This information has been obtained via my own trial and error over my life's successes and failures, as well as from motivation courses I've attended. This isn't just motivational platitudes but things that have worked for me. It may not work for you in the same way but should at least guide you in the right direction.
Motivational changes are normal and occur for everyone at some point. High level athletes are not immune and have had many lulls over their career. One aspect of their success is that they understand their own motivations and can identify when it changes.
If you can understand what triggers a change in motivation you have more control over how to handle it and remain motivated when things get tough. To begin it is best to figure out what it feels like to be highly motivated.
Think about your behaviour and how you feel when you are highly motivated and performing at your best. Grab a piece of paper or open a text editor on your computer and pick a situation you experienced high motivation. Write down how you felt, describe your attitude and actions, jot down any thoughts you recall having at that time.
This process establishes a target of where you want to be. You have already been at this highly motivated peak so emulating that in the future can get you out of your funk.
For me this was at the 2013 Australian BJJ Championships. I travelled to Sydney and at the time my coach was unavailable to join me. I was the only representative of my gym but thankfully my wife was with me. I entered in my weight division and the open weight division as I wasn't going all that way to come back empty handed. I remember thinking I wouldn't let down my coach by not performing at my best. The morning of the event I was calm and joking around with my wife. The hotel was a 20 minute walk from the venue and from the moment I saw other people walking around with gym bags my brain switched into combat mode. I didn't speak and had laser focus. I visualised my fights from the point of walking on the mat, going over taking my opponents to the ground and submitting them in a variety of methods. I saw their counters to my moves and saw how I could capitalise on that. In short I dissected the fight and its multiple avenues before even seeing the venue.
During the fights themselves there were several times my opponents gained the upper hand, but I didn't think negatively . I knew I could escape the situation and turned their initial minor victories into crushing defeats. One of my opponents was up on points by a large margin until I quickly escaped a tight submission, countered while he scrambled to retain hold and choked him out for the win. He angrily smacked the ground and acted like a two year old that was denied an ice-cream. That served to fuel my calm as even if I lost the next match I refused to behave like an ungrateful infant. Dealing with defeat is hard but you still need to face yourself in the mirror.
Being at a motivational high ensured my techniques were razor sharp, that I could clinically setup my opponents and I could react quicker. My dual victory at the event was in no small part due to the high motivation I had to win. Now that I have that understanding, I can aim to repeat that in the future whenever I'm low.
Everyone experiences lows and it greatly affects performance. There are many factors for low motivation including injury, anxiety, stress from work, personal conflicts, a slump in performance, other athletes outperforming you and vastly more.
At low motivation something in the situation needs to change. BJJ has taught me a lot but a key aspect is that moving an obstacle such as a strong opponent's arm is prohibitively exhausting. But moving yourself into a different angle of attack can expose a weakness. Imagine two people pushing against each other with all their might. There is no movement in either direction as the forces are equal. You can't make any headway, but if you stop pushing back and pivot to the side their force propels them into the area you vacated. Their power is focussed forward but you are now attacking from the side.
At times of low motivation you need to pivot to the side and tackle the problem from a different angle.
Identifying when your motivation is waning before you hit the bottom is important. Escaping a submission at its most effective point is damn hard. Recognising when you are in danger of being submitted and countering before you are in trouble is the key to staying in the game. You may not win from escaping but you definitely won't lose. Staying in the game means you still have a shot at victory, and I've won many competitions against dominant opponents by simply staying in the game until I could find a chink in their armour.
Understanding yourself during periods of low motivation help you make effective decisions and move toward positive activities to enhance that situation. After you have a negative thought or action think of better ways you can handle it in the future.
Read over these examples of some low motivation thoughts and mark down all that you have experienced:
- I'm not sure I can do that
- I'm too injured
- I have no energy
- I'm bored
- Why wasn't I selected for the team? I must be useless
- My coach is pushing me too hard
- My partners are improving far quicker than me
- My time training is interfering with my relationship and friends
- Work is really hectic right now and I can't focus on sports
- I'm doing everything wrong
- I'm not getting enough attention from the coach
- I'm not good at this sport
- This is too hard
- I should retire
- I'm not having any fun
- Is this the right thing for me at this point in my life?
What am I thinking?
Motivation is all in your head. The body will move when the mind tells it to. You can push through obstacles with determination when your body is weak. So figuring out how and what you think are critical to identifying highs and lows and how to address any problems.
I've thought some very negative things during training sessions. I've though its boring as I have done the repetitions a thousand times. I've bummed myself out knowing I'm overweight or unfit. I've been tired and wanted to find an excuse to stop the training session, even if it meant faking an injury.
If I let each of these negative thoughts affect me I wouldn't train at all. In every case I found a way to push through in part due to my stubborn nature. I'm not saying I'm immune to low motivation, I've spent months in a funk and struggled to extract myself. But stray thoughts like these should trigger a response and are an opportunity to self evaluate. Has something altered in your life adding pressure? Are you physically exhausted and need a break for a few days? Has your diet changed, or should it change? Are you stepping up your training and haven't taken all factors into account for time, effort and energy requirements?
Your coaches and senior students can help with many of these. I guarantee they have had very similar issues and can help.
What we think will influence how we feel. If we think negatively then the feelings will follow suit. This is why we need to realise what we think and change it before it affects us further. Often when I have these negative thoughts I immediately shout NO in my mind and rework the thought. This stops it impacting my feelings in any substantial way.
For example if I've put on 3kg I might think I'm fat and I can't do this anymore. I would then shout NO to myself and change the thought to "I'm going to alter my meals for tomorrow." This way I didn't give the depressed feeling a chance to settle and I made an action plan for fixing the situation. I may fail in the execution or I may succeed but as long as I identify the red flags and do something to halt negativity in its tracks, I can refocus.
I've found there is a small delay between having a thought and experiencing a related emotion. By immediately denying the thought and changing it to something positive you can stave off feelings that will alter your actions. This needs to occur as close to the point of the negative thought as possible, otherwise the feelings kick in and cause additional negativity.
The below are some examples of feelings that can greatly impact motivation. If you are experiencing any of them try to figure out its source and address the issue. The feeling was likely seeded by a stray thought and took root to weaken your wall of motivation.
How you think and feel in a given situation influence how you react and behave. This may cause changes related to performance that are helpful or a hindrance. Obviously you want to do whatever is helpful and avoid self sabotage.
I've mentioned that thoughts lead to feelings, which alter actions. The inverse is true as well, so changing your behaviour can tackle your negative thoughts and emotions from a different angle.
The following shows a short selection of negative and positive behaviours that you may have done or witnessed in others. Recognising your behaviour as negative is the first step to making positive change.
|Negative Behaviours||Positive Behaviours|
|-Minimal effort and intensity at training||-Fully engaged and high training effort|
|-Skipped weights leg day||-Hunted for more challenging tasks|
|-Left training early to avoid speaking with the coach||-Was candid with coach about my problem areas and discussed extensively|
|-Angry at self for failing to understand a technique||-Aided others when the coach was occupied elsewhere|
Now that we can identify our behaviour we can work on ensuring it's as positive as possible. I have often experienced negative thoughts, feelings and behaviour during training. Mostly I have been able to get around them by focusing on my goals (refer here for advice on goal setting). I also have the benefit of world champion fighters and an Olympic wrestler as coaches. I don't want them to think I'm wasting their time and effort training me, so push through my negativity to avoid their disappointment.
Those that know me well understand I have difficulty meeting new people and am uncomfortable in social interactions especially where there are a lot of strangers. I am horrible at small talk and quickly slip into silence. When I speak to people I speak with a purpose so cut through all the unnecessary chit chat. That can make me seem abrupt at times. The reason I'm telling you this is because this is a normal behaviour for me. I try to make an effort by noticing when I behave in this way and go out of my way to make minimal small talk before I get down to business. For me this is very hard. Sincerity is difficult to fake so I have to actually be sincere in asking how your day was and be interested in your answer.
The thing I have found with doing this is its easier each time. I began thinking about how I influence others and what I can do as a team member. I ask my coach how I can help others and how I can improve advising during and after a fight. I'm not only focussed on my own training but want to see my team mates succeed. Identifying my undesired behaviour and seeking change influenced how I think and feel and now I am a better instructor because of it.
Factors affecting motivation
Clearly understanding the typical situations, thoughts, feelings and behaviours occurring when you're motivation is low allows you to enhance your motivation in future. Work to alter at least one aspect so you can influence the others. Again we can pivot to the side and tackle the problem from a different angle. The main changes we can make are generally: to your environment; to your thoughts about the situation; or to your behaviour.
Making one of these alterations when your motivation is low will aid in taking control over yourself and enhance your motivation.
Visualise your goals. Stop thinking about performing badly or not having enough energy. Remember you are training against yourself. Coaches are here to help you achieve your goals, not berate you for failing. We all lose motivation at times, and we all have poor performance days. As long as you keep striving to do better, you will.
You will often feel like you are under performing and set a lot of pressure on yourself to improve. You aren't performing as poorly as you feel. We are our own worst critic. Remove your feelings of guilt for under performing. Not all training sessions can be at your maximum output. We need time to recover, time to reflect and re-align goals.
If you are frustrated by performing a techinque in a suboptimal way, just go with it and try again. That is why we rep. You don't need it perfect everytime, but we do continually strive to improve from the last few reps. If you get one or two wrong, you will fix it on the next. Don't behave as if its the end of the world. Focussing on the negative will waste your time as you vent anger and frustration. Instead simply accept it wasn't the best version and improve upon it in the next rep. To align this with weight loss, each meal is a new rep. Each day or week is a new set of reps. Accept the past and strive for doing better next time.
As my coach says, we should be unrelenting in our unattainable pursuit of perfection. It is impossible to achieve pure perfection but that doesn't mean we can't skim the edge of it.
Periods of low motivation are normal for everyone throughout their life. Learn to recognise these periods and their corresponding thoughts, feelings and behaviours as this helps to effectively manage motivation when the going gets tough. Those that can recognise low periods and take positive action have the most success.
Remind yourself to achieve success rather than simply avoid failure.
Thoughts, feeling and behaviours influence each other. If they are all negative, change one of them to improve the rest.
Change the angle of attack to get a different grasp of the issue.
Examine old thinking habits and open yourself to new experiences and challenges. You will be surprised at how far you can reach.