Motivation. It’s what makes disciplined fighters like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre excel in their cardio, technique, and skill. It’s what gets you to the gym on rainy, traffic-filled days, and it’s what makes you do one more round, one more combination, one more rep when you feel as if you are at failure.
As important as it is, motivation is one of the hardest things to grasp and maintain in any sport; we’ve all heard stories of fighters and other athletes who seemed to be unshakable but somewhere along the line lost their spirit. Why are some of the most seemingly exciting things such as prize money, belts, or the fame that comes along with them, ineffective long term motivators?
The most successful fighters not only have good physical genetics- strength, size, good reflexes- but also good cognitive propensities, such as mental flexibility, resilience, initiative, the ability to delay rewards, and the desire to improve their weaknesses. Towards the end of a fight, fatigue, thirst, and pain can be unbearable, despite the hormones and neurotransmitters being released to counteract them. A fighter’s system can (and will) work to put the goals of rest, hydration, and healing above those of winning, competitive drive, and fighting well. Clearly, these things will have an effect on motivation; however, we can all identify situations in which we ignored our biological drives and acted contrary to them- like when we wake up at 5 a.m.to work out, or delay eating because we have work to do. Humans have free will, and regardless of the influences surrounding us, we choose our actions, interpretations, focus, and attitude.
Essentially, psychology recognizes two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic.
- Intrinsic motivation comes from inside the athlete- when s/he fights or trains because doing so is inherently pleasurable, because it is based on the enjoyment of competition, excitement, or improvement.
- Extrinsic motivation comes from outside the athlete and includes things such as belts, money, and fame.
It’s important to realize that neither type of motivation is superior to the other; they complement each other, and most athletes fight because of a combination of both. Interestingly enough, however, research has demonstrated that athletes who are motivated intrinsically lose some of their enthusiasm when extrinsic incentives are added. This sounds counterintuitive, because most people who train started out because it interested them; then, those who were talented, worked very hard, and wanted to pursue it further, committed to doing so. Research has shown that when athletes view their training or competing as external to themselves (i.e. when they believe that a sponsor or manager is calling the shots), they feel a lessened sense of determination, and their will to train and compete drops off. Like any good human, if an athlete feels like s/he doesn’t have a choice, it’s no longer enjoyable.
But didn’t we just say that extrinsic motivation was not inferior to intrinsic? Yes. It’s just good for different things; the effectiveness of the different types of motivators lies in your ability to apply them correctly. For example, anybody who’s ever tried to make weight (anybody who’s ever been on a diet, really) knows that it’s not fun. And there are other aspects to training that aren’t fun, that we wouldn’t do purely for the pleasure of it (sprawling drills, anyone?). But, we realize these things are a part of the sport; if we want to be in better condition, we might need to change our diet to include more protein and less ice cream, or we might have to do wind sprints or plyometric work. For modes of training that an athlete finds unpleasant, research has demonstrated that extrinsic rewards increase motivation.
How does this apply to me, and how can this help me improve my training?
- Take a few moments to identify why you train or fight. Many have automatic answers like, “to keep in shape,” or “because I love it.” Think about why you love it; think back to your best moments in training or competition- why were they your best? What did they give you? Think physically, mentally, and emotionally. Was it the adrenalin high? Or was it a feeling of success after you finally mastered how to execute a perfect triangle?
- Now, consider what you don’t like about it. The runs on off days? Focus mitt work? Think about what you can add as an incentive to improve your outlook on these things. If you’re not trying to cut weight, allow yourself some of your favorite food on the days you do your least-liked activity. By countering something negative with a primary positive reinforcer like food, you send your brain a powerful message about motivation. An extrinsic motivator can also be something like keeping track of, say, how long it takes you to do 20 jump squats, 20 squat thrusts, and 20 squat thrust jumps. Seeing your improvement in black and white is highly motivating. One thing to note- your extrinsic reinforcer should be something you can give yourself that day; i.e. don’t save up your “positives” to buy that rash guard you’ve been wanting. The key between pairing the negative and positive to improve motivation is immediacy.