There are no hacks here. Unfortunately. As with many of the topics I bring up in my blogs, there are no short-cuts, fads, Instagram glam shots. To really find motivation that is both sustainable, easily accessible, and that promotes an overall sense of happiness and contentedness…we gotta do our homework. So in this blog of length-I’ll be doing a deep dive into how to enhance and find motivation that will help drive your/our happiness in sport. This is a long one both with anecdotal ramblings and some practical steps to getting there, so sit down, grab a hot bevy and take some notes.
First, it feels important to address the difference in what we may conjure up as conventional “motivation” , the kind that’s sold on front pages of fitness magazines (do they still even make those?)…2021 version: or the kind that gets dropped into your social media feed. Typically that type of motivation draws on a false notion that if we just “get our shit together” or if we do these few simple steps…we can have endless and boundless energy to do x,y,or z. Certainly that idea sells and can seem intoxicating, but I can’t think of anything that is farther than truth. Sustainable and healthy motivation takes some work and definite introspection. I define “healthy” as something that nourishes and sustains us physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually,-something that we can tap into that let’s us simply feel alive and feel connection to others, activity, nature, or even for some-that which is ephemeral. Often we associate the word healthy (especially this time of year) with just the physical-and certainly for athletes we are prone to only considering the physical aspects of our sport. However, I’ve learned over the years both with my own experiences and those of multiple clients that when we approach life from more of the integrated place (body/mind/spirit) we have much more satisfying lasting experiences and sometimes that translates to high performance. Being fully transparent, it was a two year period of my own racing career when I was seemingly very “motivated”. I was the fastest, skinniest (active in an eating disorder), the fittest and the most utterly unhappy, disconnected and anxious person. Of course I was not healthy! But by my myopic athletic measures, I was. And had I been asked if I was motivated back then, I would have given myself an absolute A+.
So now I approach “healthfulness” from that more integrated place and so my guidelines and map will take that approach.
First: Find YOUR Why.
It seems simple enough, huh? It may seem like a duh, or a notion that lacks worthiness of attention-but I can assure you THIS is the golden foundation you will build your house on. I am always one for a good metaphor so think about building a house, think of your event or race or A race if you go that far, as a giant party you’ll be hosting in your new house. Cheese aside, this metaphor works-as the party is just the celebration for all the hard work in getting there. You can’t have a party without building the house. You can’t build the house without a strong foundation. Well-you can, but once you start putting load on the foundation (framing, walls, roof etc) without the foundation-the house fails. I try to get my athletes to consider these steps as the foundation. Wanting satisfaction and lasting happiness in your sport requires building a foundation.
I suggest making this more of a process versus a quick answer or response. Grab a journal, or your phone, write, dictate, think…take some time, let this marinate throughout the days.. WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO? If you’re like most, there are multiple reasons right? This is entirely a personal process, a way to get to know yourself best-and I encourage you to keep it that way. This is not a Facebook post, or even something to share with others (yet). It needs to be an internal honest inventory of sorts. I know when I went through this process, and still do on yearly basis to stay fresh in my love of trail running, there were some WHY’S that were in service of image, or persona, or material goals. Those are just fine and completely normal-but as I dive deeper, those are just spin-offs from the one real WHY that keeps me showing up day in and day out. My personal WHY goes something like this: Above and beyond all else, I simply LOVE moving my body in the outdoors; in pursuit of personal improvement and challenge. It took some serious introspection and journaling to come up with this. There are other pieces and parts which are fine-but this is the distilled down soundbite that keeps me engaged day after day. It’s also stood the test of time in my life and most likely will continue as I age- It was true as a seven year old gymnast linking multiple back handsprings together in the grass, it was true as a professional road bike racer, and it remains truer than ever as a middle aged mostly average trail runner. When I pause and take a moment even after writing this statement, I can feel a sense of joy in my body-a smile on my face, this let’s me know that my WHY is accurate. So give this a try, and by the way you do not need a long history in athletics or sport. Recently on a morning run, I met someone who in his thirties just started running at the onset of the pandemic due to the limitations of gym access and now he has run several mountain races and is soon to run his first road marathon-all in about two years. So this applies to all athletes, regardless of age, sport or level. Even if you don’t subscribe to being an athlete-but more of just a lover of being active…this exercise works as well for motivation.
Second Find YOUR What’s.
This is more of the fluid brainstorming part of the process. For most, it comes a bit more organically and easily than discovering The Why. WHAT aspects or parts about your sport or activity FILLS you up? What brings you joy, excitement, even laughter, purpose, connection…pick your word(s)-it’s the good stuff in essence. Again, this could feel like an easy flippant step-try slow it down and try to get clear and get specific. Like most things in life, going through motions is only that. Go a bit deeper, find some surprises and maybe even some hidden gems too. Here are some examples of things I’ve heard from different clients: a sense of community-belonging, a connection to nature, loving the scientific/physiology of training-getting better, a sense of adventure, rambling in the mountains with friends (ha, that’s me!)structure and adherence to a plan, feeling “fit” physically-strong and competent (notice this is different then feeling-skinny or thin) a nice way to start the day, a way to connect with my partner, or child, a way to travel and see new places. You see this list is highly individual but so important to spend time creating. I would encourage you to list as many as feel true and relevant including those that perhaps feel a bit on the edgy side. As before, being honest with oneself is vital for these exercises to pay off. Many of us also have some reasons we do our sport that may be more in the service of image or persona, or bolstering self esteem. This is completely normal and really important to be aware of. Sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, it’s good to at least know who’s running the show.” For those that are used to really externalizing your athletic pursuits via Strava or other Social channels, I cannot reiterate this enough: This process that I’m giving should be an absolute private and intimate process. I say this as those who gain motivation from these external sources (Strava, Social media approval) would benefit greatly in learning and tapping into INTERNAL motivation. Basically this process I outline here is a way to find that internal motivation. The difference between internal and external motivation is as giant as going from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon. External motivation is hot-fiery, at times fun, and certainly ego boosting, but without its better half-Internal motivation…lasting happiness and satisfaction is likely on the chopping block at some point.
Back to the point of edgy motivation: write it down, keep it as part of your list, as it serves to know yourself well. Some examples of this that I’ve compiled from my athletes: feeling worthy, bolstering self esteem, feeling thin, losing weight, eating and drinking whatever I like, getting away from my family, checking out, feeling important. I don’t recommend deleting these or denying that you may feel this way, but it serves as a good launching point to develop or spend some time developing those that have a more sustaining quality to them. I say generally, if your list is heavily weighted towards external edgy motivation, then it’s safe to say developing INTERNAL sources of motivation is where your work lies.
Once you spend time going through this exercise and process I suggest finding a way to write it down, or keep it close at hand and heart and brain. Of course, this type of work IS what I do for a living, so I recognize that I get the benefit from practicing much of this but I often reflect on my Why and What while I run, train, eat, do my boring PT exercises…etc. I recommend doing this process no matter what “level” you may consider yourself-they work for the elites, and they work for the weekend warriors, beginners and everyone in between. Even if life feels so full and your activity is your escape-why not transform its power to help elevate your life!?
My last point is a bit of a twist or a devil’s advocate type of position. It IS entirely possible to achieve greatness in your sport (or other endeavors), measured solely by performance. We’ve all seen those athletes and out of integrity I will leave exact names out here…but we’ve seen people that achieve great things that come across as unhappy or uncomfortable people. I distinctly remember back in the mid to late 2000’s as a pro-bicycle racer, a time where there was actually some funding and enthusiasm for womens road racing, noticing and feeling the intensity of many of the very fast, world-class fast women. It often felt as if some of those women would literally do anything to win and their personalities off the bike reflected that as well. Not all of the women exhibited those types of traits, but many did. That was years ago now, and I often think about some of those riders, medals and wins aside, most of us in our middle years…I wonder if they are happy, content people-if all those medals and wins somehow mutated into lasting health and happiness? I may never know, but my instincts say likely not.
To end, it’s all up to you-the individual…how you want to approach your sport, and how you want it to impact your life. I can say with full confidence that spending time going a bit deeper with the thing you spend so much time and energy on could have a life altering effect…even in subtle ways.
First: Find YOUR Why.
Second: Develop/Find YOUR What’s.
Keep it, remember it, and anchor into it.
With all the time you spend doing this THING…why not let it bring you happiness?