is motivation a negative thing?

Is Motivation Ever Really the Problem?

A few weeks ago I was working out in the functional strength room at the gym I go to when one of the facility’s personal trainers entered with a new client, an overweight middle-age male. I did not intentionally eavesdrop on their session, but I couldn’t help overhearing the duo’s interactions during the next half-hour. Clearly unmotivated, the client kept cheating on his rest breaks between exercises by going to the water bubbler or tightening his shoelaces, exasperating the trainer.

As a coach, I identified with the exasperated trainer more than with the unmotivated client, even to the point of imagining what I would do in the trainer’s place. And I’m pretty sure what I would have done is fired the unmotivated client, refunded his money, and told him to come back to me if and when he actually wanted to work out.

Thanks heavens I’ll never find myself in this position. The very thought of working as a personal trainer depresses me. Forcing exercise on people who don’t want to exercise—this is my conception of what it means to do this job. Although coaching athletes looks a lot like personal training from 50,000 feet, it is completely different in this regard. One of the things I love about coaching endurance athletes is that, for the most part, they love to work out.

Of course, “for the most part” means not always. It’s normal for even the most passionate endurance athletes to go through blah patches of flagging motivation. But these are rather different from the personal training client’s general aversion to exercise. The other day I had a conversation with an ultrarunner who was going through such a blah patch. He spoke to me in a complaining, almost self-loathing tone, describing the situation he found himself in as “a problem.” I’m not so sure it was a problem, though. Who says an endurance athlete has to be highly motivated to train and compete all the time? Isn’t it possible that, just as an athlete can handle higher peak training loads if he treats every third or forth week as a recovery week, an athlete can attain higher peak motivation levels when he allows himself periodically to slack off a bit?

I’ve gone through periods of low motivation as well, and although I can’t say I’ve enjoyed them, I haven’t thought of them as a problem. In fact, when I do experience the blahs, I don’t even think of myself as being unmotivated to train; rather, I think of myself as being motivated to not train. This may sound like a joke, but the distinction is neither semantic nor self-deluding. Oftentimes—not always, but often—perceived motivation problems are the result of conflating what one wants with what one thinks he ought to want. If these two things are disambiguated, the motivation problem goes away.

The worst athletic blah period occurred six years ago and was brought about by a combination of a nagging hip flexor injury and a mental health crisis that my wife, Nataki, was going through. Exercise certainly helped me deal with the stress of the latter, but I lacked the desire at that time to do anything more than an hour per day of steep uphill treadmill walking, during which I escaped reality by reading novels on my Kindle. Throughout this period I hoped and expected to make athletics a higher priority in my life again at some future date, but I made no effort to rush or force the matter.

If I could sit down and have a chat with that personal training client who didn’t want to work out, I would ask him what he did want. Probably he would answer that, although he did not want to exercise, he did want the benefits of exercise. Or perhaps (if he was wiser than the average bear) he would say he wanted to want to exercise, a desire I would translate for him as wanting to enjoy exercise. Either answer would represent a step toward a better solution than wasting his money on personal training sessions that he half-assed and hated—not a perfect solution, maybe, but a better one. More specifically, the clarity gained through such introspection might lead this individual to focus more on diet initially, or on forms of exercise (dog walking, pickup basketball) that don’t feel like exercise.

The next time you find yourself struggling for motivation, take a mental step back from your situation and try to separate what you really want from what you think you ought to want. Oftentimes—not always, but often—the way out of a motivational blah period is simply to let go of what you’d rather not do and embrace what you’d rather do instead.