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Motivated Thinking

Fitness and strength are just part of the equation. The head game of motivation and goal setting is just as important if you’re going to succeed.

As a physiologist I can remember back to long days in the lecture theatre listening to eminent lecturers discussing how and why the body responded to exercise and became a stronger and fitter unit. I was enthralled by the enormity and complexity of the human body and focused fully on understanding how it worked.

My initial beliefs were simply that if you were the fittest and strongest then you would win in whatever sport you focused on. Of course this simply isn’t the case and quite often in sport and in life it is those who continue to go about their business and make small and steady gains over the long haul that often come out the winners and succeed over time.

I have seen many very talented and gifted athletes simply give up and move on to other things when obviously they were given a great genetic gift. Conversely I have seen not so physically gifted athletes keep chipping away and go onto great things and great success.

What is it, then, that drives us on, to get up in the wee small hours to smash ourselves on the bike? What is it that makes some athletes give up when they are so obviously talented and others just keep plugging away, year after year? Motivation is described by Wikipedia as being “The activation or energisation of goal-oriented behaviour” and it is in understanding this and unpacking the real reason for doing something that we can enhance our own motivation and continue to make small steps towards better fitness and better race results.

Motivation is usually broken down into two Main areas:

Intrinsic Motivation – This can be considered as involvement in a behavioural pattern, thought process, action, activity or reaction simply for its own sake, and without an obvious external incentive for doing so. Simply riding your bike for the overall feelings and experience it provides could be considered an example of intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation – This can be considered as situations, rewards or punishment, both tangible and intangible that result in an external benefit. Tangible benefits could include monetary reward or a prize at the end of the race. Intangible could include things like adoration, recognition, and praise.

For most of us, it is a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that drive us, although obviously the exact motivations will differ greatly from rider to rider. Now, undoubtedly you will have noticed over the course of your riding career that motivation is rarely consistent, it ebbs and flows. For some of us, this won’t be a worry. For others, particularly those who are training for a specific event or who take their fitness very seriously, the loss of motivation can be a worrying experience. The key, I have found, to maintaining motivation lies in the concept of goal setting.

A quick couple of examples will highlight the importance of goal setting and its impact on motivation. Take for instance a rider whose motivation is simply to smash his mates – not only will his friends think him a tool, but this is also the kind of goal that can lead to motivation being lost very easily. The reason being, that this goal can be very easily affected by things outside the rider’s direct control and, if something external intervenes to stop them reaching their goals, it’s easy to lose the drive and give up at the first hurdle.

Another example is the type of rider who just wants to get better, get faster, get fitter, but has no real direction or major aim. Without quantifiable goals they can also quickly lose the desire to get out and push themselves. This brings us to the important concept of goal setting and the idea of “beginning with the end in mind”. It is often in this process that the mistakes are made and, consequently, motivation is lost. Goal setting needs to have several components to it and have some short, medium and long term objectives to work towards. By establishing these at the very beginning of a training program, for instance, we can start the long steady climb towards our objectives.

Short Term Goals – Short term goals should be focused on the next month or so and be realistic and achievable. A good example would be to set a time up a local climb or around a local trail and focus our training towards achieving it. This doesn’t mean that every time you go up the climb or around the trail that you try and set a personal best. Instead, set yourself a date and structure it into your program and in the short term focus your work towards achieving it.

The key with short term goals is to make them achievable; I believe that success breeds success and so by completing the short term goals your motivation will be enhanced and become stronger and stronger. Your short term goals should also be set with a mind to your medium and long term goals. By this I mean try and set goals that develop skills/fitness which will then on-flow into your next set of medium term goals.

For instance your short term goal may have been to achieve a new personal best on a local climb, and then your next set of goals might include a hilly race where this new found climbing speed could be put to use. It’s important at this stage to also be 100% realistic about your longer term goals – for example if you are looking towards a medium or long term goal of doing a sub-five hour marathon race in super hilly terrain but you weigh in at 100kg, then you might not be giving yourself a realistic chance of achieving that goal. If the race is in flat terrain, however, then a sub-five hour time might within the realms of possibility.

Medium Term Goals – Medium term goals can be considered within a six months to a year-long period and, as I outlined above, be a continuation of the skills and work we have done to achieve our short term goals. Again, to continue with the example above, a medium term goal could be to complete a sub-five hour marathon race.

However, it’s an important aspect of medium term goal setting that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. When establishing your year’s plans consider that there will be a peak period in the year when you might be in your best physical condition – with this in mind I would look to establish several races around the main goal race that you could also compete in. This method enables us to use our fitness and condition fully and if something goes wrong in our goal race or event it enables a fall back plan and another chance to succeed. This is often where athletes go wrong – focussing on just one event in a year can doom us to failure. A puncture, mechanical or health problem can always arise, leaving you feeling like all that training was for nothing. This inevitably leads to de-motivation and lack of interest.

If, however, we have another race in a couple of weeks we can refocus our strength and go and smash it. Of course there is also the opposite side of the coin. Giving yourself too many races can mean you lose focus altogether. I generally advise two peak periods each year for my athletes, with each of these periods lasting four-six weeks at a time. Racing every week can, and often does, lead to a “jack of all, master of none” type of riding. It is very difficult to have the highest level of arousal for a special race when we have been racing every week for the past six months.

Long Term Goals – Long term goals are those things we would love to achieve as our ultimate goal. You often hear the most successful athletes in the world talk about how they had dreamt of representing their country at the Olympics, or always knew they would win the gold medal from when they were children. Again the goal should be realistic and achievable – for example, you might want to top ten in your age category one day. These long term goals inevitably drive us onwards after the shorter and medium term goals have been achieved for the year and add to the continuity from year to year.

By establishing our long term goals we can begin the overall process and bring all our other goals into line to help us step by step towards it. Goal setting is such a priority in my eyes that it’s the first thing I get my athletes to consider before anything else. It is so important and vital to the process of overall fitness development and improvement, and without establishing our goals it’s so easy for our motivation to lapse, leaving us to fail and meander along without a specific focus.

Of course there will always be times, no matter how motivated you are, that you will simply not want to get out of bed and go for a ride. In fact I have often seen this happen just before the main goal is coming up for the year and you may find yourself in the best condition of your life, but, not feeling interested at all in the prospect of racing when you should be feeling on top of the world. Don’t worry when this happens, it is the culmination of many months and weeks of training and often occurs when the taper starts towards the big one. I often talk about this before it happens so that my athletes can be aware of the feelings and thus are better able to deal with it.

During down times I think it is great to draw on the motivation of others – teaming up with mates for rides can be the tonic needed to jumpstart you again, or just going out and riding your favourite trails instead of following a structured plan can also help. We can often get caught up in the process and forget the thrill of riding our bikes fast down some awesome singletrack! You could consider using other methods to help with motivation during these times too, like watching your favourite mountain bike DVD or going out there and buying the latest issue of AMB.

I hope this has helped. I am not a sports psychologist, but a coach, and I’ve found that these simple methods really do work. Over the next week or so start looking at the calendar and structuring your plans and goals for this year and into the future.

Catch you on the trails, your ever frothing Fenz.

This content originally appeared in the Australian Mountain Bike Magazine. Photo Credits: Damian Breach and Mick Ross

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