Self-determined: a qualitative interpretation of participation motives among non-elite triathletes

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Publication details

Lamont, MJ & Kennelly, M 2011, 'Self-determined: a qualitative interpretation of participation motives among non-elite triathletes', paper presented to the 11th Annual International Conference on Sports: Economic, Management, Marketing & Social Aspects, Athens, Greece, 11-14 July.


In a recent issue of the International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship addressing non-elite participation in sport, Phelps and Dickson (2010) criticised sport marketing researchers’ overt focus on spectators at events. Despite extensive active participation by non-elite athletes at events globally, scholarly research has neglected “events that are all about bums in the event, rather than bums on seats” (Phelps & Dickson, 2010, p. 5). The present study addresses this overlooked area of sport marketing research by examining motivations of non-elite triathlon competitors. It contributes a rich description of participant motives in an endurance sport combining swimming, cycling and running. Qualitative data were collected via in-depth interviews with 22 non-elite triathletes residing in two Australian east coast states. Interviewees were purposively selected according to experience, ambition and demographics, ensuring a broad spectrum of viewpoints. An interpretive methodology allowed motivational themes to emerge from the data, broadening existing knowledge contributed by previous quantitative studies. Following a three-stage thematic analysis process (Neuman, 2006) findings were interpreted through the lens of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Nine broad themes emerged as motivations for participating in the sport of triathlon. Various forms of extrinsic regulation were extensively prevalent. Intrinsic motivations were present, particularly experiencing flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975), albeit to a lesser degree. Different motivations were cyclical in directing behaviour, contingent upon the triathletes’ goals, event calendar, and personal circumstances. Some results contradicted previous literature suggesting intrinsic motivations primarily underpin participation in sport and exercise (e.g. Ryan & Deci, 2007). Additional research is therefore needed to quantify the strength and cyclical intensity of the motivations identified. Further, several triathletes underwent lifestyle transitions in which regular exercise became internalised and self-endorsed (Deci & Ryan, 2000). As such, positive self-transformation as observed in this study could have implications for public health initiatives in developed nations, while other aspects of the research may be useful in promoting participation in endurance sports.

Additional information

Abstract published in: Papanikos, GT (ed.) 2011, Sports: economic, management, marketing & social aspects, Athens Institute for Education and Research, Athens, Greece. ISBN: 9789609549172