Motivation. We all need it, but some people seem to have it in shedloads, whilst others are found wanting. We all know people who seem consumed by a fierce passion to succeed, remaining stoically determined throughout the ebbs and flows of life’s challenges. Others end up off course after just the slightest change in wind speed or direction, disillusioned and demotivated, unable to get back on track. So, what separates these two sets of people? Why does the fire burn so strongly in some of us, that even the darkest days are somehow productive, whilst others lack the spark to do anything other than perform the most essential daily tasks? Is motivation something we are born with; part of our genetic make-up, as inherent as freckles or big ears? Or is it a product of our environment, influenced by the role we’re trying to adopt and the task we’re trying to achieve?

During my athletic career, I may have assumed the former. Athletes (myself included) seem to have a natural predisposition towards motivated behaviour, galvanized by a passion to continually improve themselves in the quest of ultimate dominance over their competitors. Yes, there are times where this drive is reduced—significant injury is a common example, and the season directly after an Olympic Games or other major tournament is notoriously hard to slog through. But, on the whole, athletes appear to have an almost superhuman ability to self-motivate, and this can leave onlookers feeling unable to relate to the seemingly unabating commitment and drive displayed on poolsides, tracks, pitches and fields across the world.

After retiring from elite sport, I assumed, somewhat naively, that I wouldn’t struggle with motivation once I was out in the ‘real world’, but it turned out that lack of drive and energy was a very real experience for me over the first six months. Apathy was not a feeling I was particularly familiar with, and my listlessness made me extremely uncomfortable. It wasn’t like I didn’t have things going on—I was busy networking, interviewing, learning, speaking, writing, coaching, consulting etc. But, in comparison to my pervious sporting aspirations, I didn’t feel particularly passionate about any of those things, and it was certainly an effort to motivate myself to prepare for a single project. I spent most of my days hoping that each commitment would be over and done with as quickly as humanly possible. In short, I couldn’t really be arsed.

As you can imagine, going from having above average levels of motivation, fully invested in my goals and progress, to a strange detachment of ‘self’ from daily commitments, was not particularly conducive to good mental health. I spent a few months not really recognising who I was—it was like I’d gone from a vibrant, dynamic 3D version of myself, to a slightly deflated, washed-out edition. I was assured that this was fairly normal for people transitioning through a major life change, but needless to say, I didn’t like the new me.

Over the following year, I did a lot of experimenting with different roles and projects across a variety of fields. Some worked out whilst others didn’t, but I gradually began to regain some of the fire in my belly, and would be lying if I said I hadn’t felt some relief that the ‘new me’ was comprehensively making way for the ‘old me’ when it came to motivation. Listless Lizzie was not a persona I enjoyed adopting.

The experience got me thinking about motivation and why it waxes and wanes for many people. I started reading about motivation theories (of which there are many), but I mostly started pondering how and why athletes seem to be able to maintain extraordinary motivation, even throughout careers that are peppered with challenges, injury, failure and fatigue. I know, from my experience of losing some of that drive that, unlike my abnormally long arms, I don’t actually have a genetic predisposition to be motivated, but I seemed to have enough habits and systems in place to have taken me through an elite career that lasted over a decade. Re-engineering some of these practises was integral to me regaining motivation when I lost direction and purpose after a retirement. So, what is it about sporting environments that seems to facilitate such an unwavering commitment to achieving ambitious success?

1: Create goal clarity

The first thing that came to mind was that athletes have unusually high goal clarity. Ask most people what they’re aiming towards in life and they’ll either give you a half-heated depiction of the next rung of the ladder in their chosen career, or no answer at all. It sounds like a simple fix, but to having a clearly defined objective is absolutely crucial to maximising motivation, and it’s surprising how many people don’t have even the most basic idea of where they’re heading and, more importantly, where they want to be heading.

So, what do you want to achieve? If you don’t know the answer to that, then it might be time to re-evaluate your current position and ask why you are doing what you’re doing at this moment in time. In an ideal world, would you, could you and should you be doing something else? We only have one go at this thing called life (unless you believe in reincarnation but even those who might entertain such an idea may be inclined to admit that “second time’s a charm” is a risky strategy when it comes to life planning). So, if you’re not entirely content with your current situation, then what are you waiting for? Change is hard and human nature tends to steer us away from unknowns, but even a new situation that is not ideal is better than avoiding any effort to improve our circumstances or living an apathetic life.

One of my absolute favourite quotes is: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” At one point I had this saved as the home page of my phone—it reminded me that hoping and wishing for different results whilst not actively initiating change is usually fruitless. If you’re not already, become the owner of the blueprint of your life. As human beings we are generally motivated by two things: the thought of acquiring something we value, or the thought of avoiding some kind of pain. If the lure of the potential gain isn’t enough to assuage the risks that accompany change, then focus on the potential pain of regretting not having acted—the projection of regret is usually enough to get me moving!

2: Understand the importance of identity

The second key thing that came to mind was that, whilst athletes have these incredibly clear goals, goals aren’t always enough to maintain momentum and motivation, especially when things get tough. So, this had me thinking about identity and values and the powerful (but often unrecognised) role they play. The reason that athletes push themselves through the awful winter training seasons, work so hard that they cry or puke, and get up again and again after losses and failures, is that they identify as someone who values, above all else, the quest for personal mastery. This means that sportsmen and women get a buzz out of pushing themselves, even when the training session is slow or tired or heavy, because they know that they’re testing the boundaries of their potential. Obviously extreme physical endeavour doesn’t get everyone’s juices going, but it is important to decide the kind of person you want to be, and then make a point of proving that to yourself each day. If you can link your values to the role you’re playing (at work, home, the gym etc.) then you buy into your daily tasks at a much deeper level than merely ticking things off a to-do list.

3: Increase your self-awareness

The third key distinction was that athletes tend to have enough self-awareness to know what motivates them and what doesn’t. This gives them the ability to choreograph their environment in a way that is conducive to the generation and maintenance of their drive. For example, some people are driven by the thought of notoriety, status, reputation or prestige. Others are motivated for financial reasons (although this is often accompanied by the caveat that the true motivation is freedom, and money offers liberation from the shackles of financial pressure). Many are driven by this challenge of personal mastery; a continual desire to challenge and improve themselves. There is no right or wrong reason to be motivated (unless it’s to the detriment or harm of others), but being honest with yourself can help you understand the kind of environment you need to be operating in, in order to optimise your drive. Don’t be ashamed to exploit your motivation by rewarding affirmative action in working towards your goals.

4: Build your support network

My final thought is around having a strong support network. We all (athletes included) have times where we struggle to apply ourselves fully to our tasks, or go after our goals, or just to get out of bed in the morning. Having people around us to support us towards our aspirations often makes a huge difference to whether we’re able to stay on course or not. Again, athletes differ slightly from the norm here—elite sportsmen and women will be surrounded by a team of people (fellow teammates, coaches, psychologists and other performance staff) who are always on hand to help them get back on track when things are tough. Even the family and friends of athletes will gradually become conditioned to supporting their loved ones through hard times, reminding an athlete of their goals and giving unwavering encouragement when they’re staring adversity in the face. You might not have such an obvious ‘team’ to rely on, but whatever your pursuit, you’ll have a number of people who can influence your daily behaviour and motivation. Once you know what you need in order to pursue your goals in earnest, consider letting others know how they can help. There are very few of us who can achieve success alone, but it’s your responsibility to find and use your motivators!

Athletes are unique, yes. But they don’t have magic powers. They just have a set of habits and processes that allow them to push through setbacks and continue striving towards mastery.

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