Today's Academic Minute takes us inside the world of professional sports.
Professional athletes are very well paid. Their skills on the field can be parlayed into huge contracts. But as Ken Sheldon, Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri, explains, many players have trouble living up to expectations after the deal is signed.
Ken Sheldon is a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri where he studies goals, motivation, and psychological well-being. His research has been widely published and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis.
The Contract Year Syndrome in Pro Basketball and Baseball
“Intrinsic motivation” is when we do things for the fun of it. Intrinsic motivation is beneficial for peoples’ enjoyment, performance, and creativity. Unfortunately, decades of research have shown that intrinsic motivation can be easily undermined or eroded, when there is too much focus on the external rewards that might come from an activity.
We recently showed this in a new way by assembling NBA and MLB player performance data from the 2003 through 2010 seasons, and looking at the effects of being in a “contract year” (when a player’s current contract is up for re-negotiation at the end of the season). Specifically, we tracked 3 year periods in players’ careers: pre-contract year (baseline), contract year (external rewards very much on athletes’ minds), and post contract year (external rewards less on athletes’ minds).
We predicted that players might perform better during the contract year, especially for glamorous “offensive” statistics (scoring average, home runs). But in the aftermath, players would experience a crash that dropped them even below the baseline, pre-contract year. That is what we found. In the NBA, several offensive statistics went up from year 1 to year 2, but in the third year, they dropped way down. In MLB, only one offensive stat went up, but then there was a drop in several stats the third year. Of course, we didn’t measure intrinsic motivation directly, we only inferred that it was negatively impacted by the contract year. But we were very happy with how the actual data pattern fit our predictions. What does this mean for fans of pro sports teams? Maybe this: don’t be so glad that the big superstar was just re-signed for a 4 year deal. You might hope that he will keep getting better and better, but chances are, the opposite will happen instead!