Motivation Is Not The Way

Well, it's not always the way.

Motivation is quite generally defined as the reason behind one's action, behaviour, thought or belief. Although often forgotten, there are many types of motivation, but this word is jumbled to refer to intrinsic, or self-, motivation. It is relentlessly thrown around in high performance cultures like business, sport, the arts, and academia. Better yet, it becomes intertwined with keywords and catch phrases like "hustle", "grind", "lions never sleep", and more. 

But what happens when athletes and other high performers are not yet motivated? What happens when an athlete has lost his or her motivation? How do we foster, build, and maintain motivation across time? Or can we? 

There's a path. Motivation is a part of the path.

How often do we wake up in the morning energetic to plow through the day, or have a stimulating conversation and get refreshing insights, or have a great workout and feel fired up? And how often does that "motivation" last? Does it fuel us through the task? Does it surpass the task and carry us to the next one? 

Probably not. 

Motivation is not the primary and solitary step. It is often, especially beyond recreational sport and into high performance, not even the first step. It has to be built and rebuilt. 

Step One: "I Will"

At the start of every off-season, when I have written and delivered programs to my athletes and released them back into the wild for a few weeks, I remind them that, whether they follow the program or not, pre-season will come. Off-season is the time to heal, to get strong, to prepare for the next round, and to get better. If they aren't committed to that mantra, then they will lose. The opponent is committed to that, and my athletes are being outworked. 

I also want them to consider how they will feel when pre-season comes around. If you didn't train, will you feel up to speed? Will you feel like an active contributor to the team? What do you need to develop now to bring into the season preparation, and how can you sufficiently work on that now?

If nothing else, commit to doing something every day. 

Often, that "something" was stretching or going for a bike ride, which then led to more activity, which then led to following the training program.

Commitment is the first door to motivation.

You don't have to like it. You don't have to be excited. You just have to be disciplined enough to uphold a commitment with yourself (or your teammates and coaches) to train, to put in the time getting better, and to come into the next round better.

Jocko Willink said it best. "Discipline equals freedom."

Step Two: "I Do"

After achieving Step One, Step Two is merely a maintenance phase. Starting was the hard part.

Now it's about consistency. 

I can't stress this enough: it doesn't have to be fun. The path to motivation isn't always beautiful or noteworthy; it's the "grind" cliché for a reason. It doesn't look splendid and it feels like the pain cave.

It's my swimmers getting up at 03:30 to be in the water by 04:30.

It's military athletes completing their 10k rucksack runs in a storm.

It's public-sector strength coaches who work 05:00-20:00 six days a week.

But it gets done because they committed to doing it, and keep showing up to do it again. Whether it's pretty or not, it does make you better. You have to put in the 10,000 hours. You have to become an expert through repetitive skill learning until it is automatised. You have to earn mastery.

Step Three: "I Am"

Call me a skeptic, but, in my experience, the "I am so motivated right now" feeling is a high. Whether it's in the first few weeks of the season, heading into a tournament, going into a fight, or starting with a new team. It comes quickly, like a rush, and, no matter how long it lingers, it can go quickly. 

Motivation is not and cannot be constant over a long period of time. That would be... weird. 

Nothing in life stays consistent, especially in high performance, when events and performance are a true Busch Gardens-type roller coaster of emotions, results, and experiences. Highs are normal. Dips are normal. That means there is also means there can be massive letdowns from motivational highs afterward. 

The point here is this: motivation is not everything. Not every athlete has to be deeply intrinsically and eternally motivated in order to be highly successful. Motivation is not a friend or foe; it just is what it is.

While an internal drive of identification with an action or identity, or the "I Am ___" feeling, can certainly serve as a benefit, it is not the only way. 

First, commit. Then, be consistent. 

Then, depending on your circumstances, personality, and preference, you might reach an internal level of motivation again.

If you don't reach "I Am", you have not lost or failed. You must, like the rest of us, simply continue the process and appreciate it for what it is: a long, confusing, disorienting, exciting journey.

In fact, the discipline to repeat and uphold the process takes the most grit and grind of all.

Whatever you are, be a good one.

P.S. If you are worried about your motivation or other performance issues, reach out to myself, a coach, a sport psychologist, or someone you trust. There are many paths to success. Not easy, but not all brutally painful, and certainly not alone.


(For a more thorough and theoretical look at motivation types as related to a broad range of topics, check out Deci & Ryan's Self-Determination Theory.)

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.