So off the back of a brief conversation in the twittersphere concerning a previous blog, Jo Carritt of Everyday Training and I came up with the idea of a collaborative piece on the murky and expansive topic of motivation and ultimately, athletic readiness.
The plan is to integrate Jo’s insight and coaching nouse with an alternative perspective from me in the hope of coming up with something worthy of practical application for both the coach and athlete. So here we go:
It’s always great as a coach when people come and congratulate me on the performances of the athletes that I work with, and as I’m working with ever more athletes within my local community, this seems to be happening with increasing frequency. Of course, I cant and don’t take all of the credit for their success, and am always fast to point out that it’s the athletes themselves who do all the hard work - I just provide the guidance and advice that enable them to get the best effect from their commitment.
There are a couple of athletes in particular who generate a great deal of praise for my coaching, and are widely admired within our community – widely admired, because they are widely known. But whilst they’re achieving great results and showing improvements that their peers find remarkable, I know that it’s the result of deep commitment and hard work…born of a true love for doing it.
These people live and breathe their training. But, not just THEIR training - they give they share, they talk about, they interact, they get involved, and they support others too.
During a conversation with an admiring friend of one particular woman that I coach, I remarked that .. “She’s not one of these athletes who’s all about “me” and “my training” ….” And this made me think – perhaps that’s part of what enables her to work so hard, be so dedicated. A deep love of the sport that she’s become part of. Or in other words…intrinsic motivation.
I’ve written and spoken a lot about motivation and goal-setting through the period that I’ve been racing, learning, mentoring and coaching triathlon. Sports psychology and the aspects of NLP that relate to it are really interesting to me and I read and think a lot about these topics. This interaction has me wondering if whether I might have attributed more importance to the GOAL than the motivation framework that it lies within.
Having goals with strong emotional resonance for season to season motivation is very important for most of us. Even so, I’ve worked with a number of athletes who’ve had very clear GOALS and a genuine desire to achieve them….but those goals turn out to be unrealistic for the amount of energy that they want to put into achieving them. As this becomes apparent through the coaching process, the goal is devalued and their motivation easily disintegrates. I believe that a big part of my role coach to help steer an athlete away from this vicious cycle (ie lack of motivation>less inclination to train> poor training frequency> results that don’t reflect progress towards the goal> further lack of motivation) and towards goals that are in line with the lifestyle and importance of triathlon within the priorities of the athlete.…without killing their hopes of course!!
For example, many people have the basic physical capabilities to qualify for Kona, (the Ironman World Championships) which is THE most common goal for talented long-distance triathletes. It’s what they’re willing/able to do to become the best in their age-group that sets apart those who actually get to wear a lai around their neck. If it’s a chore – and all coaches have worked with athletes for whom they feel like they’re having to persuade them to complete each training session - then it’s just not going to happen.
If the training process and trying each day to being the best you can be in the pool, on the bike, running the hills, in the gym …is what gives you your buzz, is what makes you YOU…then you’re on your way to success. And you’re a pleasure to coach!
But, obviously these clients are a small minority. So, how can I, as a coach, tap into this type of motivation in order to instill it on the more “goal/task oriented” athlete and benefit them? These people, on the whole are willing to work just as hard for what they want…and to invest in the services of a coach to help them….it just doesn’t flow quite as easily for them.
Is this due to the direction that their motivation comes from? How does one determine that at an early stage in the coaching relationship? And can we help to turn that? Or do we simply learn other methods to engage with athletes with different types of motivation? Are there “good” and “bad” motivational origins???
The first thing to notice is that motivation is a broad and multifactorial topic. Many of the questions raised Jo’s post are centered around different types or sources of motivation and the variable climate and coaching dynamic they might influence. To best respond to these conundrums, I'll adopt a broader perspective and focus on the idea of ‘readiness’.
The topic of readiness something I encounter frequently with my work regarding obesity and seemed like a unique angle to approach as it is often overlooked. For example, when an individual is considering dieting it is important to establish that they are ready, willing and able to undertake the challenge that lies ahead. Within the context of the questions Jo poses, there are numerous parallels that exist with the client who is looking to diet and the athlete who is considering getting coached toward a specific goal. I believe that taking the time to understand the readiness of an athlete can be the difference between a successful and exasperating coach-athlete relationship!
Why is readiness important?
First of all it is crucial to understand the importance of readiness. That is, knowing that wanting something, and being ready for it are not the same thing. Using Jo's example, I might really want to qualify for Kona. This however doesn’t mean that I’m ready to undertake and prepare myself for the qualification process. Being ready means I’ve organised my life to the point where I have enough time and resources to train and recover to give me the best possible chance of qualifying. While I can theoretically qualify without being truly ‘ready’, the chances of doing so are greatly enhanced if conditions are in my favour. This is so self-evident it hardly seems worth mentioning. But is often an important question we might forget to ask!
So now we appreciate why readiness is important, how do we actually assess whether someone is ready to achieve their goals?
This is where it gets tricky. There is no real way to know for sure as to whether someone is ready until they try. But that doesn’t mean we have to rush in without attempting some basic levels of enquiry.
After having established whether an athlete’s goals are vaguely realistic, we can try to understand if their goals exist for the 'right' reasons. Obviously this is tricky ground and I preach extreme caution around quarrelling with the values of an athlete (don't), but we know that engaging in a challenge is more likely to be intrinsically enjoyable and motivating if:
- The athlete is doing it for themselves, not for someone else (e.g. to prove them wrong - although this can be a powerful motivator)
- Borne out of self-respect and not self-hatred
- They have accurately weighed up the true costs of what they are committing to
- They don't see goal as a solution to a problem they have. (In and of itself, winning a race or a medal, or even comparing favourably to others in athletic terms won't make you happy)
- Is their goal or challenge personally meaningful?
These are all ideas worth discussing in preliminary conversations with an athlete. It is important to stress there is no right or wrong answer. But gaining a better insight into the reasons behind the goals of an athlete can allow you to assess whether they might be ready in a little more of an objective fashion. If all of their responses point in one worrying direction, it is not unreasonable to assume that there might be something else going on an that there might be bigger fish to fry!
Readiness, motivation and commitment
While its good to know a little bit more about the 'why', readiness is also about motivation and commitment.
While athletes are often guilty of saying what they think a coach wants to hear (and the coaches equally guilty of taking this at face value) getting the athlete to rate their motivation out of 10 can be simple way to assess their readiness. Compare their motivation now with past efforts. If they have a special goal, is there actually anything particularly special about now? If not, is there anything they can do to make it different right now? Again, a few more pertinent questions here will uncover any uncertainty in their desire to pursue a given challenge. A good dose of honesty here might save a lot of frustration down the road.
Commitment should also be discussed and is another idea that is often confused with motivation. Commitment can be thought about as how to how long motivation is likely to last. Lots of people can be motivated for a couple of weeks or maybe even a couple of months. But when the same sessions keep rolling around, and its deepest darkest winter our desire to train can fast diminish. Remember that certain 'favourite behaviours' are likely to have to go in service of lofty goals. Appreciate also that lots of things can affect commitment, such as the behaviour and attitudes of those around you.Is the wife, partner or family onside? Again, its vital that you discuss these openly and honestly without judgement. Its ok to say you don't want to be a world champion. Remember that everything has a cost. Are your life circumstances now a suitable environment in which to take on the challenges ahead? If not, is there anything you can do to alter this?
If any sense of ambivalence still remains, nothing beats a good old pros/cons style list. Sit down with the athlete or get them to write out what they might gain, and what they will have to sacrifice in service of their goals. As you can see below, written down in the cold light of day, my aspirations of heading to the big island don't stack up so well!
|· Sense of personal satisfaction
· Appreciation from peers regarding dedication required to achieve goal
· Enjoyment of new and sought after race experience
|· Consistent early morning training sessions
· Lack of social time due to extensive training commitments
· Loss of training freedom
· Financial cost of (numerous?) qualification attempts, and race entry
· Financial cost of coaching
· Holiday sacrifice for training and race weekends
So there it is. Perhaps more questions than answers and no clear cut way to assess the readiness of an athlete with absolute certainty, but hopefully some places to start. It is also important to remember that just because the athlete might not be ready now, doesn’t mean they will never be. Alternative, more suitable goals might even become apparent to both the coach and athlete by working through the process above. Give it a whirl, and let us know what you find! Whatever you do, leave your ego at the door, and be honest with yourself and your coach/athlete.