September 20, 2020

Motivation, Commitment And Purpose

Zoë on the Harvard Columbia Traverse.

Zoë on the Harvard Columbia Traverse.

As a coach who frequently uses “brick-stacking” as a metaphor in training, it’s hard to resist a good, masonic parable. 

There were three stonemasons laying bricks, when a passerby asked them what they were doing. 

The first man replied “I’m laying bricks.”

The second said, “I’m building a church.”

The third added, “I’m creating the House of God”. 

The first man had motivation, something to do – a job. The second man had commitment, a clear picture of what the final product of his work would be. The third man had purpose, and assigned real meaning that transcended the action he was engaged in. 

While every day may not feel like we’re building “the House of God,” as it were, how can we tap into that purpose and passion when motivation fails us?

Even the best athletes struggle with motivation. It’s a normal part of being a human. You’re not going to wake up 100 percent psyched every day to lace your shoes up, and complete a tempo run in a snowstorm. 

Many athletes confuse not being motivated with a bad case of mehh, I’d rather not today’s. Some athletes will do their run anyway and still experience guilt because they’re not radiating beams of everlasting stoke.  Motivation can be a fleeting feeling, but commitment is taking steps toward your goal, apart from how you feel in the moment. 

Motivation, Purpose and Commitment

Motivation will come and go. What shouldn’t change is your purpose and your commitment. They’re all interconnected, but if you have too much of one without the other, it can lead to stagnation, burn out or quitting before you reach your potential. 

Motivation without commitment is inconsistent, but commitment without motivation is a fast route to burn-out. To bolster your motivation and your commitment, it’s helpful to examine your “why” behind running. Your purpose or your “why” is something that keeps you engaged and passionate about what you’re doing for the long haul. A desire to finish an ultra may motivate you for a while in your training, but your “why” will keep you engaged and consistent for years after you cross the finish line. 

Maybe your “why” is a deep-seated love of running, maybe it’s exploring the mountains on your own two feet. Maybe it’s that running helps you become a better parent, partner or person. Whatever it is, finding, and honing in on your “why” will help you engage in the process when it’s snowy, smoky or races are sidelined because of a global pandemic. Your “why” will fulfill you in training far outside of results, and won’t leave you feeling empty when your results don’t quite align with your effort. Each athlete’s “why” is unique to them, and finding your “why,” whatever that is and embracing it is one of the most important things you can do for yourself as a person and an athlete. 

How You Feel Now Vs. How You’ll Feel Later

Successful athletes pursue behaviors that will change their feelings. They do what will make them feel better later, even if it’s not exactly what they most want to be doing in the moment.

Successful athletes don’t wait to feel motivated before they get out the door. Less successful athletes fall prey to a pattern where they let their feelings dictate their behaviors. Their actions reflect their thoughts, feelings and emotions. Being stuck in this pattern makes it tough to do things that may not match exactly what you’re feeling in the moment, even when the behavior would be a productive one. These athletes’ feelings and emotions dictate their decisions and often lead to less satisfying and productive behaviors. Because they don’t feel like running, they don’t run, even if running would help them feel better. 

Successful athletes pursue behaviors that will change their feelings. They do what will make them feel better later, even if it’s not exactly what they most want to be doing in the moment. Even when I don’t love the idea of running in the snow, I know that bundling up and getting out there will make me feel better later. As not-fun as training may sometimes be, that low-grade “meh” is often eclipsed by the glow of pride after a good run. More often than not, athletes end up regretting runs they didn’t go on, but they rarely regret getting out the door and giving themselves every opportunity to feel better. 

To decide what’s worth doing, think about how it will make you feel after rather than how it makes you feel now. Using this framework to motivate yourself will help you feel more empowered and confident. 

External Vs. Internal Motivation

Intrinsic or internal motivation is the drive from within to run and train for our own personal fulfillment. Extrinsic, or external motivation is the drive we experience when we pursue external rewards like race results, belt buckles, Strava kudos, likes on social media or praise and acknowledgment. Both are important but need to be kept in check. 

With so many races canceled, many athletes are struggling with a lack of external motivators in their training. There aren’t many opportunities to check off achievement-based goals and satisfy our extrinsic motivation needs. External rewards are really powerful, and they can provide important direction and structure in training. But, without internal motivation, that flame of temporary motivation will flicker out and die whenever you don’t have a race on the schedule or when praise on social media leaves you feeling empty and alone. 

The upside of this is more time to examine your “why”. With the space to explore what running really means in your life, you can develop deeper, more sustainable passion and purpose in your running. 

You have more control over your motivation than you might realize.

You have more control over your motivation than you might realize. Passion, purpose and commitment are all instrumental to realizing your true potential as a person and athlete. It’s also okay if those feelings ebb and flow over time, and to know that the feelings that we associate with motivation are nice to have, but aren’t truly necessary for reaching our goals.  

You don’t have to feel particularly stoked to take a few steps out the door and give yourself every opportunity to let something amazing happen. Don’t waste an opportunity to realize your potential just because you don’t feel the way you think you should. 

Sometimes, it’s about showing up. No matter what.