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Triathlete Blog


By November 16, 2012July 21st, 2015No Comments

I recently finished the book Drive by Daniel Pink.  It’s an interesting read on understanding motivation.

The first part of the book is how motivation works.  This part would be particularly relevant to anyone in a position of management.  What actually drives motivation is contrary to popular belief.  Incentives are often used in the wrong way at the wrong time. This book provides convincing examples that our current way of seeing motivation is simply not supported by research.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this, here’s an excellent video with Pink talking about the research behind the ideas presented in this book:

Pink explains the different types of motivation (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) and how rewards influence performance.  On simple tasks, contingent (if-then) rewards are effective whereas with more complex tasks, contingent rewards lead to poorer performance.  This is extrinsic motivation.  It doesn’t always work.  Yes, you become motivated by what you receive.  But it comes at a cost.  Rewards can be addictive; once offered, the reward becomes expected.  Because of this, people may be motivated to make riskier decisions and take shortcuts to achieve that which will bring the reward.

Not surprisingly, intrinsically motivated people tend to achieve more than those driven by rewards.  In Pink’s words, the most successful people often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success.  They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world and accomplish something that endures.  When rewards are not offered, performance improves because the reason for doing the task is driven by intrinsic motivators: mastery, purpose and autonomy.

In terms of athletics, Pink’s chapter on mastery was the most relevant.  It starts by defining autoletic experiences, or experiences in which the activity is its own reward.  These experiences tend to lead to flow.  During flow experiences, the task presented is never too challenging or difficult.  It stretches the person slightly above where they’re at making the effort a powerful reward.  It’s that feeling of being so engaged in what you’re doing, so totally in the moment that you don’t even notice the passing of time.  Flow happens here.

In support, Pink lists a great quote by middle distance runner, Sebastian Coe:

“Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment – whether next week, next month or next year.  The improvement was the goal.  The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.”

This gets at the question we, as endurance athletes, often get: why do you do it?  If you’re like me, you have a hard time putting it into words.  It’s the challenge, pushing my limits, because I can, because why not?  I don’t necessarily get anything tangible for doing this.  In fact, the opposite tends to be true!  I spend a lot of time and money to do this sport.  I rarely get anything “real” in return.  Unless you count the deep satisfaction I get from achieving goals, setting personal bests or performing at the top of my field.  These are intangibles.  To me, these are very powerful motivators.


The most successful athletes seem to be driven by these intrinsic rewards – the intangibles.  Extrinsic motivation can come from wanting to win awards, acquire sponsors, not disappoint others.  With enough attention on these, an athlete’s performance can feel controlled by extrinsic factors.  I see this often when athletes get too wrapped up in social media.  At the end of the day, no one really gives a crap how you do – that’s a brutally honest way of saying that if you’re not getting paid to do this – heck, even if you are getting paid – at the end of the day – win or lose – you are still a good person/parent/spouse/friend, still alive.  The world doesn’t end.  It takes some perspective to see through the constraints of extrinsic motivators.  Once you do, though, you’ll feel immense freedom in your pursuits.

Intrinsic motivation works.  From what I’ve seen, athletes who are intrinsically motivated last the longest and perform the best for themselves.  And that’s key – they are entirely focused on their enjoyment of the experience. What they get externally from it is second to what they feel internally from it.  Intrinsically motivated athletes tend to be more confident, focused, relaxed and satisfied.  When an athlete is worried about or driven by external factors, they behave under the constraint of worrying about how their behavior will help or hinder their ability to get the external reward.  They worry they are not doing enough.  They worry they are not fast enough.  They worry that they won’t be able to do what they need to do to get what they want.  They: OVERTHINK.  It’s very complicated and, as you can imagine, stressful.  It drains the fun out of something which should be an enjoyable experience.  I often tell myself I get to do this!  The awesomeness of the opportunity is what drives me – anything I get as a result of it really does feel like icing on the cake.

Pink also suggests that success en route to mastery comes most often to those who have grit: a perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  We all know those athletes, the gritty ones.  In the face of adversity, they see it as their advantage.  Any obstacle is an opportunity.  Any time they are at the bottom is a chance to prove how good they are by rising to the top.  Years ago, I remember a story about Craig Walton who after forgetting his bike shoes at St. Anthony’s, did the bike with his running shoes and went on to win the race.  Craig Walton was gritty.  It would have been much easier to give up (certainly he had a great excuse!) but he pressed on – why?  Perhaps this race was a step in his process of mastery.  Or, as Julius Erving said: being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.

As you can imagine, then, mastery is painful (and not surprisingly, Walton injured his hamstrings after his epic display of grit).  It’s doing difficult things.  It hurts!  When I think back to all of my years in the sport, the workouts I remember are the nasty ones.  Not the comfortable or easy ones.  The days where I cried.  The days where I remember it being so hot and humid that I could have (and probably should have!) just gone inside.  The long run I did one year on Christmas Eve morning when it was negative two degrees!  But the sun was shining!  The feeling you get at 7800 yards during the monster swim.  These are painful things – not just in my body but because they push my mind places it has never been.  Uncharted mental territory is scary!  But when you go through it, you learn the language of how to deal.  How to deal is effective in racing when things aren’t going right.  And when was the last time everything went right in any race?

Mastery also takes time.  According to psychology Anders Ericsson, mastery takes a minimum of 10 long, tough and challenging years.  Ten years!  A difficult concept to grasp in our HERE – NOW society.  How many athletes out there want to get to Kona?  It took me 8 years to get there.  Not 8 years of flying all over the world to qualify – but 8 years of doing the work necessary to prepare myself to compete at the level it takes to qualify.  Progress can’t be rushed, you’ve got to put in the time!

You’ve probably heard of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is what you do along the way to mastery.  Deliberate practice has the purpose of improving performance.  When an athlete complains about doing drills, my response is performance improvement is often boring!  And the athletes who accept and work through that are the ones who usually succeed.  The ones who get impatient, switch paths or try to find other short cuts – they usually keep falling short.

Years ago, Beth Shutt (now rising pro, then decent age grouper) stayed at my house.  One thing that stood out to me was Beth’s patience and attention to detail.  Beth stood in my kitchen stretching every day with a timer set on her watch for how long to hold every stretch.  Boring and time-consuming?  You bet!

But spending the most time on the boring parts of performance improvement is what leads to mastery.  To actually improve you need not only practice but repeat that practice, seek feedback, focus on your weaknesses and understand the improvement process will be painful and difficult.  So few people commit to this level of work because it’s not sexy.  But the bottom line is that it works.

Things like this fall into the category of what Daniel Chambliss, sociologist, called the ‘mundanity of excellence’.  From his article Champions: The Making of Olympic swimmers, Chambliss said:

“The champion athlete does not simply do more of the same drills and sets as other swimmers; he or she also does things better. That’s what counts. Very small differences, consistently practiced, will produce results.”

Chambliss asserts there is little difference between champions and everyone else.  Everyone else who chooses not to work on mental preparation, skill or seemingly insignificant details of the sport – they are choosing not to win.  Champions, in effect, choose to win by doing what others don’t want to do.  They create winning opportunities in practice every single day. What if you tried to make yourself into a winner every day?  What would you do?

About 8 years ago, I went to a running clinic with Jennifer Harrison and top notch runner, Dave Walters.  After looking at form, Dave talked about the mental game.  He said to ask yourself what you wanted to be this year.  And then ask yourself what would that person do.  Back then, in my case, it was what would a national champion do?  Start every day asking yourself that question and all of a sudden the little things you can do on a daily basis will add up to that big thing you are looking for.

Now here’s what’s so puzzling about being motivated by mastery.  According to Pink, mastery is not something that be achieved.  You can pursue it but you can’t actually touch it.  Which means we are chasing after something intangible.  Even golf legend Tiger Woods can never reach mastery – there will always be that next level, a tweak to his stroke or a new competitor to challenge him.

Why, then, would someone pursue something that is impossible to reach?  It’s the draw of the idea of it – the challenge, the allure.  If you enjoy the process, why not chase mastery?  In sport, we often hear about the idea of chasing that perfect race where it all comes together.  A few years ago, an athlete who had been to worlds, completed many Ironmans, disclosed to me that she does the sport for that.  She was seeking the perfect race.  But does it exist?  For many of us, the thrill of the process of finding out can be what keeps us coming back to endurance challenges.

And I think this is why we last.  Because this pursuit will never get old.  Seeking the best out of yourself, finding that next level, enjoying the experience – when your experience is anchored by these feelings, it will always be enjoyable.  It will always be motivating.  The moment you stop feeling enjoyment from it, is the moment you’ve lost your motivation.  Motivation definitely ebbs and flows throughout a season.  A few low days does not mean it’s time to quit the sport.  But if it’s becoming a chore, it’s probably time to leave it – for now.  The best thing about athletics is that you can always come back to them when you’re ready.

The topic of motivation is timely.  Here in the Midwest, winter it settling in upon us.  It’s about to get very dark and very cold.  For months.  The days where you need to get up early to drive to the pool in an icy corner, run outside with the bite of the wind on your face, endless circles going nowhere on your trainer.  It’s time to dig deep within the motivation well.  Know your reasons.  Why are you doing this?  Look inside and ask yourself.  Find your motivation and drive!