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  • Alison Lincoln

Motivation - you can be too committed for your own good!

"How committed do you have to be in order to be an Olympic Champion? Most people would say 10/10 but in reality it is 8 or 9/10 because you can be too committed for your own good".

Rod Ellingworth, former GB Elite Road Coach and Team Sky Performance Manager

This quote was taken from Rod Ellingworth's book, Project Rainbow: How British Cycling Reached the Top of the World. It's an interesting paradox that you can be too motivated to reach the top of your sport.

In the book, Ellingworth relates this to the level of risk that some, highly motivated, cyclists are prepared to take. For instance, going training on icy roads (where the potential of getting injured in a fall is high) rather than the more sensible approach of hitting the gym and postponing the ride until after the snow has melted.

Clearly there are parallels for riders. Whether this is increased risk taking by riding your highly reactive young horse in high winds or over riding at a competition producing tension and delivering a below par performance.

"Quite simply less is more. I used to try too hard and do too much in the saddle. I was too animated in my riding and interfered with the horse. But I've accepted that what will be will be - I'm more relaxed and it pays off!"

Will Biddick, Champion Point to Point Jockey

But maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start by having a look at motivation itself.

It's a commonly held belief that you are either motivated or not. In other words, motivation is either something you are born with and if not, you will need motivating by someone or something. The reality, as always, is more complex.

Most of us are motivated to do things that are enjoyable or at which we are successful. More often the challenge is how to keep motivated when things go wrong.

Motivation is influenced by your view of success or failure

Studies have shown that motivation is strengthened when we feel competent and in control of our performance. This sense of control and competence can be influenced, both positively and negatively, by our attributions.

Attributions are the reasons we give to explain why something happened. Awareness of the attributions you make to explain your success or failure is important as they have the power to influence your motivation levels and your future expectation of success or failure.

Do you have an internal locus of control?

If you are someone who takes sole responsibility for your performance, win or lose, you are considered to have an internal locus of control. This simply means you will generally explain good outcomes in terms of your own efforts:

"my preparation paid off"

"I've worked hard on my fitness"

"cross country is my best phase"

"I find this level easy"

Using these types of explanations places the outcome firmly within your control and creates emotions like pride, satisfaction and confidence.

On the flip side when things haven't gone well you may find yourself using the following phrases:

"I rode like a sack of potatoes"

"I just can't do it"

"I let the horse down"

"This level is too difficult for me"

This type of internalising failure can lead to feelings of shame and incompetence.

Do you have an external locus of control?

If you tend to put your success or lack of it down to external factors that are outside of your control e.g. fate, other people or your horse, you are considered to have an external locus of control. You will tend to use phrases such as:

"Luckily I was drawn last to go"

"Today was just my day"

"That judge just doesn't like my type of horse"

"He never goes well on soft ground"

In the extreme, this externalising of success means you're unlikely to believe you have any control or influence over the outcome and this impacts your motivation - the "we only won because so and so dropped a pole" attitude.

Believing that you have no control over failure or poor performance can lead to frustration, anger and helplessness as you feel powerless to do anything to change the outcome in the future - the "nothing I do makes any difference so why bother" attitude.

Which is the healthier attitude to have?

The answer to which is the healthier attitude is not black or white.

Being able to view success as something within your control and unlikely to change promotes feelings of control - "I did this", and competence - "my training paid off".

Viewing a lack of success as temporary and within your ability to change promotes motivation - "I can't wait to get back to training and work on that" and a positive attitude - "I know what I need to work on".

When you make mistakes or perform poorly consider if it was due to a lack of effort, preparation, practice or anything else that is within your control. Whilst not nice to acknowledge, this will protect you from feelings of helplessness and frustration.

However, there is a downside to taking sole responsibility for your performance, particularly for already highly motivated athletes.

"I thought I needed a way to feel better after a bad day's racing but then I realised I didn't want to feel OK about a bad ride - I wanted to feel crap so it would drive me to push myself further and further".

A P McCoy, Champion Jockey 20 years running

There is a balance to be struck with motivation. You need to be motivated enough to take action, to work on areas that need improving and to put in the hours required to achieve your aspirations. However, there comes a point when you can be too committed for your own good.

Being too committed can lead to the unnecessary risk taking described earlier and also to over-training. Over-training is a phenomenon identified by sports science as a particular challenge for highly motivated athletes. It is the belief that the more I do, the better I get. The reality is there's a threshold beyond which doing more actually reduces performance.

In her book, Immunity: The Science of Staying Well, Dr Jenna Macciochi explains what happens when you tip the balance into over-training:

  • your immune system becomes suppressed and you fall ill more often

  • you feel physically and mentally exhausted

  • you start dreading going to the gym and training (in our case the yard and riding)

  • you feel overly fatigued, sluggish and useless

  • you're constantly nagged by little aches and pains

These symptoms are extremely debilitating and can take a long time to recover from.

"There is a fine line of pushing yourself and wearing yourself out. You don't want to overdo it. you just want to do the best you can"

Daniel Levitin, The Changing Mind

Making motivation work for you

If you enjoy doing something then you are more likely to be motivated to continue. You don't have to push, pressurise and bully yourself to be successful - but hey if, like A P McCoy, it works for you then go for it. Just be alert for the signs you may be overdoing it.

For me, Simone Biles, the American gymnast with a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship Medals (to date) says it best:

"at the end of the day if I can say I had fun, it was a good day"

It isn't necessary to sacrifice enjoyment for success - you can have both.

Yes, it's hard work; yes, some days are tougher than others and yes, sometimes you don't get the reward for the effort you've put in. But, ultimately making motivation work for you means accepting the things that are outside of your control, knowing that you can change the things that are, enjoying the process of training and remembering why you got involved in the first place.

"Keep things easy and explain to the horse how to use their body in a fun but correct way - don't take training too seriously, enjoy it"

Helen Langehanenberg, Olympic dressage rider


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