Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are two of the wealthiest players in Major League Baseball today, but their current statistics hardly back up their monster contracts. In each case massive, long-term contracts were offered based on previous All-Star level performances, yet both Pujols and Hamilton have put up rather pedestrian numbers since receiving their pay. Alex Rodriguez had earned the most lucrative contract in baseball (twice actually), yet few people today see him earning his keep with the years remaining on his current deal. Sport psychologists want to know where’s the mental toughness after cashing in on big paydays?
Pay, motivation, & performance examined
The issue of pay, motivation, and performance is, of course, much bigger than Pujols, Hamilton, and ARod, as we see professional sport GM’s regularly offer outlandish contracts to players who sometimes fail to live up to anything close to what was expected. Outside of the NFL, professional contracts are guaranteed, meaning once a player signs his deal he is assured of getting his money — even if his numbers stink. This issue of pay and performance might not seem like a big deal to you, but when teams invest upwards of $200 million in a player only to see him put up average numbers afterward (i.e. Josh Hamilton this year), it becomes a very big deal to the GM’s left looking foolish for spending such huge amounts of money yet receiving little in return for the investment.
When GM’s invest in a player there are many variables impacting the decision, including the current market, the team’s needs, the other players available at the time, and the “hype” of emotion related to “what if he has 10 more years in him” when thinking about the player’s monster stats to date (as was the case with Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez). The problem, however, has little to do with those variables and everything to do with one big variable: guaranteed money. In other words, without incentive to produce player motivation decreases, focus widens, and resiliency softens. The result? Players putting up average numbers after being previously seen as the best in the game.
Learning theory applied to sports
B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist psychologist, once said that everything we do in life is to either gain pleasure or avoid pain. Drilling deeper, Operant Learning theory is based on schedules of reinforcement, suggesting that we often work harder when we receive positive reinforcement for our efforts. In pro sports, however, all the “payout,” or reinforcement, is top-end loaded, meaning there is literally nothing to prompt a player to work hard and put up numbers beyond personal pride. Contrast that with sports where the winner earns a bigger prize for athletic success and you will see a markedly different level of motivation and effort, and subsequently performance.
While we do occasionally still see a player continue to put up big numbers after getting paid, the reality is that most people will take their foot off the accelerator once they are guaranteed to be taken care of for the future. This decreasing level of effort is not something players are proud of, and in many cases they can’t even explain it if they tried — what I mean is that the decrease in motivation is often so subtle that it goes unnoticed. For example, it’s the extra half mile of running the player doesn’t do, or the last set in the weight room that gets put off. It might mean casually taking a day of (where the player wouldn’t have before the big contract), or taking a little longer to come back from an injury. These little things might not seem like a big deal taken individually, but if you are one of the world’s greatest athletes and start to cut corners it almost always catches up to you.
Aside from motivation issues, big contract players are left to hear about “earning their keep” from every fan, tv/radio show, and chat room on the internet. While all of these rumblings are irrelevant to a player’s on-field success, players are human and many get caught up in the whispers, causing them more fear and insecurity. As these negative feelings creep in, performance goes down, often causing an otherwise great player to seem quite average.
The conclusion to all of this? Long-term lucrative contracts rarely work out, but I’m sure we will continue to see them in the future nonetheless. Supply and demand will always drive prices, and in pro sports a really good athlete (based on previous performances) can often cash in big time for the future if the timing (and climate) is right.
Take your game to the next level with our high performance products only at AHPS!