Competition is a rough place. In most sport, we are losing most of the time and this probably will never change. When we win, its part of the journey, a lifelong process of always getting better is in the works all the time. How then, do we keep an athlete motivated without him or her losing interest? As an athlete myself, I too find this question boggling at times.
Before we begin, this post was inspired and reinforced by a certain Mike Barrell, who runs evolve9, a professional development company and conducts numerous clinics particularly in tennis for coaches to further improve their skill sets and training methods.
This is a common problem or issue that we see with athletes. The process of developing an athlete is a complex one. If we deal with a child athlete, it means loads of parental intervention and we need to educate them on the rules of what can and should not be done or said to their children that may hinder the process. In working with an aspiring athlete, keeping them inspired and moving forward is a challenge, especially when they have had a bad run of results. This is especially applicable in sports like tennis, badminton, squash and individual disciplines and also applies to endurance sport in some cases.
The issue we see is that many athletes are told that winning is the final destination for their sport. Play tennis, aim to win a grand slam or the local club tournament. Participate in an Ironman and aim to finish, qualify for Kona, win Kona etc. Too many of us put a quantitative value to winning and this has now become ingrained into the minds and hearts of the athlete.
So what happens when an athlete statistically loses 90% of the time? We can tell you what the outcome is if he or she is not cultured properly. An athlete will walk away from each loss/failure thinking that they are not good enough or that the path is too difficult. This leads to disappointment, sadness and eventually the death of the fight. The athlete gives up completely.
I’ve always admired the masters categories of the Ironman races where 60,70,80 year olds are still competing in their age groups and have been doing so for decades. To me, that achievement is so much greater than just qualifying for Kona. It shows persistence, grit, determination, consistency and importantly, that they truly understand the journey is so much more important. They have truly understood the meaning of enjoying the process. If not, why else would they bother to compete at their age?
If we tell an athlete that our goal was to ensure they can keep competing well into their senior years, many would think we are mad. But this is exactly what we instill into each and every one of them. Yes, along the way, some may turn professional and enjoy great careers, some won’t and in some cases, some will turn pro and have “ok” careers. It is the last case that we worry about the most because they are the ones who will feel that they are left in limbo. And these are the ones that need the most help because if we were to nudge them a little bit on the wrong side, they fall off the edge and never come back.
So here’s what we do. We take away winning as a quantitative factor and reward the journey instead. Instead of setting one ultimate goal, we break down victories into small steps that lead to the larger prize. And when the larger prize is reached, it is reduced to part of a much larger picture or goal. So we set goals within larger goals within larger goals within larger goals so this keeps progressing forward. There will never be a place where the athlete will think they have done too much or too little but will always be looking forward to something more than they can do better.
Maybe its time we sat down and re-thought our objectives differently.
Fuel.Train.Peform is a website dedicated to providing elite level knowledge for athletes who wish to turn professional or are in the continuous pursuit of excellence.
Follow us on Instagram @fueltrainperform and hashtag us for a possible feature.