What makes a performer pursue excellence? And how can an athlete overcome significant adversity and setbacks? What is it that powers us to keep on keeping on, when we are tired, bored, or distracted by other things?
The answer of course, is motivation.
Basketball player Michael Jordan has famously said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Being driven towards a long-term purpose and allocating our emotional, physical and mental energy to that single thing is not easy. It takes sacrifice and a commitment to the unpleasant at times; to pushing past resistance of mind and body; dealing with fatigue, boredom and frustration; and problem solving. It requires exposing ourselves to critical feedback and judgment.
To make the good and bad times worth it, we require both an emotional (passion) and intellectual (reason) force to keep us moving, regardless of what happens day-to-day: motivation. Some have it and some don’t, but the good news is anybody can harness the power of motivation through understanding more about the science behind behaviour, thought, and emotion.
I believe motivation is made up of two distinct but interdependent systems: one very primitive and animalistic in nature; and one very intellectual and intelligent. By understanding and improving both the primitive emotional passionate side, and the intelligent higher purpose for going down this path in life (goals, values, purpose or social), we can increase our motivation.
The Power of Motivation Overcomes Feelings
One without the other is destined to lack sustainability, but together they can drive a perpetual engine. Emotions and passion can fluctuate dramatically day-to-day and the reason or purpose acts as an anchor to keep behaviour consistent, regardless of how we are feeling.
But at the same time, the highs and feelings of success and enjoyment when passion is present, bolster the reason and purpose so it can anchor us on off-days etc. They are co-dependent.
If the push to improve towards a goal comes from both reason and passion, our thoughts and emotions, what does a two-pronged attack look like for enhancing motivation? The first step is learning the basics about the cave man and the philosopher.
The Cave Man and Philosopher inside us all
At a primitive level, emotions or feelings motivate survival behaviour.
Some say that all human behaviour – even the most sophisticated of actions – stems from basic survival emotions that steer us towards things that feel good (shade on a hot day), and away from things that feel bad (not getting too close to the fire). We have basic human needs that we are naturally motivated to satisfy like eating, drinking, human companionship, warmth etc. These motivations are hard-wired in our genetics.
We learn to approach and avoid other things, activities and people through a process called conditioning. There are two types of learning important to understand if you want to harness the power of motivation: Operant Conditioning, and Classical Conditioning.
Operant Conditioning involves rewarding or punishing a behaviour after it is done, as a way to encourage or reduce the behaviour. For instance, if you buy yourself a new bike when you reach a cycling goal, it will promote further cycling and goal setting.
Classical Conditioning involves pairing a behaviour with an inherently satisfying stimulus, so we associate the behaviour with the favoured stimulus and therefore repeat it more.
The Power of Enjoyment
If emotion’s purpose is to direct behaviour, then we are not as logically driven as we think. Emotion has a large role to play in our motivations in all walks of life, which is why humans are motivated to do so many things that don’t really make sense, but feel good.
Some would say we are not driven by logic, rather that we are restrained by logic and driven by feeling. It may seem hard to accept, but imagine how much you could achieve with your day-to-day life if you were purely logical and did not succumb to your feelings, urges and emotions. We are a balance between the robot and animal.
Emotions and basic principles of behaviour tell us a lot about how we can approach improving this primitive, “cave man” side of performance motivation. To create passion around the activity we want to improve, we must focus on enjoyment and reward, which we can do with factors such as:
- Variety and Choice – reduce boredom/routine and increase your sense of control;
- Social Interaction – socialising and social bonds increase positive emotion;
- Reward for Improvement – reward improvement, rather than outcomes (such as winning);
- Challenging yet Achievable Goals – set a benchmark that is just right;
- Game-sense activities in training – games are fun and help us learn a lot;
- Enjoyable Stimuli – pair tough work with something enjoyable, like up-tempo music.
All of these will help make our situation more enjoyable – increasing our motivation.
Conversely, a lack of enjoyment is a barrier to the primitive system of motivation. If the workload is not balanced with both enjoyable and uncomfortable experiences, then the reasons and rationale for seeking performance excellence cannot keep the boat afloat. Being honest with ourselves about enjoyment levels, and knowing how to adjust training to increase enjoyment, is crucial to keeping the cave man going.
Anxiety is another barrier to motivation. It is the human security system’s first alarm and its purpose is to create physical and mental avoidance. If our performance world produces unmanageable anxiety, then the uncomfortable physical symptoms and self-defeating thoughts, will reduce our motivation and present a substantial roadblock.
Some people experience anxiety due to too much pressure on results and their self-image or ego in their performance world. Anxiety can feed off the unknown and uncontrollable factors in the performance world, making us see the world through a lens of threat, and problems without solutions.
The Philosopher: Reason and Logic
The human capacity for reason, imagination and higher-order problem solving allows long-term planning and goal-setting, as well as higher order thinking, such as our purpose, values or social meaning. These higher-order mental abilities allow performers to lay down the foundation for motivation to improve consistency and longevity of motivation over time, especially when passion and emotion wavers. Working on identifying and including these, can dramatically improve motivation and our sense of control.
Through the mental act of thinking we can map our performance profile, set long- and short-term goals and identify what we want to stand for and what our purpose is. The performance standard we seek to achieve is clearer, more actionable and rewarding when structured and on a timeline. Working to personally articulate the following three processes will enhance the intellectual reasoning side of improving motivation.
- Performance Profiling/Goal Setting – Performance Profiling refers to breaking down performance into its various parts and rating our skill set, to create a profile of ourselves as a performer based on recognisable measurable targets. For instance, a football player may break down performance into technical skills, tactical decisions, and athleticism. He would then break these down further and reflect on his game to rate each part of their performance on a scale. This process improves the ability to target weaknesses and strengths and directs goal setting. Goal setting involves taking long-term goals and breaking them down into manageable chunks; then strategies for reaching those chunks are devised and a timeline of practice according to the chunks is laid out. Goal setting brings attention to each step of the journey and creates accountability. It also simplifies things and focuses people on the present task and its meaning in terms of the long term target.
- Values – Values refer to the guiding principles we want to stand for in our everyday performance activities and achievements. Values are ongoing global qualities, meaning unlike goals there is no final destination. They are global because there are many actions that can stem from one value. For instance, if my performance value is persistence there is no end point and I can act on it in many ways. I can push past the comfort zone, persist in saving money for new equipment, enhance my communication with coaches etc. Values shape our character and identity as a performer and direct behaviour regardless of our feelings. They help us to be planned, rather than reactive.
- Purpose – Having a purpose, whether social or personal, can enhance our investment in an activity. For example, running a marathon to raise funds for a cause leads to a sense of meaning and connection to something bigger than ourselves. This can be as simple as to help our friend get fit after an injury. Social purpose and being part of a team is the clearest example of motivation through connection to something bigger than ourselves.
Our training environment can have a crucial influence on our motivational focus; as we understand this, we can structure training to enhance motivation and reduce anxiety.
Internal and External Motivation
Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory of Motivation proposes that internal or intrinsic motivation is ideal and that by servicing three human needs in the learning environment, we become internally motivated to continue:
- Competence – People need feedback about improvement and growth of abilities;
- Autonomy – People need choice, freedom to express, agency in training;
- Relatedness – People need social connection and to relate to a broader purpose.
External rewards systems like prizes, trophies and money lead to external motivation. If the training environment emphasises rewards for outcomes rather than focusing on improvement, then our source of motivation becomes external and much less controllable.
Ideally, there should be a balance between internal motivation and external reward.
If training environments and activities value winning and outcomes, rather than improvement and process, we can become focused on factors we may not be able to control. Focusing on winning rather than growth and improvement can also increase anxiety and self-focused attention (ego), as well as degrade the social climate and inclusiveness. An over-emphasis on winning and competitiveness can even produce unsportsmanlike behaviour and bad culture. The decision to see success through the lens of continual improvement can insulate motivation from the uncontrollable factors, and reduce anxiety.
Knowing about the “cave man” and the “philosopher” within us, means that we can tap into both our passion AND our purpose – to truly discover the power of motivation for ourselves.
If you are looking for a Sport Psychologist Brisbane and Gold Coast, or would like to harness the power of motivation in your life, you can make an appointment with me.