The substantive purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the utilization of external quantitative-based comparisons in the formation of goals or objectives will only serve to demotivate the athlete: these comparisons will, in most cases, lead to underperformance over time. It will be logically demonstrated that, instead, only short-term internal comparisons will result in the steady level of motivation necessary for the elicitation of athletic progress and optimal performance.
A Midsummer Day of Motivation
One early midsummer morning I walked, no, skipped, into the box in which I had been coaching at the time: today, I told myself, I am going to unveil the strength program that will change the CrossFit scene! I had spent weeks putting together a program that I thought would lead to “PR Parties” for the months to come: I thought, under my watchful eyes, that every member would finally discover that untapped potential which is so critical towards enabling self-actualization in sports and fitness.
The name of today’s game was my favorite: deadlifts. It started off well enough in the morning crew: a few PRs and a couple I-never-thought-deadlifts-would-feel-so-easy led me to believe that my new program was going to be a smashing hit. But then again, it’s really not too difficult to find motivation in the morning-crew of any fitness facility. After a morning packed with motivated shouts of glee and ringing of the PR-bell, I was certain that I was on to something.
Then the early afternoon crowd walked in. About fifteen minutes into the class I saw a dejected face standing over a barbell packed with the weight necessary for a personal record. Upon further questioning, this athlete replied “I’ll never be able to deadlift the same numbers as so-and-so, they’re just a beast: they deadlift like 200 more pounds than me”. My reply was simply: “Why not?”. As a coach, this was the moment that I realized a critical lesson: the greatest training plan will provide nothing for an athlete that lacks the motivation necessary for success.
The Problem: An Unmotivated Athlete
Let’s start by making one thing clear: motivation is critical towards the maintenance of progress in any athletic endeavor. Motivation is what makes us want to be better when we know that we’re capable of being better. Motivation is what potentiates an elite athlete to train for months in order to add a couple kilos to their one-rep-maxes: to grind away each day under the belief that small successes will lead to worthy achievements.
This entails two important components: first, that the value of the goal is worthy of the potential costs; and second, that the probability of achieving this goal is high. Concerning my long-term goals, I am motivated to eventually deadlift four hundred kilos because I believe that, with the right training plan and diet, I’m capable of hitting this number: that my capacity to achieve is directly under my control. Concerning my short-term goals, I am motivated to set a new 5RM because: I believe that I am capable of this feat; and that the toils of my training will eventually permit me to deadlift four hundred kilos in the future.
Then there’s the unmotivated athlete: we’ve all seen them and, likely at some point in our training, have been one for that matter. The unmotivated athlete will not possess the effort levels necessary to produce improvement in any athletic domain: instead it will lead to behaviors that incur the status-quo. In an unmotivated state we walk into the gym, look at the training board, and say: “No f—ing way is that going to happen”. We may even ask ourselves “what’s the point”: is all this toil really worth the rewards we may or may not reap through our training? One thing is for certain: the unmotivated athlete isn’t going to achieve very much.
The Proximal Cause: Comparisons Between Athletes
The question thus arises: what causes the unmotivated state? Take the previously mentioned situation involving the athlete in my box: this person was unmotivated because there was a quantitative comparison between themselves and a much stronger athlete. As soon as this comparison took place, the value of their short-term goal for the day was essentially decimated: what was the value in achieving a 10-pound personal record in their 5RM if someone younger was doing their 1RM for reps?
Regardless of an athlete’s ranking within their sport, quantitative comparisons between both themselves and others will decimate an athlete’s motivation. From the standpoint of the mid-ranking weightlifter, constantly checking and anticipating the totals set by other lifters can be a daunting task: ergo, to worry about what Weightlifter X has lifted or will lift in the meet one year from now will be debilitating for a competitor’s training performance. From the standpoint of the recreational athlete, quantitative comparisons will ultimately lead towards unfavorable value judgements of effort: ergo, “what’s the point in doing this if I’ll never approach the numbers Weightlifter X has lifted”. Even from the standpoint of the elite-of-elites, such comparisons will lead to status quo behaviors: ergo, “I’ve lifted more than anyone else, what’s left for me to accomplish?
The logical response to this would be: “But Mark, doesn’t your competition motivate you to achieve more? Don’t your rivals push you to be better each day?”. My response is this: my main objective as a weightlifter is to get stronger everyday. The maintenance of progress requires a certain sense of longevity regarding motivation. The nature of competition itself is both temporary and wavering in intensity: I don’t want my level of motivation to wax and wane according to state of my competition. Instead, if I am ever to reach my full potential, I need a state of motivation whose proximal cause is constant.
About once a week someone asks me if I know that my deadlift is close to some federation’s world record: simply put, I don’t care about the weight that someone else lifted in the past. This isn’t to detract from that weightlifter’s achievements but the accomplishment itself does nothing for me as an athlete. My value as a weightlifter isn’t linked to my relative ranking among every other weightlifter: the maintenance of progress is the only variable that one can control. This is why I am a successful weightlifter: my motivation isn’t linked to something in which I have no control over.
If one should make any comparisons at all between themselves and another athlete, it should be qualitative rather than quantitative: work ethic, technique, or demeanor are all qualitative characteristics by which one can positively compare themselves against another athlete. Simply put, I can change my work ethic, technique, or demeanor in a short period of time yet, it would prove difficult to add four hundred pounds onto my deadlift overnight.
When you step into the gym each day challenge yourself to only make comparisons between the athlete you are today and the person you were last week. Your goal as an athlete is a steady state of progress: can you get that one extra repetition compared to three weeks ago? Who cares what some genetic freak lifted in the past? Those same freaks didn’t get there by worrying about what every other athlete lifted and neither will you. Heck, if you can manage to remain motivated over a long period of time, you too may become considered a lifting freak: a collection of small steps over a long duration of time is the basis underlying every great achievement.
Thus, instead of worrying about what everyone else is lifting, focus your attention towards only yourself: it doesn’t matter if, twenty years ago, someone lifted four hundred kilos. Other than confirming the hypothesis that the weight can indeed be lifted by a human, it should have no value in the mindset of the individual. The only comparison that should be in the mind of the weightlifter is: am I better than I was yesterday?