Competence Motivation Theory

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.

Historical Overview

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.


  1. Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of competence and motivation. New York: Guilford Press.
  2. Harter, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 1, 34–64.
  3. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297–333.


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