By Arnie Baker, M.D.
Although cyclists may wish it were different, you don’t buy motivation at the store and take a pill of it in the morning. By understanding what makes you tick and why you’re doing what you’re doing, you may improve your bicycling performance.
What We’re Talking About
Motivation is something that causes a person to act. It is the ability to focus on a goal and work toward that goal, regardless of physical ability. It is willpower.
Motivation has two important elements: direction and intensity. Direction is the choice of goal. Intensity is how energized the individual is toward that goal. Intensity, which is related to psychic energy, is influenced by emotion.
Motivations have distant or recent origins. Some adult motivations derive from early childhood experiences— for example, trying to please or live up to a parent’s expectation or wanting to be fit to prove a childhood tease or bully wrong. Other motivations derive from current events—for example, the sickness of a loved one, divorce, inheritance, or a new baby.
Though it is not always necessary, it can be helpful, to understand the origins of one’s motivations. It is almost always important for athletes, especially competitive athletes, to have a clear picture of their goals.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Motivation of an individual may come from within (intrinsic) or from without (extrinsic).
People who are intrinsically motivated have an inner striving to be successful, to master their task, to reach their goal. Athletes who are intrinsically motivated participate because they love the sport, or, perhaps, because other goals are facilitated in so doing. Intrinsic rewards—such as feelings of accomplishment, mastery, or self-confidence—tend to be self-perpetuating and powerful.
Extrinsic motivation comes from other people through positive and negative reinforcement.
Positive reinforcers increase the likelihood or frequency of positive behaviors; negative reinforcers decrease the likelihood of negative behaviors.
Positive reinforcers—the carrots—include praise, trophies, recognition, and money.
Negative reinforcers—the sticks—include ridicule, embarrassment, and punishment.
Most athletes are motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. The proportions may vary greatly. Extrinsic rewards that are excessive or manipulating, and those that are not contingent upon accomplishment, tend to lose effectiveness.
Extrinsic rewards can also increase or decrease intrinsic motivation. With time, many extrinsic rewards lose their value: Enough prizes, trophies, or money will eventually fail to motivate. When earned for accomplished behavior, extrinsic rewards can be extremely motivating. Extrinsic rewards that transform into intrinsic rewards tend to sustain motivation.
One of my favorite stories about excessive extrinsic rewards concerns a child, Jack Miller, who comes home from school with a “Child of the Week” award. His mother appears very proud and asks Jack why he appears nonplussed. Jack says, “Aw mom, this week it was the turn for the ‘M’s in the alphabet.”
Hierarchy of Needs
On the most basic of levels, we need to satisfy our hunger, thirst, sleep and sex drives. After that, we look to our safety and security needs. Once our basic needs are satisfied, we seek to satisfy our social needs for belonging, love, self-esteem, self-worth, and self-respect. We also have needs for play, excitement, and avoiding boredom. Older athletes may be motivated by the perceived retention of youth and health that exercise may impart.
An optimal challenge or frustration results in the greatest motivation. Too much challenge or frustration (a task too difficult) reduces motivation. Too little challenge or frustration (a task too easy) also reduces motivation.
We have relatively little control over our genetic ability or talent, the demands of a given race, and luck. We have relatively more control over our own effort and preparation. Many athletes correctly attribute their success to effort and preparation; they often incorrectly attribute their failure to factors over which they have little control.
Why We Ride
Our motivation to ride may come from reinforcers, needs, or challenges.
Most of us ride for one or more of the following reasons:
- “Fun,” which involves stimulation, excitement, challenge, and creativity.
- Health and fitness.
- Social affiliation with others, belonging to and being accepted by a group. Altruism.
- Self-worth, confirmed by demonstrating competency.
These reasons all satisfy social needs. For some professional riders, it’s more a question of economics: earning a living.
Stimulation must not be too much or too little. The skill difficulty must match ability. There must be challenge and some success. Realistic goals are needed. Control of the scheduling of activities and events, and not always having “to perform,” keeps things fun.
Health and Fitness
Bicycle riding helps many improve and maintain their health and fitness. However, bicycling injuries are common. If you ride only for health and fitness, crashes may soon cause you to leave the sport.
An appropriate group is necessary. You need to be able to identify with your team and be accepted by teammates. Your local club or group of friends you regularly ride with may help you feel part of a team.
Self-worth, self-esteem, confidence, and achievement are closely tied. Goals appropriate to ability levels help maintain motivation. Competency, mastery, and success will be important.
Suppose you are a 32-year-old racer, beginning bicycle racing after a successful running career ended by injury. You are used to placing in 10K races. But bike racing is different. Different muscles are used, different skills are required, and different tactics are employed. You may have difficulty with self-worth if you start out racing against the Category 1, 2 Masters. Start racing senior Cat 4, 5, or Masters 3, 4, 5. Your feelings of self-worth are less likely to be affronted. As you become accomplished at your level, advance.
Coaches notice sport-personality types. Most of us are a composite of types; many of us change with time or coaching.
Like a toddler who learns to walk to be like adults, or a child who wants to learn to ride a bicycle because her friends can, some competitors are motivated by other successful athletes.
These athletes perform as a response to negative feedback. They want to prevent a negative result from happening again. They are concerned about validating their personal worth. Some athletes who find success become motivated by fear of failure and worry about not winning again.
Top-level athletes sometimes want to avoid the responsibility of celebrity status.
This personality type may be psychologically related to fear of failure and concern about personal worth. Unrealistic expectations can be a problem with these athletes. They sometimes break down or burnout when things don’t go exactly their way. Perfectionists find it hard to deal with setbacks.
These athletes don’t reach their potential and can be frustrating for coaches.
These athletes are aware of what works. They work with the truth to get better. Their egos are out of the way. They typically ask: “What can I do to achieve the next step?” They understand the need to work and that time and setbacks are common, necessary roadblocks to be negotiated in order to achieve their goals. These are true students of sport, and most coaches love these athletes.
What reduced motivation? How can you increase motivation?
Many athletes don’t consider motivation issues until they have them.
Anticipate that problems with motivation are common. Consider any situations in the past when motivation issues arose and how you dealt with them then and over time.
Most importantly, plan ahead by keeping your goals in mind, and remembering your past successes.
Century riders often get stuck when they see the final goal of riding 100 miles. Chunk it. Break down final goals into smaller bites. “A trip of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Make it easy to take the first step: take baby-steps. Racers often feel or think: “What am I doing here?” Remember, this has happened before. Remember, events went okay before.
We often deal with uncomfortable situations, whether physical (for example, a saddle sore), or psychological (for example, asking others for sponsorship).
We do better when we discuss our discomforts with coaches or teammates. Others, who have been there before, can share tips or perhaps they know a simple solution. For example, in the case of a saddle sore, a change in saddle or position, or an effective healing balm.
Whether, for example, an overuse injury or family emergency, motion toward a goal is sometimes slowed or comes to a standstill. This loss of momentum can easily derail an individual. The solution is to start again, perhaps with baby steps—no matter how small, and go through the motions of training again.
The learning curve is upward, but leveling off or reduced performance often occurs. Anticipating plateaus or reduced performance helps prevent athletes from becoming frustrated.
Not Into a Workout
Sometimes one doesn’t feel like training even though one is not injured, and one is properly recovered to do the job. Allow yourself to warm-up slowly. Try to do one-third of efforts well, and see how things go. Or do a couple of submaximal efforts. Arousal may increase. And then you may be motivated to work hard.
This often occurs when an athlete is finally face-to-face with a race or target event. Recalling past training success, bargaining to just start, or completing perhaps one-third of an event—to look at a smaller piece of the pie—often makes it easier to finish the whole thing.
Staying Motivating During an Event
Keeping focused and motivated midway through an event is a common difficulty. Fatigue, hunger, and pain all reduce motivation. Sometimes riders search for and seize upon small excuses in order to drop out: Out of food, out of water, saddle sores, or need to urinate = a reason to stop. Racers sometimes openly wish for a flat tire so they can DNF gracefully.
Racers who feel their chances are poor during the finish of a race may lose motivation to try for a placing. Since losing confidence decreases motivation, realistic confidence-building work before events helps. Clarifying goals before the event begins is crucial.
Recalling similar past feelings and one’s reactions at the time, breaking down the remaining distance into smaller chunks, and striving for incremental improvement are all strategies that help riders.
Deriving motivation from teammates can help. Sometimes you may realize during an event that it is not your day, but that you may be able to help your teammates do well. Focus on breathing, pedal stroke, and the controllable sometimes helps. Visualizing what you want to do, not what is hurting or holding you back may be helpful.
Summary: Get & Stay Motivated
- Understand your reinforcers and needs—why you ride, why you race.
- Set realistic, specific goals.
- Expect to be over-frustrated at first, or limit task difficulty.
- Get coaching or advice as a way to find the most efficient, direct, and intense reinforcers.
- Set up appropriate reinforcers
- Work on the most controllable factors—preparation and effort
- Get confident.
- Achieve your goals.