work to improve internal motivation without competence. It doesn’t matter how many choices or options you have if people cannot feel like they cannot do them successfully.

Competence: Making Students Effective

  • Techniques need to match students’ skill level, or they need to be given choices for varied physical abilities. Different ways to achieve the same technical result would need to consider flexibility, strength, injuries, body types and pre-existing skills.
  • Authentic praise or positive feedback can also help build a sense of competence. The positive feedback needs to be genuine, but if you have lessons designed so everyone can achieve a level of competence, it should be possible.

Basic Need: Relatedness

  • Relatedness refers to the social connections between the instructor, students, and peers within the class.
  • Having genuine care and concern for students and building that among the club by promoting positive interactions between everyone.
  • Building positive social group dynamics will lead to the camaraderie of a club as they train together as a team.

Relatedness: Helping Students Belong

  • You can develop relatedness within the class by having ways for students to interact with each other in smaller groups rather than only passively receiving instructions.
  • Talking about topics outside of training and allowing those interactions allow time for one-on-one interactions.
  • Team-building or group exercises can be used to make students feel that they are all in it together and on the same team.

If you successfully meet all three of these motivational needs within your class, then internal motivation will be able to develop within the students.

But internal motivation will also come into contact and be influenced by many external factors that may be out of control or built into the martial art.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation

While we might have a goal of developing intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation will still be ever-present in martial arts training through gradings, belts and competitions.

External Regulation

  • External and introjected regulation are the two least independent forms of extrinsic motivation.
  • External regulation would be where a student trains based entirely on a possible reward or avoiding punishment.
  • Grades and belts are standard external rewards that are often used for motivation while also indicating skill level.

Introjected Regulation

  • Introjected regulation would be the classic training to buff the ego where they feel the need to show their ability to prove their self-worth.
  • It can come from the respect and admiration a student receives because of their martial arts training.

Identified Regulation

  • Identification is when a student trains because they can see the benefits it would have to an internally motivated activity.
  • Identified motivation could be when a student is motivated to do strength, flexibility or mobility training to help their martial arts training.

Integrated Regulation

  • Integrated regulation is when they do not have complete internal motivation, but the student still trains because they have connected it to part of their identity.
  • Integrated can be when a student attends a competition class because they see their identity as a competitor, which is what competitors do.

Extrinsic or Intrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivations are unavoidable in martial arts and are not automatically bad or something you should avoid. They can be a great tool to help achieve short-term goals or cause an initial interest that may not have occurred otherwise.

But a danger exists when they are overused or if someone is only externally motivated. If the external factors change then without that source of external motivation, they will be far more likely to drop out of training altogether. In contrast, internal motivation can continue to drive someone to be a martial artist and keep training.

A host of other benefits come with being internally motivated, for instance, an increased likelihood of reaching the flow state, improved psychological well-being and a greater chance of attaining whatever goals are set.

Self-Determination Theory For Life-Long Martial Artists

Self-Determination Theory For Life-Long Martial Artists

Self-determination theory was written about initially in the 1980s by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and has since been studied comprehensively in educational and classroom settings but can equally be applied to martial arts.

Ideally, you should have a goal to become a lifelong martial artist or to teach them. In that case, it can be an excellent framework for you to apply in your martial arts training or coaching to be aware of the factors to develop and maintain motivation.

To learn more about SDT you can visit the Centre for Self-Determination Theory.