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Triathlete Blog


By February 13, 2009July 8th, 2015No Comments

Earlier this week I was talking with one of my athletes about motivation.

She was struggling. Finding herself in the doldrums of winter not sure what the point of everything in sport was anymore. No doubt she’s a hard worker, she’s set goals realistically within her reach, mentally a tough cookie but something was getting her down. We’ve addressed the obvious and when all of that cleared you’re left with one thing:


How do you help someone find their motivation? It’s a fine line between being a cheerleader and a coach. A cheerleader fills you with pomponblahblah just to make you feel better. A coach helps you to understand the why. Here’s my philosophy: I can help you to feel better but let’s figure out why you’re feeling that way and what we can do to improve it for next time. Ultimately my goal is to help my athletes find what drives then and then use that to bring out their best.

But when she asked me about motivation I’ll admit I had a hard time. Not because I’m not motivated and have no idea what to say – but because what each of us finds motivating is so different. I work with so many different personality types that I see many forms of motivation. Some are driven by beating so and so, some are doing Ironman to see what if, some are trying to qualify for a race.

Basically, there are two types of motivation:

Internal or External

True, we are all motivated by our goals (qualifying for an event, placing at a certain spot, finishing in a specific time) and goals are “external” but how we get to the goals – the motivation for that – can be from the inside or the outside of ourselves.

Those motivated by the inside are fairly easy. Sure, they’ve got some external rewards in their goals but you can see that it is the process of getting there, of overcoming themselves, of learning along the way that truly gets them going. They cross a line and think to themselves – I did it because I can. They don’t care how long it took or where they finished, they’re filled up by mastery of the process and staying out of their own way.

The others are a little more challenging. These are my Type A achievers. In our sport, there are a lot of Type A personalities. Think about it – who goes out and tries to not just do one but three sports? Yet being “Type A” is not a bad thing. A highly driven person will get very far in the world. They are used to excelling in school, getting ahead at work, doing whatever it is they set their mind to. They have a fierce work ethic and they will stop at nothing to achieve.

The problem is, however, that for that hard work they often receive a tangible reward. Perhaps it was getting an “A” or a raise, the corner office, an award, recognition, a write up in a magazine, “Dr.” in front of their name. Sure there are the warm good feeling inside that they also get but no doubt there in return for their hard work they got “something” else.

So, convincing these Type A athletes that in sport it’s ok if you don’t win or have the best body or finish on top is a challenging thing. To them, it’s usually all or nothing. You are either the best or the worst. There is no in between. I’m telling you, though, that in sport you will spend a lot more time in between than you may like. And if you are going to enjoy the sport and keep excelling at some point you just have to accept some time in the middle ground.

Here’s the deal: sometimes when you work hard in sport the result isn’t always tangible. For example; you might work hard and get faster for yourself but that doesn’t mean you will be the fastest. And it never guarantees you can win. In fact, you can work hard for years and you still may never be the best and may never run a 6 minute mile, or swim a 1:00 for a 100 or bike at have a high power to weight ratio. And that is frustrating. Because shouldn’t it be that you work really hard and get the “big” thing or at least become one of the best?

In many other areas in life – yes. In sport – sometimes no. Why? Because to some extent our potential is limited by our bodies and to a bigger extent by time. The one thing you cannot rush in sport is time. As someone once told me, in training there is a lot of TICK TOCK. *waiting* It takes years of muscular development and patience to approach your potential in sport.

So, what does this have to do with motivation? Realizing that it takes time – lots of time, more time than probably anywhere else in life for your hard work to pay off – you must be motivated by different things. Those externally motivated may find more enjoyment if they become more motivated by the process, the little victories along the way rather than the end result. If not, they risk the all or nothing road paved by impatience. Getting close to the top, “winning”, getting recognition may not be immediately possible but down the road you might get closer every year. So if you are a person used to being motivated by those tangible things you have to change your perspective. You have to find something else about the experience or process motivating or else you will feel like you are doing all of your work for nothing.

Last year I had to rework my motivation. Trust me, I was always one of those “I will place in the top 3 of my AG and top 5 overall” at a race. I was used to setting tangible goals and getting there. Enter last year. That approach didn’t work out and showed me that there had to be something more to motivation. At the end of each race, there had to be something bigger to motivate me rather than my result. My results were not motivating. In fact, they were as close to failure as I had ever gotten and made me consider quitting. It’s easy to say “I would never quit” but when you find yourself racing like ass you start thinking – well maybe that would be easier than continuing.

I had to reset my motivation. It became more about learning than anything else. It became more about mastering one little part of the race than trying to put everything together for a victory. My victory became finding someone’s feet on the swim. Keeping someone in sight on the bike. Talking positively in my head. Yes, I celebrated each little victory like it was a win. Yes, I was still very far off from winning. But overall I became motivated by figuring out what was going on – to learn more about the sport and myself.

Maybe that is just being stubborn, stupid or wasting a lot of time. But for me, the motivating part of the sport became learning more about the process and myself. Of course it feels good to win and to get rock star recognition. But at some point that fades – because of injury, age or just an off year. It has to be bigger than that. You can rave about how your hard work leads to your hoped result but one day that formula won’t work and you will be faced with figuring out why and how to keep going from there. I don’t wish that on anyone but at the same time I learned more from being in that position, the position of failure than I ever did from any win.

So, what motivates you? If you went to your next race and achieved your desired result how would you feel? And if you didn’t achieve that result – how would you feel? It’s interesting to think about that – and it should reveal your motivation. Would you give up or would it push you to work harder? Would you feel embarrassed in front of your tri club or would you look at it as a stepping stone to your big thing?

I think we can learn something from both types of motivation.

Those externally driven could benefit from finding something in themselves or the process more rewarding at times. It’s ok to be driven by awards, placement, recognition – but at the same time you risk a lot. You must be very confident to take that approach. You must truly believe you are still a smart, strong athlete if you can only run “x:xx” per mile or if you have an off day. You also have to be willing to keep going if you have an off day. If that one person beats you on your off day – can you move on from that and keep working towards your goals? Learning to temper their impatience becomes part of training; breathe, tick tock, just do the work. I find those externally motivated can get really bogged down in what others think, unrealistic comparisons of themselves, measuring themselves with the day to day ruler of pace, time, numbers, or simplifying performance to the formula of hard work= success. There are many more factors to success than hard work, so it’s not a failure if you don’t succeed after putting in nothing but hard work.

And those motivated by the inside can stand to get a little fire under their ass from time to time. It’s ok to be pushed by the clock or race the guy in the next lane. It is a race after all. It’s ok to race angry or really want to be first. These athletes also get a little too lost in their own details. Overthinking, getting in their own way. Sometimes you have to tell them to get over themselves. Remind them that being competitive is not a bad thing. Get out of your own head and get into the game. Sometimes abandon your plan and just respond to the race or workout as it unfolds. And by all means don’t make excuses or nice with yourself. If you didn’t reach your goal – it’s ok to beat yourself up a little. That is what will drive you towards the next thing.

In either case you need to be motivated to achieve. And it’s totally normal for motivation to fluctuate from time to time. It is easy to be motivated when it’s sunny and 70 degrees. Duh! Who wouldn’t want to train. It’s harder to be motivated when it’s 40 and pouring rain. How you react in those situations also taps into your real motivations. Also, it is easy to be motivated when you are racing and the feedback is immediate. It is harder to stay motivated when you are by yourself in your basement training yourself into this big “what if”. What if this works. What if it doesn’t work. Will it all be worth it? Again, think about: what is your motivation.

Using different types of motivation at different times of the year might be helpful. Right now I keep setting small training goals for myself. “I want to break xxx watts on my next bike test.” Each trainer ride I said that to myself and for my next test – I did it. The reward – for me was feeling POWERFUL but maybe for someone else it would be something external – buying something new, telling friends about their numbers, etc.

Today, think about it – what would get you fired up and keep pushing regardless of weather, impatience, time of the year, etc. What motivates you? And once you determine that, what can you do to stay motivated on the path to achieve? Ask others. What works for someone may or may not work for you but get some ideas. Look around and think it through. Find your reasons why you do this – and then think about how you will stay motivated to get there. Be creative. There is more than one way to stay motivated. And your motivations may change as the year progresses or as you progress in the sport.

To finish this all up, the athlete asked what motivates me. Good question. At the end of the day there is nothing more motivating to me than proving something to myself. I have been in this sport since 1999 – that makes me a dinosaur in tri-years and for all of my accomplishments nothing has been more rewarding than what I have learned about myself and proved to myself. Last year when I set out as a pro I realized very quickly I had nothing to prove to anyone else. This is my time. These are my goals. What anyone else thinks of them or me is irrelevant to the meaning I get out of all of it. I’m here to prove something only to myself and every day that motivates me.