When I speak to companies and organizations about my Paralympic journey, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is some variation of this: “how do you stay motivated through the rigors of training?”
For a long time I answered this question in the same way. I explained how I loved my sport; how training was my favorite part of the day; how I was passionate about both my goals and the process of obtaining them, and how when you’re doing something that you’re truly passionate about, motivation is easy.
I was always astutely aware of the sense of disappointment that settled in the room when I gave this answer. I think people wanted to hear real, tangible things they could do to stay motivated through a new fitness routine or withstand challenges in the workplace, and my abstract, rose-colored response was not very satisfying.
Still, even though I knew it was the answer people didn’t necessarily want to hear, I kept giving it. Because at that point in my career, it sincerely felt like the truth; and if there’s one thing I cannot do, it’s stand up in front of a room and speak anything other than my truth.
Looking back, I know there were times that despite my love for the sport, motivation did not come easily – I simply didn’t have the self-awareness to see it at the time. For years, I believed that in order to be a successful athlete, I needed to be motivated all the time. So strong was this belief that I learned to feign motivation when I didn’t have it. Over time, I got so good at pretending that I was actually able to convince myself that a lack of desire or willingness to train were issues to which I was immune.
I’ve since come to realize that what I thought was immunity was actually denial, and with that came a more nuanced understanding of how motivation works. I now know that motivation ebbs and flows. No matter how much we love what we do, there are going to be days (or weeks or months), where we’re just not feeling it. And that is okay.
I think the very question “how do you stay motivated” reflects our society’s obsession with positive emotions. We feel like we have to be happy at all times, and if we’re not, we need to actively change it (or at least just give the illusion that we are). We believe motivation must be a permanent fixture, and if god forbid we wake up one morning missing that drive, we must embark on a manhunt to find it (or at least just fake it ‘til we make it).
Not only is sadness—or anger or fear or any other “negative” emotion—okay, it’s necessary. They are central to the human experience, and paradoxically, we simply cannot experience happiness when we deny our ability to feel these more unpleasant emotions. In the same vein, not only are periods of low motivation okay, they are necessary to go through for your long-term sustainability. Show me somebody who is relentlessly motivated 24/7 and I’ll show you somebody who will find themselves on the edge of burnout within the next five years.
It took me years to develop the self-awareness to see what motivation looked like for me, both in its abundance and in its absence. But the real work was—and continues to be—in accepting the fluctuation of motivation as a natural part of the game. That’s not to say that if I’m in a period of low motivation, I’m going to dwell on it. But it’s also not saying that I’m going to force myself out of it, and convince myself that I’m feeling something that I’m not. In almost all cases, simply riding the wave is far more effective than fighting or denying it.
While short phases of low motivation are to be expected, more prolonged periods could be a sign that something needs to change. In instances like this, it’s helpful to zoom out and think about the reasons why you’re dong this thing in the first place. I find that examining the why often lends itself to a resurgence of motivation as I become clearer about my purpose. And if it doesn’t, it’s a hint that I either need to change my why or evaluate whether it’s worth continuing.
Training can be a grind. I used to resist that statement because of that word’s negative connotation and my said desire to only view my training in a positive light. But more recently, I’ve come to be very much inspired by the idea of the grind. About showing up when you’re tired and uninspired. About putting in the work when not a single fiber in you wants to be there. About coming back day after day, even when the process is beating you to the ground. After a long winter of waning motivation, I really started to embrace this idea of the grind. I found that showing up and nailing my sessions – regardless of how I felt on that day – was really empowering. It made me feel like a badass. And that feeling of fulfillment ended up being motivating in itself.
So what’s the real key to staying motivated—or more accurately, to continuing on when you find yourself in an inevitable period of low motivation?
Simple. Show up anyway.
I’m not sure if this answer is much better than my previous one. This too is not an easy fix that people want to hear. But as unglamorous as it is, this is my truth.