Finding Your Why: What to Do When Motivation Goes Away

In the beginning of any new adventure, especially a measured athletic adventure, sheer excitement is usually motivation in itself. Everything has a learning curve that makes the beginning challenging, but almost immediately rewarding. Every week you get a little better and continue mastering movement patterns that usually lead to even more improvements.

After a certain period of time, things can become stale. Maybe you’ve attained all of you original goals you set, or maybe you’ve reached somewhat of a plateau, or maybe the newness has just worn off. The question then becomes; what is motivation? Where does it come from? And where does it go?

This lift was Clutch!!! #teamjts #virusintl #lift #weightlifting #beathletic #usaw #weightlifting #liftinglife

A photo posted by Donovan Ford (@dford_105) on

What Is Motivation?

I’m going to get cliche for a second and see what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has to say about motivation:

1.  The act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something: the act or process of motivating someone. (Don’t you just hate it when they define a word using a variation of the same word?)

2. The condition of being eager to act or work: the condition of being motivated

3. A force of influence that causes someone to do something

Besides the fact they use a variation of “motivate” twice while defining the word motivation, I like all three of these definitions. People are either extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. The third definition implies something or someone forces another to an action, but I would consider that an extrinsic motivation as well.

From here, you have to look at yourself. How are you motivated?

Do you exercise because your friend forces you into the gym every day?

Do you train for a chance to compete at the CrossFit Games or to podium at a USAW National competition?

Or did you choose sports because you truly love the thrill and the joy of it brings you back every day? Are you still trying to figure out why you keep doing these crazy things?

I don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer to what motivates you, and that’s somewhat the point. Motivation is crucial in setting and attaining your goals. Everyone is motivated by something, and that’s the explanation behind doing what they do. I also believe that your “why” can change. Motivation can be altered over time; with age, experience, after goals have been reached, etc. But you should probably know and understand the change.

Where Does Your Motivation Come From?

The article Differences between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation says extrinsic motivation occurs when we are “motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment.” This means that an individual participates in something because they want to win an award, or avoid being punished by their parents. Yes, sometimes mom does know best, but when it comes to sports, I don’t feel like this is always the best way to encourage participation.

For example, I love encouraging athletes to enter weightlifting competitions and just give it a try. However, I do understand that forcing someone into a competitive situation they don’t want to join can cause an extreme amount of stress and become more traumatizing than productive.

People ask me all the time, “Sam, what should I do to get in shape? Run?” My initial response is always to ask them if they like to run. If not, then why would you run? Exercise shouldn’t have to be a chore. There are so many different ways to get in shape without choosing an activity that makes you miserable. After all, how long will you continue to participate if you hate what you’re doing?

The same article says intrinsic motivation involves “engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward.” The behavior then becomes internal. Participation is not to please anyone except yourself.

Find something you love to do and do it. It’s that simple.

Sportsmanship and class. What a proud moment for our sport!! #iwf #2015wwc #75kg #respect

A photo posted by International Weightlifting F. (@iwfnet) on

Where Did My Motivation Go?

Eventually, the newness wears off, or you plateau a little, leaving you wondering why you continue. It happens to everyone, so I think the trick is to remind yourself why you started to begin with.

Recently, I watched a little boy in my neighborhood learn to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time. I watched him fall over and over while learning to balance, and every time he fell, he climbed back on with a smile on his face. It got me thinking, extrinsic motivation is great, and in some ways necessary, but I think finding the intrinsic motivation can keep you coming back without the increasing frustration of perceived failure.

In a strange way, it reminded me of why I started competing in weightlifting.

My very first competition was after some encouragement of my coach and a few other athletes. After my first competition, my motivation instantly changed. It shifted from extrinsic to intrinsic. I kept competing because I loved the sport and it made me happy. I loved competing with myself in the gym and seeing improvement as my maximums became sub-maximums. It gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment, and then somewhere in the middle of my career, it shifted again. It became more about winning medals and standing on the podium than it did about the weight being lifted. I lifted what I had to in order to medal, but eventually that produced a stall in performance.

Watching that little boy on the bike made me realize that competing (or really anything in life) has to be for you. Eventually, your training partner will miss a workout, your mom won’t be around to scold you for taking shortcuts, or the sport will grow so much that you won’t be in medal contention anymore. Then what? You better go back to your why. For me it was reminding myself of why I started. I love weightlifting because of the confidence the sport gave me in myself. I also loved how accomplished I felt when I finished a tough training session. Reminding myself of these things brings me back that inner childhood joy.

I can’t speak for everyone and say that the same will happen to you if you’re only extrinsically motivated, but I can say that I think you will be much happier if you have intrinsic motivation as well. (It’s also quite possible that having the ability to pull from both may be even better.)

An article entitled “25 Ways to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation” explains that most people are motivated extrinsically because they are used to operating in learning environments where good grades and test scores are rewarding. It further questions where the ambition and creativity will come from when having the right answer is no longer a factor. The article states that it’s the “desire to keep trying when no reward is offered that makes intrinsic motivation such a powerful force, because at that point, shortcuts don’t exist.”

A photo posted by Samantha Poeth (@sam_poeth) on

Being intrinsically motivated doesn’t require you to scroll through endless Instagram posts looking for that #MotivationMonday or wait for a gym partner to show up and yell at you to finish off one more set. I’m not saying those things aren’t great, but if you find that intrinsic motivation it becomes a part of you. You don’t search for the next competition to win a medal. You go to the gym to perfect yourself and your movements. You go to make yourself better. From this point, things feel effortless, it almost calls you to do it, and you feel as if you are meant to be in that position. Intrinsic motivation is the true meaning of “do more of what makes you happy.”

Whatever your why might be, remember that your motivation behind it may change. When things get stale, try and go back to your roots. Find that childhood love for sports again, and don’t compete for the medals; compete for you.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @sam_poeth on Instagram

About the author

Samantha Poeth

Sam Poeth won her first USAW National title in 2005 at the Junior National Championships. She has 4 University National Titles (2010-2012, 2014) and is the 2013 USAW National Champion. She also owns the title of 2011 and 2012 American Open Champion, is a 4x University World Team Member, and competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials. Sam has a Masters Degree in Exercise Science from the University of South Alabama. She currently resides in Tuscaloosa, AL and is a coach for Alabama Weightlifting. You can follow her on Instagram @sam_poeth and on Twitter @sampoeth.