A Guide to Need Achievement Theory in Sport Psychology

Updated on May 10, 2017
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Liam Hallam is a sports science graduate. He is also a keen cyclist as well as being a lover of the Derbyshire Dales and Peak District.

What is your motivation? What drives you towards greater sports performances?
What is your motivation? What drives you towards greater sports performances? | Source

Within sports and life, we all have different motivational factors whether they come from within ourselves (intrinsic) or from outside influences (extrinsic). It is important that we're all realistic when it comes to our athletic performances and how we get there.

Many athletes have a strong motivation to succeed and achieve greatness—no matter how relative it is.

What Is Achievement Motivation?

Achievement motivation is the effort an athlete (or individual in a nonsporting sense) makes to succeed within their chosen field. It's their attempts at overcoming obstacles or mastering a particular task.

There are so many descriptions of this theory (see image below) that an athlete, exerciser, sports psychologist, or coach could easily come up with. All of which help inspire us to achieve greatness and hit those targets we make for ourselves.

How do you define achievement motivation?
How do you define achievement motivation?

Competitiveness Is the Key to Success

Many athletes thrive on competition. Those who are competitive strive for excellence by comparing themselves to others as a way of evaluating their own skill level.

This behavior is a form of achievement motivation. It can be very specific to the individual and their situation. For example, just because someone wants to be dominant on the tennis court doesn't mean they will have the same drive and determination to succeed in school.

Many people compete with and, in many ways, against themselves. A marathon runner may aim to run a faster time during their next track meet even if there is no one else there to evaluate and scrutinise their performance.

Achievement motivation and competitiveness are interrelated. The former is often socially driven, which leads to individuals being influenced by the latter.

Chasing a fast time in a cycling time trial is a sign of competitiveness and is driven by achievement motivation
Chasing a fast time in a cycling time trial is a sign of competitiveness and is driven by achievement motivation | Source

The Theories Behind the Need to Achieve

Over the years a number of key theories have formed regarding the motivation to act and achieve. These are

  • Need Achievement Theory
  • Attribution Theory
  • Goal Theory
  • Competence Motivation Theory

Need Achievement Theory in Sports

Within sport psychology, need achievement theory is used to help predict task preferences and relevant outcomes in performance. This theory concerns five interactional component factors:

  1. Personality factors
  2. Situational factors
  3. Resultant/behavioural tendencies
  4. Emotional reactions
  5. Achievement-related behaviour

Now, let's discuss each one in more depth below.

1. Personality Factors

Within need achievement theory we have two underlying motives

  • achieving success and
  • avoiding failure.

Achieving success is our ability to take pride or satisfaction from our accomplishments, whereas the opposite is true in avoiding failure as we're looking to avoid feelings of shame or failure.

Many sport psychologists have observed that high achievers have a high motivation to achieve success, whereas low achievers have a tendency to concentrate on avoiding failures and that there is a balance between these two distinct behaviours.

Situational factors play a key role in need achievement theory
Situational factors play a key role in need achievement theory | Source

2. Situational Factors

We must consider the whole story when considering how to predict behaviours accurately.

Within a sport, we also must consider the probability of success in any given situation. Our competition is key to understanding this as well as the amount of training and the difficulty of the task faced. As a result, we also need to consider the incentive value of a particular task.

High achievers will gain the most out of situations where the probability of success is relatively low as that success becomes a challenge to overcome. However, a low achiever may feel personal shame after suffering such a loss.

3. Resultant/Behavioural Tendencies

An athlete's behavioural and resultant tendencies derive from considering an individual's motive levels in relation to situational factors. High-achieving athletes seek challenges at this level which are within their abilities on a competitive level (around a 50/50 probability of success).

These resultant tendencies for a low achiever will lead to them adopting easier tasks which do not force them to challenge themselves in a sporting context or inexplicably hard tasks where failure is almost a certainty. It's not a fear of failure in this circumstance. It's more a fear of the negative criticisms surrounding failure.

4. Emotional Reactions

The fourth factor is an individual's emotional reaction to success or failure. Our response to different situations either focus on the pride of our achievements or the shame of our failures.

5. Achievement Behaviour

The result of your reactions to the four previous factors leads to your achievement behaviour. The stages of this factor are detailed in the infographic below.

Need Achievement Theory Infographic
Need Achievement Theory Infographic

Attribution Theory

The key to attribution theory is how people describe their athletic performance. The success or failure in performance through attribution was popularised by Weiner (1985) due to the infinite number of possible explanations for our gains and losses. These gains and losses are divided into three categories:

  1. Stability factors can either be stable (such as your own sporting abilities) or unstable (such as luck).
  2. Causality factors can either be internal (through your own efforts) or external (e.g., insufficient competition).
  3. Control factors can either be within your control (event planning, bicycle tire pressure, etc.) or outside of your control (e.g., another runner falling in front of you).

Is your motivation to avoid failure or to achieve success?
Is your motivation to avoid failure or to achieve success? | Source

Why Is This Theory Important?

Attribution theory is important because our attributions help to shape our short-term and long-term expectations. By adopting three separate classifications, it's possible for an athlete to isolate them.

Goal Theory

Three interacting factors that determine motivation are the main focus of goal theory: achievement goals, perceived ability, and achievement behaviour. To understand a person's achievement behaviour, we must take their achievement goals and perceived abilities into account.

Competence Motivation Theory

Competence motivation theory helps to explain motivational differences based on an individual's feelings of self-worth and competence. These feelings are greatly influenced by our feedback mechanisms and motivational orientations and interact to affect our motivation in the form of anxiety, pride, joy and shame.

Motivational Factors: High Achiever vs. Low Achiever

High Achiever
Low Achiever
High motivation for success and a low motivation to achieve failure.
Reduced motivation for success with a high motivation to avoid failure.
Task Choice
Seeks challenges.
Avoids challenges.
Success stems from stable and controllable factors. Failure is outside one's control.
Success is from instability and factors oustide one's control. Failure is within control.
Goal Setting
Specific task goals.
General outcome goals.
Achievement Competence
Competence is within one's control.
Low perceived competence so achievement outside personal control.
Excels in evaluative conditions.
Poor performance in evaluative conditions.


Weinberg. R. and Gould. D., 2nd Ed (1999) Foundations of sport and exercise psychology, Champaign IL, USA, Human Kinetics,.

Weiner.B., (1985), An attribution theory of achievement motivation, Psychological Review, 92, 548-573.


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    • profile image

      Lisa R 

      21 months ago

      Really helpful thanks!

    • CyclingFitness profile imageAUTHOR

      Liam Hallam 

      7 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Thanks jay, I recommend Weinberg and Gould as its an excellent textbook. I'm glad this article has helped you question actions and hopefully can lead to improvement as a result. Many thanks liam

    • INFJay profile image

      Jay Manriquez 

      7 years ago from Santa Rosa, California

      Thanks for writing a very informative Hub about one of my favorite topics: motivation and achievement. As I read your Hub, I found myself analyzing my past achievements in relation to my motivational factors and I discovered some inconsistencies (which means I will be reading the references you cited). Well done!


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