Competence motivation theory is a conceptual framework designed to explain individuals’ motivation to participate, persist, and work hard in any particular achievement context. The central thesis of the theory is that individuals are attracted to participation in activities at which they feel competent or capable. The theory can be used by researchers and practitioners in sport and exercise psychology fields to identify why and how children, adolescents, and adults can be encouraged to participate and to exert effort in these achievement contexts.
In the following entry, the research and theory on competence motivation within the physical domain are reviewed. This begins with a brief historical overview of the theory and its constructs. Following that, the results of the research on the following segments are summarized: (a) correlates of competence motivation, (b) developmental trends in perceived competence, and (c) the impact of significant others on competence motivation.
Most scholars identify Robert White’s classic paper on motivation reconsidered as the forerunner of competence motivation theory. In this 1959 publication, White coined the term effectance and defined it as a tendency to explore and influence one’s environment. White argued that organisms are intrinsically motivated to engage in interactions with their physical and social environments. If such attempts result in success (production of an observable effect on the environment), then that individual receives intrinsic rewards like feelings of efficacy and pleasure and is motivated to continue effectance efforts. White’s theory of competence motivation was considered a novel approach in that it differed significantly from the traditional drive theories of human behavior and from the psychoanalytic instinct theory proposed and popularized by Sigmund Freud.
In the late 1970s, Susan Harter extended White’s theory to develop a more complete framework that she initially identified as effectance motivation theory but was later more commonly referred to as competence motivation theory. Consistent with White, Harter also centered enjoyment as the reason why individuals are motivated to interact with their environment, but she added a number of other components. First, she introduced the idea that individuals’ effectance or competence motivation can vary across achievement domains (e.g., cognitive, physical, social). Within each domain, individuals are motivated to engage in mastery attempts for the purpose of developing or demonstrating competence. If their mastery attempts result in success at an optimally challenging task and if they receive socio-emotional support from significant individuals for such task success, then they will experience perceptions of competence (belief in their abilities in that domain) along with perceptions of performance control (belief in their ability to control their performance). High perceptions of competence and control, in turn, result in feelings of pleasure that lead to maintenance of or increases in effectance (competence) motivation. In contrast to White, Harter also proposed a negatively oriented path that specified that individuals who engage in mastery attempts but meet with failure at optimally challenging tasks or lack of reinforcement or disapproval from significant social agents will experience decreased perceptions of competence and control in that achievement domain, along with anxiety and shame. This combination of events will lead to decreased effectance motivation in that particular domain.
Harter also added a developmental dimension to her theoretical framework by suggesting that children who are successful in their initial mastery attempts and who get positive and effective reinforcement from significant adults will (with sufficient cognitive maturation) internalize both a self-reward system and a set of mastery goals. Due to this internalization of standards for optimal challenge in that domain, such adolescents will no longer be dependent on social agents to evaluate their performance or to motivate them to continue their mastery attempts. Correspondingly, children who are either continually unsuccessful in their early mastery attempts or who get disapproving or no feedback from significant adults will not only develop low perceptions of competence and control in that achievement domain but will continue, as adolescents and adults, to be dependent on external sources both to evaluate their performance and to motivate them to continue their participation in that domain.
The publication of Harter’s early work stimulated much research during the next 2 decades in the academic, social, and physical domains. More recently, interest in competence motivation theory has waned somewhat, likely because the construct of competence has been subsumed within other theories of motivation, such as achievement goal and self-determination. However, in 2005, Andrew J. Elliot and Carol Dweck proposed a more central role for competence and recommended that the term achievement motivation be changed to competence motivation. Their arguments were based on the idea that competence motivation (a) is broadly present in daily life activities, (b) has a large and influential effect on individuals’ emotional and psychosocial well-being, (c) is operative across the lifespan (from infancy through older age), and (d) has relevance across cultures.
Research on Competence Motivation Theory in the Physical Achievement Domain
Correlates of Competence Motivation
The initial studies by researchers in sport psychology provided support for the model itself but also for the importance of competence as a motivational construct. Specifically, individuals who perceive themselves as having high competence in any particular sport or physical activity context exhibit higher intrinsic motivation to participate in that activity and experience more positive affective reactions (e.g., pleasure, satisfaction, enjoyment) when participating than do their peers who hold lower perceptions of competence.
Correspondingly, perceived competence levels can also affect or predict individuals’ behavior. Children and adolescents in a variety of physical contexts (e.g., physical education classes, sport teams) who perceive themselves as having high competence are more apt to continue their participation and to exhibit higher levels of effort, persistence, and preference for more challenging tasks, whereas their peers who perceive low levels of competence exhibit lower levels of such task-oriented behaviors and are, subsequently, at greater risk of discontinuation. More recent studies have indicated that perceptions of competence are also tied to physical activity behaviors; children with high perceived physical competence exhibit higher frequency and intensity of daily physical activity levels. Such connections have also been demonstrated in intervention studies; children who successfully engage in physical activity programs show increases in perceived physical competence, which, in turn, increases both their motivation to be physically active and their actual physical activity levels. Interestingly, perceptions of physical competence have also been shown to be relevant for older adults, as those who have high perceptions of physical competence are more physically active and also exhibit higher perceived quality-of-life attitudes than do their peers who have lower perceptions of physical competence. Finally, high perceptions of competence in individuals across the lifespan have been consistently linked to higher levels of global self-worth or self-esteem. These results, again, point to the importance of individuals possessing high perceptions of ability or competence in at least one valued achievement domain in order to have an overall high regard for the self.
Developmental Trends in Relation to Perceived Competence
Two lifespan changes are particularly relevant to the physical domain. First, the number of domains in which individuals evaluate their competence appears to increase with age. That is, young children (4–7 years) tend to perceive competence in only two domains (general competence and social competence). However, older children (8–13 years) exhibit a somewhat more diversified perception of competence that spans five different achievement domains (academic, athletic, social, physical appearance, and behavioral). During the adolescent years, the number increases to include three additional ones (close friendship, romantic relationships, and job competence). Other, smaller, developmental changes continue to occur across the adult years.
Second, research in both the cognitive and physical domains has indicated that the sources of information that individuals use to evaluate their competence change with increased maturation. For younger children (4–7 years), the primary sources of information are few in number and very concrete, for example, feedback from significant adults and simple task accomplishment. Thus, such a child might say, “I am really good at throwing because I can throw this ball all the way to that wall,” or “I know that I am a really good thrower because my teacher says so.” During the middle to late childhood years (7–12 years), the number of sources children use to evaluate their competence increases somewhat, but the sources remain quite concrete. It is during this period that peer comparison and performance outcomes (winning or losing) become more relevant. During the adolescent years (13–18 years), the number of sources again increases, and most adolescents have the cognitive capacity to use a broader range of sources that include both internal (e.g., achievement of self-set goals) and external (e.g., feedback from others, performance outcomes, peer comparison) sources. Going back again to the early Harter model, it may be important for adolescents to reach a stage where they do use multiple sources and where they are able to use more internalized sources like personal satisfaction rather than remaining dependent on single sources like peer comparison or on externally available sources such as coaches’ evaluation of their performance.
The Impact of Significant Others on Competence Motivation
As indicated in the original Harter model, significant others, such as parents, teachers, coaches, and peers play a major role in the development of individuals’ perceptions of physical competence and effectance motivation. In particular, parents may serve as the first important social agents. They can, for example, affect their children’s perceptions of competence through modeling (children observing their parents’ own engagement in, and enjoyment of, mastery attempts). However, an equally important role that parents may play is in the feedback they provide in response to their child’s early engagement in mastery attempts. Obviously, positive feedback like “Good work, Maria!” is better than negative or no feedback. But, it is also the content of parents’ feedback that appears important. Specifically, a child who participates for the first time in a tee-ball league will learn from the parents’ feedback not only whether mastery attempts in such a domain are valued but also how the performance should be evaluated. That is, does the parent provide feedback that evaluates the child’s performance based on (a) the performance outcome (“Good job, Susan. You got to first base again.”), (b) peer comparison (“You have to work harder in practice. You let Chase beat you again today.”), or (c) personal mastery of a skill (“Good work in practice today, Joshua. I see that you learned how to catch the ball.”)?
A second group of adults who can have a significant impact on individuals’ perceptions of competence and effectance motivation in the physical domain are coaches, physical education teachers, and physical activity directors. Although positive feedback from such individuals is certainly more facilitative of high perceived competence in students and athletes, teachers and coaches also need to ensure that such positive feedback is appropriate. That is, for very young children (4–7 years), positive and general feedback (“Good job, Enrico!”) may be good. But for older children and adolescents (12 years and up), coaches and teachers should be sure that their praise is appropriate. That is, if a coach provides a 12-year-old player who just got to first base on a pitcher’s error with exaggerated praise (“Wow, Robert, that was truly just an excellent performance.”), the athlete’s competence may not be enhanced as he may realize that the praise is not consistent with the performance. In such a situation, the receiver of that inappropriate praise may actually perceive low competence as he assumes that the coach thinks he is really bad at batting if that is the level of performance that is rewarded. Thus, the coach could better respond by providing more contingent praise (“Robert, you really did a good job in not swinging at those bad pitches.”)
In addition, coaches and teachers who provide skill-relevant, informational, and corrective feedback to athletes in response to their performance attempts (“That was a good hit, Samantha. But next time, you should extend your elbow a little bit more. That will give you even more power.”) will do more to enhance young athletes’ perceptions of competence and control than will feedback statements that are evaluative only and which provide no corrective information (“That was a good play, Samantha,” or “You struck out again, Domingo!”) Another social group that may be particularly important in regard to children’s and adolescents’ perceptions of competence in particular achievement domains is peers (friends, classmates and teammates). Research studies have demonstrated that peer acceptance (the degree to which children and adolescents feel accepted and valued by their peers) and the number and quality of friendships can enhance perceptions of competence and can result in continued motivation to participate in that achievement activity. Correspondingly, the type of feedback that peers provide has also been shown to affect individuals’ levels of competitive anxiety, sport motivation, and enjoyment.
The central thesis of competence motivation theory is that individuals are attracted to participate in activities at which they feel competent or capable. In physical activity domains, then, if the goal is for people to be motivated to be physically active or to strive for performance excellence, it will be necessary to design environments that will enhance their perceptions of competence. Based on the research and theory to date, enhanced perceptions of competence can be achieved when individuals experience success at optimally challenging tasks and when they receive positive, encouraging, consistent, and information-based feedback from significant others within that environment.
- Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of competence and motivation. New York: Guilford Press.
- Harter, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 1, 34–64.
- Horn, T. S. (2004). Developmental perspectives on self-perceptions in children and adolescents. In M. R. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective (pp. 101–143). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
- Horn, T. S., & Harris, A. (2002). Perceived competence in young athletes: Research findings and recommendations for coaches and parents. In F. L. Smoll & R. E. Smith (Eds.), Children and youth in sport: A biopsychosocial perspective (2nd ed., pp. 435–464). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
- Weiss, M. R., & Amorose, A. J. (2008). Motivational orientations and sport behavior. In T. S. Horn (Ed.), Advances in sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 115–155). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297–333.