When Willpower is Not Enough
By Jennifer Lager, Psy.D.
GAME – Get A Mental Edge
We’ve just celebrated the arrival of 2017, and many people are taking stock and setting intentions for the year ahead. Motivation is a crucial element to achieving our goals, and we hope that this article will help you understand how to get motivated – and stay motivated! – for this year and beyond.
What is motivation? The dictionary definition is quite straightforward. Motivation is the reason or reasons that one has for behaving in a particular way. Knowing the reasons and doing things for “the right” reasons is not as simple. We are driven by many forces in our life, and being properly motivated is essential to finding inspiration and getting things accomplished. However, different forms of motivation are not all equal to one another in the outcomes they promote. Typically, a combination of various motivations propels us forward to being able to achieve our goals. So, what are these different forms of motivation?
Motivation can either be intrinsic or extrinsic. Ideally, you want the majority of your motivation to be intrinsic. This is not to say that extrinsic motivation is not helpful. However, overuse of extrinsic rewards can reduce motivation and negatively affect performance by creating a greater amount of competitive pressure and difficulty coping with the expected failures that occur in an athletic career.
People who are based on intrinsic motivation choose actions exclusively based on the enjoyment and personal satisfaction that they experience as a result (i.e. a true love of the sport). The motivation can be found in the action itself because it is pleasurable and you derive joy from it, and not from some external force (i.e., a reward or outcome). This type of motivation tends to sustain itself because it is done purely for oneself. Examples of intrinsic motivation include reading a book because you love learning about new things or taking a walk because you enjoy the feeling of moving your body. Studies of college swimmers have shown that more successful athletes are predominately intrinsically motivated and tend to love the training as much as they enjoy competing. They enjoy being challenged mentally and physically. Famed Brazilian soccer star Pele once said: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, sacrifice and most of all, love for what you are doing or learning to do.” In these words he is describing intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation refers to taking some action in order to obtain a reward or outcome. Instead of doing something because it is fun, people who are extrinsically motivated act based on what they expect to receive as a result. Examples of extrinsic motivation include making money or avoiding being fired. In the case of an athlete, examples of extrinsic motivation could be a college scholarship, parental approval, or the admiration of their peers.
It is important to differentiate between productive and counter-productive types of extrinsic motivation. For example, participating in group practices can be a powerful opportunity for positive extrinsic motivation. It creates accountability, the opportunity for athletes to support one another’s successes, and inspire each other to work harder. An example of negative extrinsic motivation would be a child who participates in meets because she doesn’t want to disappoint her parents. Such a child is motivated by guilt and fear. This type of motivation tends to breed anxiety, and makes participation in athletics feel more like a job than a hobby.
Low motivation tends to manifest as a decrease in the desire to swim, a decrease in practicing as much as you should, and a decrease in the effort put in when you do practice. If you notice these things happening to you, it’s time to reboot your motivation.
Below are some tips for maintaining and regaining a high level of positive motivation. Try them out and rediscover your own desire to succeed!
1- Go back to the beginning. Spend some time thinking about why you started swimming in the first place. Although your motivations may have changed over time, hopefully some of the initial desires are still at play.
2- Have a plan. Even a passionate swimmer with hit a motivation roadblock now and then. Anticipate what a bump in the road will look like and know what you will do to remedy the problem when it occurs.
3- Take inspiration from others. Find inspiring quotes and stories to help lift your motivation when it is dragging. Learn about your athletic idols and how they handled the challenges in their career (an idol in another area of life will work too). Think about how he/she might approach your situation.
4- Get creative. Mix up your workouts, try to incorporate something fresh, fun, and new from time to time.
5- Create and focus on process goals. These are your day -to-day goals, not your longer-term outcome goals. Challenge yourself to focus on one facet of your swimming during each practice (e.g., technique, conditioning, or a mental skill).
6- Get competitive. Think about the swimmers who you are the most hungry to race against. Think about (or observe) how hard they are working in practice and make sure you are working harder!
7- Choose your coaches carefully. Coaches play an instrumental role in keeping their swimmers motivated by providing explanations for why they are asking them to do things and allowing swimmers to have ownership and choice during their workouts. Coaches also support motivation by encouraging swimmers to take on leadership of the team, and by providing competence feedback (feedback that focuses on improving strengths more than reducing weaknesses).
Jennifer Lager, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and mental coach who helps athletes improve their mental game in multiple sports including swimming, tennis, golf, figure skating, and gymnastics (to name a few). She is the owner of GAME- Get A Mental Edge, a performance enhancement business based in McLean, VA.