Flip Tricks and Flow: Intrinsic Motivation in Skateboarders

When you imagine an Olympic athlete after an intense, highly concentrated training session, you may not immediately picture this guy.

However, you’d be mistaken, as this is gold medallist Keegan Palmer, who won the first ever Men’s Park event at the Tokyo 2020 games. Most have heard of or can imagine the mental states top athletes can enter during practice and competition – a sense of full engagement and motivation leading to peak performances without distraction. This state is often referred to as flow, which Seifert & Hedderson examined in skateboarders in relation to their intrinsic motivation to skate.

Using an ethnography methodology which involved observing and interviewing 20 skaters, qualitative data outlined how skateboarding is unique among sports as there is little external motivation; most skaters don’t have coaches or score points, they are instead challenging themselves. The article ties this to two aspects of the popular self-determination theory: autonomy and competence. By setting their own goals, individuals are able to work towards tricks within their own abilities, rather than being pushed by a coach, causing feelings of competence. Autonomy was a common theme associated with positive affect, with interviewees stating, “You just feel so free, and unstoppable … you feel so alive”.

This study highlights how high levels of intrinsic motivation in skateboarding leads to peak performance flow states and improved sense of well-being, which other sports may wish to take note of before doing another training drill.

Seifert, T., Hedderson, C. Intrinsic Motivation and Flow in Skateboarding: An Ethnographic Study. J Happiness Stud 11, 277–292 (2010). https://doi-org.mu.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10902-009-9140-y

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