Motivation: The Fuel that Drives Us
Written by Tricia Moore

Every time I hear, “starting in 60 seconds”, I briefly scan my workout area, make sure all my equipment is properly positioned, run through the rep scheme in my head, remind myself of my intention that day, laugh a little, and look around at my friends in the room.  

As I get set, I wonder and often verbalize…. Tricia, why do you do this? I laugh again, and usually answer out loud “because it’s fun and you can, it’s a privilege”. Anyone who has trained with me can attest to hearing me have this conversation with myself. I remind myself of how fortunate I am to play, experience some physical discomfort with friends, and pursue health every day. 

My question for you is…What is the fuel that drives you? What do you burn in order to persevere through mental, physical, or emotional discomfort? And what actually fuels our quest for creativity, innovation, and excellence? After all, the pursuit of being our best inside or outside the gym can be incredibly rewarding, if fueled properly.

The Tiger Woods Parable

At the age of twenty-one, Tiger Woods won the Masters. And, he didn’t just win, he smoked his competitors, breaking virtually all previously held records while defying long-held racial barriers. By twenty-four, he had won five majors; by twenty-nine he’d clinched ten; and by thirty-two, that number rose to fourteen. He dominated the charts at number one for a whopping 683 consecutive weeks; the next closest player is Greg Normal at 331 weeks. Tiger has gone on to achieve many more notable victories in his twenty-five years on the tour. However, this isn’t the story of a prodigy kid with a steady rise to domination. 

Tiger had plenty of failures, and they were far more noteworthy than his victories. How Tiger navigated the stumbles of his career – the string of injuries, and personal upheaval in the early 2000’s is where the story starts to get interesting.  

Most of us lose drive when the rise begins to fall. But for the elite, this is precisely when they double down. In the last decade, Tiger rebuilt his swing several times over and persevered through a string of physical injuries that would have put most out of the game. Most recently, amid speculations of substance abuse in 2017, he emerged triumphant again. I assure you, this is the most improbable reinvention of all. This is a story of what actually motivates humans to strive for greatness (and it actually has very little to do with success or accomplishment).

What is Motivation?

Motivation is the fuel we use to propel ourselves forward. Broadly speaking, there are two types of motivation intrinsic and extrinsic. 

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation originates from within; you do an activity for the inherent satisfaction, such as for enjoyment, (novel idea) for the challenge, or for the thrill of the experience. 

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is driven by rewards and reinforcement from outside, such as money, esthetics, better grades, and fame. 

Results from Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Both yield results but in very different ways. For a lot of us, extrinsic motivators are the majority of reinforcement patterns in our life, however, intrinsic motivation is the darling of the duo. To better understand why let’s first look at the research on extrinsic motivation.

Most organizations, educational systems, and even parenting methods rely primarily on extrinsic motivators. These are the classic “sticks and carrots”, the “if-then” structures of reinforcement. And, these structures have merit for some tasks, namely those reliant on rote and repetitive actions. But at what cost?

Research suggests the ultimate cost of this approach is on people’s sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These three things are actually critical ingredients for fostering intrinsic motivation. What this tells us is that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation actually have an inverse relationship. As one becomes dominant, the other atrophies. Extrinsic motivators, such as money, are really just “threshold motivators.” They need to be sufficient—we need enough money to eat, for example—but once that happens, its power declines.

What happens when extrinsic motivation is the primary driver?

So, what happens to our motivation when extrinsic rewards become our primary driver? More and more external rewards are needed in order to maintain adequate compliance. Chemically speaking, it’s the hit of dopamine that actually keeps us coming back for more. Dopamine is effective, but it’s also a quick-burning fuel. Over time, no matter how satisfying the external reinforcer is, we eventually succumb to boredom, rebellion, addiction, and even worse, apathy. (1) That’s why there is almost zero correlation between affluence and happiness. Turns out, you can’t buy contentment. Go figure. And once you have begun to use rewards to manipulate outcomes, you cannot easily unwind that pattern. 

The field of fitness is riddled with external reinforcers. The conversation in many traditional gyms centers around losing weight for a wedding, an external goal, an esthetic competition. What happened to moving well because it feels good? I guess that’s not sexy, it’s tough to get clients to think intrinsically, it requires Coaches to listen, care for, and create an environment that fosters growth and creativity.  

What happens when intrinsic motivation is the primary driver?

To access long-term engagement, we require a very different type of motivation. For this, we must seek intrinsic fuel. The good news, according to Dr. Edward Deci (University of Rochester) “autonomous motivation” is our default setting. (1) 

Anyone who has ever observed a child can attest to this. We don’t need to use sticks and carrots to motivate a toddler to crawl, walk and explore the environment. The drive to explore comes built-in. But somewhere along the line, this trait atrophies and most of us end up in the sticks and carrots assembly line.

Why is intrinsic motivation more successful than extrinsic motivation?

It appears, when we burn intrinsic fuel, we’re exercising all the secondary muscles critical to our need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These are the real gems behind why intrinsic motivation yields such a profound return on investment. 

Intrinsic fuel always outperforms extrinsic in the long run, emphasis on long. But often, in the short run, it will look like a failure, struggle and regression. This is a familiar feeling to any CrossFitter trying to master a complex skill such as muscle-ups or Olympic lifts. Some days you feel as though you’re going backward.  

It’s okay, that’s the process, and this is precisely when the elite dig in; they burn an internal fuel that allows them to creatively approach plateaus and failure, sourcing the lessons. This is where grit, tenacity, and perseverance are born. It’s hard to build these muscles without intrinsic motivation as the driving force.

Creating Development & Growth from Struggle

No one would have blamed Tiger if he hung up his clubs when the bottom fell out. He’d still be considered one of the best golfers to ever play the game. But with this fuel, you embrace these periods of struggle as the most critical time for development and growth.

And what’s more, this is the motivation behind expansive creativity, innovative thinking, and novel problem-solving. Using this fuel allows our brains to think big and widen our aperture of wonder. 

Google Passion Projects

This is the psychology behind Google’s famed 80/20 initiative, where employees spend twenty percent of their time on “passion projects”. Turns out, this strategy is not only good for morale, its highly profitable. A number of Google’s most innovative products are the brainchild of those passion projects. 

You see, intrinsic motivators create an environment where failure and success are no longer inversely correlated. This fuel source rebrands failure, frustration, and plateaus as a necessary process in the long-arc of development. Brilliant, right? (2) 

Think about your life, your family, your career, your training, and what types of fuel you burn in order to get results. Where in your life, maybe at home or in your work, can you take inventory and make changes. As a coach, I challenge the age-old question, “how do I motivate others?” in favor of “ how can you foster an environment where my students will motivate themselves?”

Here are some more articles on motivation…

Internal vs External Motivation

Is Motivation or Discipline More Successful in Reaching Goals?

What Motivates You? Your Ego or Your Purpose?


  1. Daniel Pink, Drive 
  2. Dr Sarah Sarkis  – Flow research Collective


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