CREATING AN INNER DESIRE
(Excerpt from the book YOUR PERFORMING EDGE)
by JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D.
Look around you, find your passion, see what makes you whole. To excel as an athlete you must be hungry – hungry for success, for results – hungry simply to become the best athlete you can be. It starts with a dream, but somehow you must be inspired, or you will never be able to reach your goal. We often read about athletes overcoming physical disabilities. Lance Armstrong survived testicular cancer and won the Tour de France two times. Marla Runyan ran in the 1500 meters of the 2000 Olympics while being legally blind. It is out of these challenges that athletes develop a fierce, burning desire to succeed. They need to prove to themselves that they can achieve their goals. Through these kinds of examples we can begin to understand that desire is sometimes more important than even talent or a healthy body.
The movie “Prefontaine” depicts the life of a running legend who had one leg shorter than the other and did not necessarily have “the perfect runner’s body”. Yet from a very early age he developed an insatiable love for running. Through his drive and determination Steve Prefontaine went on to break the American record in every distance from 2,000 – 10,000 meters, a feat never attained by any other American man.
Without a true love for your sport and a burning desire to be the best you can be, you will never be able to push yourself to do what has to be done. It will be too easy to skip a workout now and then. A coach or parent can give you support and guidance, but you have to supply the rest. Only you can push yourself when you’re tired, or make yourself work out when distractions get in the way. After Steve Prefontaine had reached the height of his running career, he lost to Lasse Viren in the Olympic 5,000 meters in Munich. The loss led him to consider quitting the sport. His coach Bill Bowerman told him: “If you’re gonna run, be at the track and I’ll give you the workouts; or if your gonna stop running, then do that. You decide. I can’t coach desire.”
So the drive must come from within, regardless of whether you’re a novice, a serious athlete, or competing at the elite level. The good news is that building and maintaining a high level of self-motivation is a learned skill that anyone can acquire. Motivation is energy, and that sense of self-directedness is one of the most powerful sources of energy available to an athlete. From internal motivation you gain the willingness to persevere with your training, to endure discomfort and stress, and to make sacrifices with your time and energy as you move closer toward realizing your goal.
Profile of the Highly Motivated Athlete
What are the key characteristics of well-motivated athletes? Through my extensive work with numerous athletes over several years, I have developed a constellation of traits that defines the champion’s mentality. Elite athletes do not possess superhuman powers or extraordinary qualifications limited to a selected few. The characteristics that make a champion can be attained and developed by anyone who wants to excel in a sport.
- Enthusiasm and Desire – Love for Your Sport: Top athletes have a hunger, a fire inside which fuels their passion to achieve an important goal, regardless of their level of talent or ability. To accomplish anything of value in life you need to begin with some kind of vision or dream. The more clearly you can see that picture in your mind, the more likely it is to become reality. Wherever you place your attention, your energy will follow.
- Courage to Succeed: Once an athlete has the desire, he or she needs to back it up with courage – the incentive to make any dream you dare to dream become reality. It takes courage to sacrifice, to work out when you’re tired, to seek out tough competition when you know you’ll probably lose. It takes courage to stick to your game plan and the relentless pursuit of your goal when you encounter obstacles. It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before – physically or mentally. It takes courage to test your limits, and to break through barriers.
- Internal motivation and self-direction: Champion athletes decide early on that they are training and competing for themselves, not for their parents, their coaches, or for the medals. Direction and drive need to come from within. The goals must be ones that you have chosen because that’s exactly what you want to be doing. Ask yourself, what keeps you running? Who are you doing it for?
- Commitment to Excellence: How good do you want to be? Elite athletes know that to excel at their sport, they must decide to make it a priority in their life. They make an honest effort each day to be the best at what they do. At some point you must say, I want to be really good at this; I want this to work. To notice significant growth you must live this commitment and regularly stretch what you perceive to be your current limits.
- Discipline, Consistency, Organization: Winning athletes know how to self-energize and work hard on a daily basis. Because they love what they do it is easier for them to maintain consistency in training and in competing. Regardless of personal problems, fatigue, or difficult circumstances, they can generate the optimal amount of excitement and energy to do their best.
- Being focused and yet relaxed: Champions have the ability to maintain concentration for long periods of time. They can tune in what’s critical to their performance and tune out what’s not. They can easily let go of distractions and take control of their attention.
- Ability to handle adversity: Top athletes know how to deal with difficult situations. Adversity builds character. When elite athletes know the odds are against them they embrace the chance to explore the outer limits of their potential. Rather than avoiding pressure they feel challenged by it. They are calm and relaxed under fire. Setbacks become an opportunity for learning; they open the way for deep personal growth. Dan O’Brien, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, knows about handling adversity. During my interview with him he recalls: “When I didn’t make the opening height for the pole vault in the 1992 Olympic Trials, there was no doubt in my mind where I was going. Sure I was upset, but I dealt with it and quickly moved on. That event set the pace for the next four years of my training. I was driven. I knew I could be the best. I surrounded myself with people who shared that same vision. I wrote my goals down on paper so I could see them every day.”
Only six weeks after the Olympic Trials Dan shattered the world record in the decathlon at the Deca Star Meet in Tolance, France. He went on to become the 1996 Olympic Decathlon Champion in Atlanta. Adversity fueled his vision. Dan says: “If you can see it you can achieve it.”
Guidelines for Building Motivation and Maximizing Your Potential
The people who develop these qualities and practice these skills regularly have the best chance of excelling in athletics as well as personally and professionally. Each of us begins at a different starting point physically and mentally. We all have strengths that we can build upon. Now that you have an idea of the constellation of traits that successful athletes possess, how do you begin to build them into your life? How do you turn these qualities into useful behaviors that will make a difference in the way you train and race? Numerous researchers in the sports psychology field have reported on the critical skills and behaviors of successful athletes. Below I have offered suggestions that have helped many of my own clients tremendously toward excelling in their sport.
- Generate a positive outlook: Direct your focus to what is possible, to what can happen, toward success. Rather than complaining about the weather or criticizing the competition, the mentally trained athlete attends to only those things that he or she can control. You have control over your thoughts, your emotions, your training form, and how you perceive each situation. You have a choice in what you believe about yourself. Positive energy makes peak performances possible.
- Visualize your goals daily: Put yourself in a relaxed state through deep abdominal breathing. Then, as vividly as possible, create an image in your mind, of what you want to achieve in your sport. You can produce a replay of one of your best performances in the past. Then use all those positive feelings of self-confidence, energy, and strength in your mental rehearsal of an upcoming event. See yourself doing it right. Then use your imagery during the event itself.
- Practice being focused and yet relaxed: Develop the ability to maintain concentration for longer periods of time. You can tune in what’s critical to your performance and tune out what’s not. You can easily let go of distractions and take control of your attention. As you focus more on the task at hand (e.g. your training form, how you’re feeling) there will be less room for the negative thoughts to enter your mind.
- Build a balanced lifestyle: Create a broad-based lifestyle with a variety of interests; strive for a balance between work and fun, social time, personal quiet time, and time to be creative. Develop patterns of healthy behavior. Eat regularly, get a consistent amount of sleep each night, reduce your work load at times if possible, and allow time to relax and reflect between activities. Develop a social support network of close friends and family, some who are sports oriented, and some with other interests. Learn to communicate openly; resolve personal conflicts as they occur, so they don’t build to a crisis on the night before an important race.
- Vary your workouts: Train at a new, scenic place at least once a week. Change your normal training schedule, even if only for two days. Try “active rest” by doing a different sport for a few days (e.g. hiking, swimming, inline skating, cycling, or cross-country skiing). You’ll get a tremendous psychological boost and probably not lose any of your fitness level. Put new spark in your training schedule by doing interval work, tempo work (fast 20-30 minute training), varying your speed and doing endurance work, rather than slogging along at the same old pace.
- Enjoy and take the pressure off: Make a deliberate effort each day to create enjoyment in your sport, renewing your enthusiasm and excitement for training. Don’t try to force your physical improvement. Lighten up on your rigid training schedule and exercise according to your feelings each day. Remove the strict deadlines and race dates which have been cast in stone. Let your next breakthrough occur naturally, at its own pace, when the internal conditions are right. Use setbacks as learning opportunities. Do the best that you can do, draw out the constructive lessons from every workout and race, and then move on. Look for advantages in every situation, even if the conditions are less than ideal.
Sport offers a wonderful chance to free ourselves for short periods and experience intensity and excitement not readily available elsewhere in our lives. In endurance sports we can live out our quest for personal control by seeking out and continuously meeting challenges that are within our capability. To develop an inner desire and maximize your true potential, make the most of the talents you have, and stretch the limits of your abilities, both physically and psychologically. Athletics can become a means to personal growth and enjoyment of the pursuit of your goals. Try incorporating the profile above into your mental preparation, and you can learn to live more fully, train more healthfully, and feel exactly the way you want to feel.