Why we race: the psychology of winning and what motivates us

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For any given bike race there can only be one winner. For many of us, a win may come only once in a season and that one fleeting moment is what makes it so highly addictive. Some of us will even never get experienced that indescribable feeling. We’re all competitive for different reasons and in this article Justin Coulson takes a look at the motivations behind the desire to race and to win.

Wade and I were talking recently when he made an observation that tells us a lot about the psychology of sporting motivation. He said:

If I’m honest with myself, winning had always been about self-validation and ego for me. If I won a race, I felt like my position in the cycling community would be elevated. I don’t win anything any more, so my mindset has changed, but that self-validation was once a driving force.

When I speak to some top pros, or even non-pros like a mate of mine who wins races all the time, it’s clear that their motivation to be the best at what they do isn’t ego driven like it was for me. They simply love the process and the spirit of competition. I find it fascinating to see what drives people.

The goals we set for ourselves can have a powerful impact on the joy we derive from being on the bike. With this in mind, it’s worth considering one of the most prominent psychological theories of motivation as it relates to Wade’s observation.

When we participate in any activity, we usually do it for one of two reasons: performance, or mastery.

Performance goals

Performance goals are often also called “ego” goals. These goals centre around winning. We feel that we have succeeded when we kick the other guy’s (or girl’s) butt. Ego goals are about being better than everyone else and proving competence. We can divide ego/performance goals into two categories:

1. Performance approach: When we feel that we can perform at or above a certain standard of competence, we have an approach goal. We go after it.

2. Performance avoid – When we feel we cannot compare with others we avoid participation.

If you were a sprinter with an approach goal, you’d be fired up for the local crit because you would feel confident (due to your competence). However, you would likely avoid participating in the club hill-climb challenge. What’s the point? You’ll get smashed. In both cases, decisions about whether or not to participate are based entirely on the likely outcome and the way it will reflect on “me”.

Mastery Goals

In the case of learning or mastery goals (also called task goals), we participate in the activity with the goal of getting better, improving ourselves (but not necessarily in competition with others – just improving our own objective performance), and literally developing a sense of mastery over the task.

Researchers have found that these two types of goals are NOT mutually exclusive. While it is common to favour one approach over the other, the two goal orientations are independent of one another. It is possible to be high in one and low in the other, or either high in both or low in both.

For example, a rider might only be in into the sport for self-improvement. Such a rider, focussed solely on technique, mastery and process may become highly proficient, and even elite. Similarly, a rider might only ride for the glory. This ego/performance orientation suggests that process has to be endured, but it’s really the identity of being an elite cyclist that drives the rider. I suspect that some of the best riders, however, combine the positives of both orientations. They are obsessive about process and practice, and love to rip everyone’s legs off where it counts in order to enjoy the rewards.

How your goals are related to enjoyment

Research in a number of domains shows that when we seek ego/performance goals (or when we exist in an ego/performance climate) we tend to favour more short-term solutions, we protect our ‘image’ of ourselves as having adequate ability, and we reject and disregard objective task-related feedback. Interest is maintained only as we succeed. This is hardly helpful in contributing to athlete development, yet it’s all-too-common among athletes.

Further, athletes with a performance orientation experience greater levels of anxiety, and possess a stronger fear of failure. They see failures as a permanent indication of their ability and identity, rather than as learning opportunities. Such athletes also believe that ability (rather than effort) is central to sport achievement, and they are at increased risk of dropping out of the sport if their competence cannot be proven in a timely or consistent fashion.

The rider who has endless excuses (most of us!), the team built on success at all costs (Motorola/T-Mobile or Discovery, anyone?), or the pro whose contract is up all spring to mind. There is little enjoyment on the bike, a willingness to make poor choices, high levels of defensiveness, and a lack of commitment to cycling beyond the next win.

Comparatively, those with a task (mastery) orientation to their cycling are more likely to have positive practice and competition strategies and they’re more likely to process coaching and training instructions more effectively. Such athletes experience greater levels of positive emotion and enjoyment while participating in their sport and they seek challenges and measure their performance against themselves (rather than others).

Athletes with this sort of mindset are more likely to persist in spite of setbacks and tend to believe that effort is an important contributor to success. Importantly, they possess higher levels of morality (they’re less willing to cheat, say) and generally enjoy higher levels of wellbeing.

Examples might include the MTN-Quebeka squad, who would like to win, but have a more compelling ethos driving them towards something bigger than the bike. Or the local C grade 45 year-old newcomer who is eager to learn everything he can, watches his heart rate and strava numbers, hires a coach, and thrives on the smallest personal improvements even though he knows ‘A’ grade is out of reach. Perhaps it’s the skinny climber who can’t help but contest every sprint, every weekend, just so he can learn what wheels to follow and what position to sit in. The result won’t happen – but the learning is key.


When we look at the way of ego and task goals (or performance vs mastery goals) relate to outcomes on the bike, we see that ego-oriented sportspeople tend to experience more negative responses and less adaptive perspectives related to their involvement in their sport.

Goal orientations predict athletes’ moral attitudes and behaviours, with task goals being related to better sportsmanship, and ego goals being related to stronger endorsement of cheating and aggression. With a focus on meeting ego goals, athletes become extremely self-aware, concerned with validating their sense of self through performance. Self-esteem in such athletes is less stable.

Wade rarely races anymore. He can’t compete at the level he used to. His position in the A grade line up is no longer as daunting as it once was. The only way he can race now is to shift his mindset to alternative goals (i.e. not performance goals) and focus on social goals, mastery goals, or general fitness goals. As he has done this, cycling has remained enjoyable for him. But had he chosen to maintain an ego-orientation to his cycling, he probably would have given it up by now to solely focus on his website!

Competitive cyclists are not all exclusively ego-driven, though it is likely that many are. Listen to the interviews from many of today’s most successful pro’s. You’ll hear them as students of the sport, lifelong learners of cycling. Their focus is on process, technique, and mastery. These goals see them measuring themselves in different ways – that ultimately lead to superior results.

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