I first thought of this concept when I was on the pool deck of a club swimming team working with individuals as they, one by one, jumped out of the pool for a short mental-skills coaching session. (for 2 hours I rarely have a break because of the interest these amazing athletes have in mental skills development)
Many want to know how they can strengthen their levels of confidence, reduce anxiety, mentally prepare for their races, or move on from a discouraging race.
However, the most often asked question is, “Shaun how do I stay motivated?”
This is an understandable question because most of these athletes train and compete year round. Fatigue, questions about what is being missed out on, and sacrifice lurk under the surface and grow intensely during times of disappointment and discouragement.
Because of the sheer numbers of athletes asking this question I was forced to dig deep and figure out how to respond responsibly to this important question.
What follows is my response:
First, I AFFIRM the athlete for being vulnerable and honest about how they are feeling about the work needed to continue to progress in the sport (after I affirm them tears are not uncommon). Many of these athletes have believed LACKING MOTIVATION was a sign of weakness. I often tell them that I am amazed at their dedication, commitment, and sacrifice. I also tell them I am not shocked by their struggle with motivation. Lacking motivation is not a sign of weakness!
Second, I ask them an important question, “What is your expectation for motivation? In other words, do you expect to be excited, motivated, and energetic every day?" The shocking truth is YES. They are carrying the burden of expectation believing that they SHOULD BE HIGHLY MOTIVATED every day! Unpacking this I find out that they have been carrying this for a long time...the myth of daily motivation.
Third, I ask them, “What if you did not have to be HIGHLY MOTIVATED all the time?” A big sigh of relief is experienced right at that moment! But, the sigh is followed by a BIGGER QUESTION, “Shaun what do I do then? If I do not have to be motivated all the time, how will I ever get where I want to go?”
Fourth, I bring them through a series of questions that focus on the VALUE OF OBLIGATION.
Question 1: “Is there anything that you do consistently BECAUSE IT gives you a chance to SEE WHAT YOU ARE MADE OF? In other words, challenges you to reach your potential?” The answers vary but they tend to focus on doing homework and eating well.
Question 2: “When you do what you are OBLIGATED to do when you are done do you feel proud of yourself?” YES is always the answer.
Question 3: “Is it possible that coming to swimming out of OBLIGATION to yourself because you have a long-term goal is a good enough reason to come during those times that you are FEELING UNMOTIVATED?” Often there is a look on their face that resembles a new found FREEDOM. "I do not have to be MOTIVATED all the time?" they ask. I can come to practice because I am obligated to because of my desire to reach some ambitious goals. (Character is deepened when WILL overrides the need for COMFORT and path of least resistance) It is not weakness to come to practice out of sheer obligation. I believe much of what we do to pursue success in any endeavor requires us to act out of a sense of obligation. THIS IS NOT WEAKNESS. I think this points more to maturity.
To be fair there are times when a lack of motivation goes deeper. Chronic fatigue is real and needs to be assessed. However, more often than not the athlete is trying to come to grips with the MOTIVATIONAL IMPAIRMENT that is born out of a belief that they ALWAYS have to be motivated to reach their goals.
Let’s not be afraid to help our young athletes unpack some of their mental challenges to arrive at frameworks for engagement that strengthen their ability to navigate through personal challenges and come out on the other end stronger and more resilient.
To the swimmers and coaches at the AQUAJETS, I thank you!!!