Competition the key to motivation

There’s no question that keeping clients, participants and members motivated is a continual challenge for fitness professionals and club operators.

Motivational language and goal setting are great, but recent research has reinforced what many of us probably already suspect – that there’s nothing so motivating (in the short term at least) as a good dose of competition.

A team of researchers from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania used the twin elements of social media and competitiveness as the basis for its research into motivation to exercise.

For the study, 790 university students participated in an 11-week exercise program which, in addition to featuring running, spinning, yoga and weightlifting, included fitness training and nutrition advice. Those who attended most activities won prizes at the end of the 11-week challenge.

The participants were divided into one of four groups: support team, competition team, a combined team with both support and competition, or a control group.

The competition group could see a leaderboard showing how well other teams were doing, and were therefore able to strive to beat their competition. The support group used social media to encourage fellow team members. The combined group had elements of both, and the control group had neither.

While we might like to think that positively encouraging people to work out is an effective strategy, especially in an open forum such as social media, the results of the study begged to differ.

Those motivated by competition had 90 per cent higher attendance rates than the support group or those without the competitive element. The support group actually had lower attendance rate than the control group – indicating that, somehow, social support may hadve made people exercise less.

Explaining the findings, senior study author Professor Damon Centola, said ‘Supportive groups can backfire because they draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation. …Competitive groups frame relationships in terms of goal-setting by the most active members. These relationships help to motivate exercise because they give people higher expectations for their own levels of performance. …In a competitive setting, each person's activity raises the bar for everyone else. Social support is the opposite: a ratcheting-down can happen. If people stop exercising, it gives permission for others to stop, too, and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly.’

This was an interesting study with regards the efficacy of external motivators for achieving short term goals, but doesn’t address the type of motivation that is increasingly understood to be the catalyst for long term behaviour change, i.e. the internal, self-determined want to change.

Source: Preventative Medicine Reports