Motivation Strategies for Gym-Users: A Semi-Unthorough Guide

A few weeks ago, I received an email asking how to motivate women training for a particular sport both in the weight room and in sport-specific practices. My initial response to this question was “I’m not sure I’m the one best suited to answer this.” The response that ran through my mind directly after this one was “but I like this question so I’m going to give it a shot, right after I attempt to head off the disaster that is the beginning of my final semester in grad school. I will generate an answer in a matter of days! I promise!” And then I did not generate an answer within a manner of days because this semester has been of such a nature that I have cried because of it no less than five to eight times since it started. That’s right, I just admitted to crying because of my degree. This post’s place in the “confession” category on this blog has just been cemented.

Screenshot from a bench session. Don't I look motivated? Let's go do some stuff with my chest and arms and stuff!
Screenshot warming up for a bench session. Don’t I look motivated? Let’s go do some stuff with my chest and arms and stuff! Yeah! Lookin’ fine while we’re at it!

In the name of being confessional to an even greater degree, let’s go back to my first response to this question–“I’m not the one best suited to answer a question about how to motivate people.” First of all, being able to motivate others is, to me, almost definitionally limited. Motivation held by each person in relation to a particular activity is extraordinarily personal. Value systems, experiences, and personality traits vary widely from individual to individual and are all potential factors in how someone motivates him/herself. One constant you, a force outside of the athlete who is in charge of his or her motivation, can provide is targeted positive feedback. When I say targeted, I mean that you emphasize the long-term nature of training–in the weight room and on the field/court/whatever–and that the good things they have done and will do today are going to help them become something amazing they’re capable of being far off in the future. Every chance you have, you tell them that the road to excelling at a sport requires a long-term outlook. Emphasizing the idea that the athlete has great potential in the future and that this potential can only be realized by the slow accretion of effort day after day after day will help athletes who do not see themselves as something amazing right NOW see themselves as being capable of it in the future.

Thinking in this way relieves the pressure and frustration that can sometimes come when athletes see that they’re not performing up to a particular standard on a particular day. Additionally, if an athlete thinks in the long-term–we’re talking years–he or she may be motivated to take every workout seriously because every workout counts towards the amazing entity they may become in the future. I’m not sure I would have thought that thinking in the long-term would motivate me like it does if someone had posed it to me prior to training for powerlifting. The thing is, once I adopted this way of thinking, I got far more out of EVERY DAY of training than I had in the past. When you understand that what you do today is going to “add up” with what you do on all the other days, you want the product to be as great as possible–you want what you’re adding up to make a great a whole as possible to be great. That is how you understand the importance of the long-term.

After understanding the importance of the long-term, each athlete must then evaluate why he or she is engaging in his or her sport and what he or she wants out of it on both a physical and emotional level. That’s right, your sport is something with which you have an emotional relationship. If you haven’t come to terms with this fact, you’re probably screwing things up in your training–but that’s a post for another day. If you’re working with athletes whom you want to find motivation, ask them to determine answers to these questions for themselves. Ask them to re-evaluate these answers on a regular–say, monthly–basis.

I’m going to deviate from the question of how to motivate athletes for a second here to the one of how people who are working out in a gym to “stay in shape” or “get in shape” or “get fit”–whatever any of those phrases mean, they are meaningless to me. I’m going to get “ranty” here, and express an opinion that will at best be disagreed with and at worst piss people off. If you know me, you know I have few reservations about inciting either possible response.

When the only motivation you can find to get into the gym is related to your appearance, you’re in trouble. I respect that everyone has different motivations for doing what they do–I just based what I wrote above on this principle–but I will say, in my experience, that those who enter a training space who are driven by their appearance are doomed to a sub-par lifting career. Yes, there is the entire question of those who train to compete in aesthetics-based physique competitions, and I have a theory regarding their motivation and I will tell you, to keep things brief in today’s entry, that I believe many of them love the physical activity of lifting just as much as whatever’s going on with their body as it adapts to it. Again, another topic for another post, if I ever feel like it. But I will say to the “average gym-goer” that the more you embrace the activity, love it for itself, revel in doing it better–the better-motivated you will be to put in the hard work when you have to in order to truly excel. Because there are times in training–for me, these times are fairly often–when something you do is hard, uncomfortable, exhausting, not fun. If you’re doing something because of how you look or could look alone, good luck pushing yourself through the YEARS of training necessary to attain what is probably your goal. That’s right, you can’t have a “bikini body” like whatever model on whatever magazine cover in two months. In fact, as I’ve discussed in past posts, you probably can’t achieve a body that looks much like that one, period, because your skeletal proportions are probably not the same as the model whose physique you covet.

But if you learn to love what you do, and love that it will take a LONG time to get better at that thing you do, and if that thing happens to be lifting weights–you may end up looking damn good because you’re motivated to do it.

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2 thoughts on “Motivation Strategies for Gym-Users: A Semi-Unthorough Guide

  1. HOW to motivate peope to lift weights, and more of it regularly..that is the million dollar question!! most of my friends (in India) are driven by aesthetic goals and are only too happy doing less than mediocre weights for 30-40 reps, to get that “ripped” look 🙂 strength is the last thing on their minds, as they fear injury. Though i try my best to explain them that by using correct form they will only become more n more injury-proof..but they do not seem to agree 😦

    1. Great points, Tanay! Some people have very different ideas about how to go about strength training, but the body responds to only so many different protocols. And those who are interested in hypertrophy don’t seem to understand that hypertrophy does not always equal great strength, and one NEEDS to improve strength to improve hypertrophy.

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