Article written by Elizabeth Holmes
Whether you’ve been an athlete for years, are just starting your venture in strength training, or want to live an overall healthier lifestyle, at some point you will likely confront an absence of motivation. Taking the time not only to recognize but also examine your initial motivation, where it came from, why you want to achieve the goals you’ve set out for yourself, and how practical your goals are will be greatly beneficial in making lasting change and seeing growth. By reexamining what your big picture is, your goals become more tangible and your motivation turns to habit, discipline, and success over time. In sport, but also in life, we tend to be most successful when following a plan that allows flexibility within specific constraints. Knowing that your motivation will likely shift over time and being prepared to adjust your goals and anticipate their completion will also help in establishing new goals and develop goal oriented habits.
New beginnings and the establishment of habits often come with mixed feelings of excitement and novelty as well as fear of change. Change is uncomfortable. No matter how much we may need it, the mind and body resist change because it creates imbalance in homeostasis making adherence such a challenge. Typically, when we are trying to problem solve we look at tools we’ve used in the past. By discovering new tools and strategies in the present to overcome obstacles, we enter a state of novelty which in its truest form is a state of mindfulness, exploration, and relaxation. Biologically, entering a state of novelty reduces stress hormones including cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine while secreting dopamine, a pleasure receptor. There is no likelihood of being simultaneously mindful and obsessive, you have either one or the other. Mindfulness is not only an excellent coping strategy to reduce obsessive thinking but also allows you to focus on the present, seek discovery, and see opportunity clearly.
Athlete or not, we all have easy and hard days; days when you’re straight killing it and days when you’re simply going through the motions. The distinct difference between a hard day and easy day is effortlessness; you feel your most happy, confident, highest self-able to meet challenges head on and mediate any dilemma that comes your way. More often than not, this is when the foundations of nutrition, sleep, hydration, personal life and social life are in harmony.
Nevertheless, there must be days when you’re just going through the motions to teach yourself that you can grind through the BS. Sometimes dragging through the mud for a little while is the only way to come to terms with how awful it feels fighting through a workout being sick, angry, or distracted. It doesn’t take long to be in that headspace and realize that sacrificing performance isn’t worth the setback of achieving monster goals.
Working out only when you feel a certain way is one of the biggest disservices you can do yourself. Only training when you’re happy can be just as limiting as only training when you’re pissed off. Expecting some off- training days and adapting to it in a controlled manner every once in a while, being aware that it’s only temporary is extremely powerful. If you can leave the gym without feeling completely defeated means you’ve won. This is a pinnacle point where your inner warrior is tested and you face the question of: “Can I use this pain and frustration as motivation to see what I’m truly made of?”
Motivation sparks change, which won’t necessarily be a lasting feeling. Motivation is the key in the car’s ignition and the foot on the pedal revving the engine. It is deliberate in taking the first step required to advance forward. Inspiration, on the other hand, is the driver of the car. It enforces the speed and direction. Inspiration is the level-headed driver keeping the car moving. Motivation is what gets you started and gives a reason to do something we wouldn’t normally do, inspiration is what keeps you going and has great meaning.
Considering all types of stress is important in understanding where or why we are lacking motivation. Unless you’re a high-level athlete whose day is spent training and includes the support of teammates and coaches, you’re probably dedicating 1-2 hours a day training 4-5 days of the week. In the overall scope, the time spent in the gym is just a fraction of your day, but the physical stress combined with stress at work, with family, or a significant other, piles up. Working through the emotional and physical stressors, those within your immediate control, can often combat the magnification of external stressors such as environment, work, and relationships that are out of our immediate control.
The body doesn’t distinguish one type of stress from another and the aforementioned stressors accumulate one in the same, having profound effects on the mind and body. The central nervous system serves as a protective barrier, and if over the course of weeks or months the stress is not reduced, injury or illness will be elicited as a signal to slow down and pay attention. Something must change at this point but having the aforementioned foundations of quality sleep, nutrition, and hydration will significantly reduce these incidences.
On a smaller scale, we also experience decision fatigue on a daily basis which is simply the gradual decline in quality of decision making ability throughout the day that affects executive function. Executive function is the brain’s ability to prioritize, filter distractions, and accomplish goals. Most people can make 3-4 well thought out decisions earlier in the day but the “fuck it” mindset starts to creep in toward the end of a long day. Although some people are better at pushing through, it still accounts for a mild stressor to push beyond that one more hurdle.
When someone comes to me looking to make some kind of life change, they tend to look for structure and order so they can follow a step by step routine. A routine is great in keeping you focused and on task but can become monotonous. Forming rituals to give reverence to a routine can make all the difference in managing and overcoming stress by giving a tangible purpose and sense of fulfilment in that particular act. When considering why you do something, ask yourself what it represents to you.
In reframing a certain act by associating it with intrinsic value, where it has value in itself and its usefulness and goodness just is, the purpose and outcome of that act are now based on enjoyment rather than fear. To put this in context, doing something as simple as brushing your teeth or making your bed in the morning, something you’ve been doing for most if not all of your life “because you have to” or “because it’s what’s socially acceptable” is associated with extrinsic value linked to less personally gratifying external factors. When you seek enjoyment in what you do and adjust the circumstance to you rather than adjusting you to the circumstance, you will find the depth in its significance to your life.
By translating this same significance to training, you can use specific tools to regain focus if you’re walking into the gym one day after another feeling distracted and unable to minimize the noise. Try to visualize yourself having just made a meal and you’ve just sat down at your kitchen table to eat. You’ve been looking forward to this for the past twenty minutes while preparing it and as soon as you lift the fork to your mouth, you get a whiff of something rotting in the trash a few feet from you. You have two options, continue eating and endure the nauseating smell, or take out the trash, come back to your meal and eat in peace, feeling satisfied.
This same concept can be used with training. If you’re distracted, you’re not going to leave the gym feeling like you accomplished anything unless you take out the trash. This temporary compartmentalization of thoughts from feelings will allow you to focus your attention solely on performance, particularly on more challenging days such as those when you’re learning a new technique or have a heavy lift. Going through a mental checklist and picturing yourself performing the lift with optimal form and technique before even unracking the weight is another way of creating an emotional tie with a decision.
By using self-talk, or the “voice in your head” as another tool, you’re able to put yourself in the position of the observer rather than the observed. When getting amped up for a lift, make a point of talking to yourself in second person pronouns rather than first person pronouns. For example, telling yourself “You got this” rather than “I got this” has a much greater impact in providing some vital temporary motivation through a broadened perspective. Finally, take a moment to think of someone you admire and look up to. Put yourself in their position and imagine what they tell themselves when facing a difficult challenge. While doing this, imagine their voice saying this same message to you while looking you in the eye.
Every day shouldn’t require this level of grit, so if you’re feeling like you can’t get off the hamster wheel it’s definitely time to take a look at where you are. This may require you to take a week off from training or it could be as simple as turning down the music or reducing your caffeine intake. Sometimes the smallest changes can make the greatest impact. When you practice moderation, and connect with your needs, you will find that matters in the gym and in life come with ease.
Beth Holmes is the Head Trainer and Assistant Wellness Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh as well as a Coach and Fitness Writer for Union Fitness. She has a B.S. in Biology from Carlow University, is a proud North Side resident, and amateur powerlifter with a bench press of 170 lbs and deadlift of 360 lbs. When she isn’t in the gym, she’s searching for hidden gems at flea markets, hiking, and drinking Americano’s. You can find her on instagram: www.instagram.com/elizabethbethanybeth.