Motivation 2: in search of a missing mojo

Postcard on my desk - copyright: C.H. Smith/P. Arnold/Bios

Postcard on my desk - copyright: C.H. Smith/P. Arnold/Bios

This is the second blog post in a series on motivation – that elusive spark that can fire us to reach for new heights or can flicker out, leaving us flat and empty of ambition and the will to try.

The first post was grounded in a mix of theory and real life practice, though was a bit abstract – more about principles than personal stories.  This post recounts a more personal and really insightful discussion with one of my clients, in search of her “lost mojo” as she called it.  I found talking things through with her also helped me put in place more of my own journey in motivation.

To respect her privacy I won’t relay her name, though am conscious there are some personal details.  Both our stories are from the heart – so to be handled with care.

A Short Background: Mojo Aplenty

She and I have been working together for two and a half years, starting when I taught her to swim as a step to getting into triathlon.  She had previously been into marathon running, starting in her fifties and notched up some great times but then plateaued and came to triathlon looking for a new challenge.  So someone not short of motivation.  She’s been steadily progressing, moving up from Sprint to Olympic distance tris and somehow fitting in more training alongside a young family and a busy job.

She wanted to make a fast time at her local Half Marathon in February an early goal, with some big swim and tri challenges lying beyond.  We prioritised the run training through the Winter and all seemed to be going well, on course for a great performance and experience.  It was not to be though – a bit of a gruelling, heavy legged experience with a disappointing time at the end that neither one of us could fully explain.

Mojo Lost

She had a few light weeks of recovery gradually building back the level of training, aiming for the next adventure in early May.   But as she described it, something has been lost – the spark missing that in the past has animated and energised her.

As we talked things through, it was clear that the disappointing run triggered a deeper questioning – should she accept the ticking of time, resigning herself to getting slower with creeping age?  Is it worth all the effort, the juggling family and work commitments and always feeling under pressure?  Is it time to stop worrying about performances, PBs and places and “just go for fun”?  Yet at the same time there’s still a competitive yearning and sense of wanting to find herself at her best.  At one point she said “its all very well for others to say ‘just do it for fun’ but if you did great performances in the past it’s easy to let go – I’ve not come from there.”

False Choices

In this respect, it is noticeable how we often talk about our options as if they were either all one thing or another.  It’s either all about pushing for high performance or not at all and taking it easy for enjoyment.  The last blog post referred to Psychologist Michael Apter’s notion of serious versus playful motivational states, which might seem to endorse such a positioning of either one thing or the other.  But I’m not sure that’s right – and talking it through, I think the choice doesn’t have to be as my client initially described it.

First, (and not wanting to be too academic about it) Apter would say these seemingly contradictory motivational states are more like paradoxical sides of the same coin – that in the very moment of being driven by serious intent we also often seek to find a playful escape.  Conversely, for the runner in my client and in me, we will always have a more serious, seeking out something satisfying for its hard, focused application of effort.  “Just fun” isn’t enough even when it is fun.  Being true to ourselves means accepting both sides and using them together to get the best out of ourselves.

Second, we tend to make narrow, curiously selective assumptions about what these supposedly fixed polar opposite options are: performance is all about speed and places; fun is all about taking it easy and not caring.  Sometimes these assumptions are laden with a concern about how others will see us – what (we think) counts in their eyes as a respectable time at the ParkRun or Half Marathon.  But does it have to be that way?

Finding the Mojo

After a long discussion, here’s where we arrived in searching for the answer and the quest for the lost mojo.

First is a focus on looking forward at the newness.  Something Sports Psychologist Hannah Brooks (mentioned in the last post) raised was how our language can be unintentionally unhelpful.  We often talk about someone “coming back” to form, to where they were before.  As she pointed out in her session,  “getting back” is all about measuring against the past – rather than looking forward.

In this respect looking for the newness, the events not done before or the sensations and focus on the untried, seems to help rekindle motivation.  Now I have to admit my client is a bit tired of me going on about Carol Dweck’s Fixed and Growth Mindsets but she recognises the power of new challenges – after all, that’s how she started in triathlon: learning to swim at first in a pool then braving open water; building up bike skills and stamina; stepping into longer distances at triathlon … with amazing challenges ahead.

So we’ll change our language and look for the newness in each moment, each session and event.

Second, another influential idea that we touched on is of seeking out and nurturing our Element.  In The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything Ken Robinson writes about connecting with our unique talents and passions. It’s a wonderfully uplifting book, full of stories of people whose talents and interests didn’t fit with convention or expectations and so lay hidden, were thought of as odd or not fitting in and yet went on to extraordinary achievements, winning worldwide acclaim as pioneers in their various fields.

the Element is the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together.
— Ken Robinson The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

What a wonderful thing to know and have a chance to practise our Element, even if ours is on a smaller stage.  For me it was first in running then triathlon, but in all honesty never really in the career I had for 26 years.  Belatedly I now find myself in my Element: coaching people of all ages, abilities and aspirations – with a sense of urgency to learn more as if to make up for lost time and to share as much as I can of what I’m discovering.

So, if we know what we love and we’re good at it, the obvious conclusion must be to keep going for it!  Don’t let those false choices and preconceived narrow options deflect us. Connect with others who help us stay true to our Element.

Thirdly and following on, nurturing our Element brings us to a key point about what it means to be at our best at something.  I believe both my client and I can still be driven by finding the better runner/swimmer/… in ourselves – just that it might not be measured in times or competitive places.  I’m now thinking there is still a better runner in me waiting to get out  – he won’t be so fast as he was 35 years ago, or even a year ago, but he’ll have a heightened sense of running form (that he never had to think about before), be more in tune with his environment and will be constantly seeking out those moments when it all comes together in flowing, relaxed movement.

So we keep focusing on form, effort and movement (as set out in the Coaching for Confidence Learning Zone) that will help my client bring out the very best that is in her, whether in running, cycling, swimming – and let the times and places take care of themselves.


New Paths to Choose

And finally a reality check.  What happens when the next swim session goes all pear shaped and disjointed?  Or the next run becomes another slow, painful plod?  We can too easily feel we’re in a cruel game of snakes and ladders where any misstep takes us all the way back to the start.

Another idea we talked through is what I call paths: of catching ourselves when we’re on a downward path and being able to consciously switch to another.  I like to give the following personal example of me taking part in a ParkRun and being overtaken by others – maybe running with their dogs, pushing a baby in a buggy or with a style that the running snob in me thinks really shouldn’t be allowed and especially not if I’m being overtaken by it!  Before long I can be thinking “what am I doing here – I used to be faster that the leaders and now…”  “I’m too old and slow” and everything starts to hurt and become a weary, painstaking yearning for the finish.

What if I can catch myself in such moments and choose a different path? (And I don’t mean a short cut!) It could be a generous one of thinking how brilliant to see so many people of all abilities and ambitions, styles and speeds out running.  Maybe even offer an encouraging word as they go past.  Or I could choose a path of connecting with and soaking up the wonderful natural and social environment I’m in, the colours and life all around, the smiles and beauty of the location.  Or the path might be one of refocusing internally on my own form, relaxing the shoulders, feeling the hips come forward and driving off the back foot, of feeling in control of my effort and loving everything coming together in a balanced, fluid movement.  And without making it the goal, I’ve found myself speeding up and feeling stronger – though someone really should do something about that bloke with the dodgy style ahead!

The point is that we can find our mojos in new, less pressured places that are still true to what we love doing.  And most games of snakes and ladders involve relatively short setbacks.

So back to my client and ahead of her are some very exciting adventures, way beyond what she could have imagined herself doing only a few years ago.  I feel extraordinarily privileged to accompany her on her journey to the amazing in her.

Big thanks to her for being so open and for being willing for me to share this post.

As always please add your own reflections and experiences in searching for missing mojos in the comment box below.