In an attempt to help athletes reach their highest achievements in sports and health, I’ve found the whole concept of effort to be quite curious.
Regularly working on plans and roadmaps with athletes to achieve their goals, and, ultimately, reaching the finish line, I’ve come to believe that intrinsic motivation and desire do not have a place in high-level sports. In fact, I don’t think they even exist.
Before you stop reading, let me clarify. I believe that we should be happy with our effort, however, I believe that it is best to start with understanding what effort really means, understanding that we cannot measure effort. There’s a shirt that I own, and love, that reads “Effort is a choice”.
The individual choices we make instinctively are data points that we can use to “measure” personal effort. For example, your goal in a workout is to pick up the barbell right away every time you return to it. Over the course of the workout, you make that choice 3-7 times. You could say that your effort in that workout was good because you chose something more difficult and maintained that choice the whole time.
Proved myself wrong, right? Or not…
New example: you signed up for the Open and wanted to compete at a high level. You finish a workout and “win” in your mind. You put out the effort and picked up the bar 3-7 times, but you finished 10,000th in the world. So, although you are happy about the internal motivation you are unhappy about the outcome and where you sit.
If your goal is to compete, being unhappy with the result is good because now you have an opportunity to improve relative to the sport you are participating in.
You can make a real change based on data and not just personal perception, which is how effort is actually measured. This is somewhat problematic because we lie to ourselves and use Intrinsic motivation as a scapegoat; to settle and be happy with any outcome as long as we had our personal measure of effort set out beforehand.
With that said, having personal goals or objectives to meet in a workout are important and will improve your training and personal motivation by allowing intentionality on a daily basis.
Here is the problem though: no matter how intentional you are, if you have not fully felt defeat, how do you know where the problem is?
We’ve heard this in the stories of Rich Froning and Mat Fraser. Each suffering their own defeats and never wanting to feel that again. These experiences have externally motivated them to rebuild and rise to the standard that they set for themselves when they evaluated their outcomes, figuring out how to change and adapt so they could ultimately control their own outcomes.
Even Katrin, the queen of “be my best me”, has seen defeat and told stories of how she too never wants to feel that way again. Her external intervention made a shift and she came back after missing the 2014 Games to win them in ’15 & ’16. Perhaps the complacency of her contentment in her two championship efforts is why she has not won again and she has lost that edge.
To this day, Fraser and Froning will recount those losses and say that is what motivates them. They never want to feel that feeling again. The experience they had was extrinsic and uncontrollable at the time but has become controllable in the sense of how they handled them and used the experience to move forward. The point is to not hide behind “I gave my best effort” nor to wallow in defeat, but to allow the external motivators to shape the future by seeing the error in your training or preparation. This mindset allows each of them to improve on the next opportunity.
We will always rise to the level of our training and if we are happy with the effort in our training, we will not improve and the same outcome will remain our ceiling. Embrace this discomfort and dislike of the outcome, use it to learn, rebuild, respond, grow and change.