How To Motivate Yourself Like An Elite Athlete

    Woman cheering at desk

    Written by Lizzie Simmonds

    Motivation. We all need it, but some seem to have it in shedloads, whilst others are found wanting. We all know people who are consumed by that fierce passion to succeed, remaining determined as life ebbs and flows. Others end up off course, disillusioned and demotivated after only the slightest setback. So, what is it that separates the driven from the uninspired; the passionate from the passionless? And how can we boost our motivation during these challenging times?

    The current climate is testing the nation’s motivation like never before. When the first lockdown was announced back in March, communities rallied together with a zest for life that was truly inspiring. People protected their vulnerable neighbours, held Zoom quizzes to connect with extended family members, and converted spare bedrooms into makeshift offices, so they could work from home. This was done with great energy and determination, and the message was clear: We will beat this, together.

    Seven month later, the latest tiered lockdown system introduced by the government has been met with groans of despair—more months working from home, more impact on industries who can’t operate fully, more time away from friends and family. It seems increasingly difficult to feel hopeful about the winter ahead. 

    Whilst the reality is that COVID-19 is not going anywhere anytime soon, there are still some positives to be found. People continue to find innovative ways of communicating, families are enjoying spending more time together, and many businesses across the country are discovering new opportunities to thrive in the challenging circumstances.

    As we head towards the grey winter months, it’s going to become increasingly important for people to build and maintain routines that support their mental and physical wellbeing. And when it comes to sticking with good habits, motivation is the key ingredient. 

    My background is in elite sport, where athletes have a well-deserved reputation for an almost superhuman ability to self-motivate. So, what is it about sporting environments that seems to facilitate such an unwavering commitment to goals and targets? And, more importantly, how can we re-engineer some of these factors into our own lives?

    Goal clarity

    Athletes, in general, are fantastically clear about what they want to achieve, and this can really help boost motivation. Even when faced with a huge setback (such as the postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games), athletes somehow stayed calm, and reapplied this year’s ambitions, projecting them through to next summer. Most are back in hard training now, focused single-mindedly on success next year.

    Many people think they have goal clarity, when they’re actually setting quite generic goals:

    “I want to improve my fitness”

    “I want to lose a bit of weight”

    “I want to prioritise my mental health”

    These are all great aspirations, but they’re not precise, and they leave the methods of getting there open to interpretation. When we’re tired, or drained of energy, these goals are unlikely to motivate us.

    Instead, start small and try and focus on habits instead:

    “I want to improve my fitness by doing 10 minutes of exercise every single day”

    “I’d like to lose a bit of weight by cutting back on the sugary snacks I buy in my weekly shop”

    “I want to prioritise my mental health by doing ten minutes of journaling first thing in the morning”

    It might seem like a tiny difference, but what you’re doing is giving yourself actionable things to work on each day, rather than an arbitrary goal that you ‘hope’ to achieve at some point in the future.

    When it comes to motivation, feeling like you’re making progress each day will give you far more drive and energy than setting a target for say, next February, and hoping for the best.

    Tune in to your purpose and values

    Another hugely important factor in motivation is purpose and identity. The reality is that on the way to achieving a challenging goal, we are often faced with hurdles and setbacks. If you’re only focused on the end result, it can be incredibly easy to lose motivation and momentum when you realise you’re off track, or not progressing at the rate you wanted to.

    So, as important as it is to know what you want to achieve, it’s also crucial to tune in to why you want to achieve it. Gaining fitness, or improving mental health, are sometimes concepts that are too broad to be motivating forces, but the reasons why people want to achieve these things are far more important. So, what is your purpose?

    “I want to improve my fitness, so that I can keep up with my kids when they’re running around.”

    “I need to prioritise my mental health, because I know it will have a positive knock-on effect on the relationships in my life”

    Giving yourself a reason to work towards your goal is often far more motivating than the goal itself, particularly if it ties in with your values. Take some time each day to identify the kind of person you want to be, and you will find yourself investing in your daily tasks at a much deeper level than merely ticking things off on a to-do list.

    Purpose and identity are some of the reasons why athletes are able to retain such high levels of drive. The quest for personal challenge, or mastery over a skill, are more powerful motivators than wanting to win a medal. Focusing on values and purpose also makes it far easier to overcome obstacles and setbacks along the way.

    Use your reward system

    Human beings are hardwired with very effective reward pathways in our brains. Our dopamine response is the reason why we feel good about certain things such as food, achievement, positive feedback and social media likes!

    Habits stick when we are able to hardwire our brain to feel good about them. This isn’t always easy to do—going for a run on a dark morning is not particularly inviting, and giving up bad (but pleasurable) habits such as smoking, drinking, or eating junk food all day, can be really tough for many people. 

    If the habit you want to achieve doesn’t make you feel good, then you need to make use of a reward system that does make you feel good. This might be using your activity tracker to monitor your progress, setting the prize of a virtual coffee with friends after a tough workout, or a couple of squares of dark chocolate as a treat after a day of healthy eating.

    Reinforcing positive action with a reward system is incredibly important for maintaining motivation. Athletes are lucky in this sense. They have performance metrics, coaches, teammates, and systems in place to help them feel good about their progress. Your challenge is getting creative with your own reward scheme! It’s one of the reasons why Vitality always give you a reward for living healthily. 

    Build your support team

    Finally, make sure you have a support team in place. We all (athletes included) have times where we really struggle to apply ourselves fully to the task in hand; to go after our goals, or even get out of bed in the morning. Having people around to support and encourage us towards our aspirations often makes a huge difference as to whether we are able to stay on course.

    Elite sportswomen and men are surrounded by such people (fellow teammates, coaches, psychologists, nutritionists and other performance staff) who are always on hand to help them get back on track when things are tough. Even the families and friends of athletes will undoubtedly become conditioned to support their loved ones through hard times, reminding an athlete of their personal goals, and giving unwavering, unconditional encouragement when they stare adversity in the face.

    You might not have such an obvious ‘team’ to rely on, but whatever your pursuit, you’ll have a number of people who have the power to influence your daily behaviour and motivation. Once you know what you need in order to pursue your goals in earnest, make sure you let others know how they can help you. There are very few of us who can achieve success alone, but it is ultimately your responsibility to find and use your own motivators!

    Athletes are unique, yes. But they don’t have magical powers. They just have a set of habits and processes that allow them to push through adversity and continue striving towards their goals. Thinking and acting like an elite athlete can help you stay motivated during these challenging times too.

    For more of Lizzie’s expertise and opinion, read her blog Postponing The Tokyo Olympic And Paralympic Games: The Impact On Elite Sport.

    Lizzie Simmonds

    Lizzie enjoyed a long career as an international swimmer, securing medals at Commonwealth, European and World Championship level. She also competed for Team GB at two Olympic Games, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, where she finished sixth and fourth respectively. She retired from professional competition in 2018, but still holds influence within the sporting sphere, supporting fellow elite athletes throughout and beyond their sporting careers. 

    Lizzie is also passionate about health and wellbeing and is one of Vitality’s Performance Champions, delivering motivational talks and workshops, and inspiring people across the nation to get active and healthy.


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