In my last post , I wrote about the mystery of motivation regarding the hard work it takes to be a successful athlete. One of the crucial aspects of hard work is the motivation to do it, and one of the things that impedes doing that hard work is the very effort required to do it. When athletes come up against the effort of doing strength work, speed work, and the hard, focused repetitions of whatever task, it often feels like hitting a wall. Many stop at that wall, while others push through to the other side. For those who stop at that wall, it may feel like a lack of motivation. And it may look like a lack of motivation to others. But, in fact, it might be the lack of skills necessary to persevere. It may feel like one more ounce of effort is needed when the tank already feels empty. Instead, I am going to suggest in this post that what’s needed is the skill, or set of skills, to separate the effort from the task itself, or, to liberate the effort from the efforting.
Notice the panic: One of the reasons that people stop at that effort-wall is that their minds start to panic. The self-talk gets very anxious, and the mind says things like, “I can’t do this anymore,” or “this hurts,” or, “OH MY GOD!!!!” Good athletes notice this panic and find a way to talk back to these sentiments, and say things like, “keep going,” “almost there,” and “you can do this.” In essence, they say things that any coach, friend or family member might say. Can you imagine a coach saying to an athlete, “yeah, you’re right: you can’t do this”? No.
Lean in to the effort: Another way to push through that wall is to prepare for it and welcome it. You know beforehand that your practice or match is going to be hard so that when it comes, you can talk back to it, and have your back-talk ready: “I’ve got this,” or “even harder.” Many athletes even get to the point where they enjoy that moment when the work gets intense. By leaning in, you continue to push the wall farther away from you. While the wall might represent some real physiological limits, leaning in to them will make them seem smaller rather than bigger.
Breathe through the effort: Everyone knows the expression, “just breathe,” or “take a deep breath.” But not everyone knows how to breathe diaphragmatically. This skill is a life-saver in all contexts in order to properly oxygenate the blood and maintain composure. Short, choppy breaths, even if you think you’re breathing deeply, will increase the feeling of effort rather than decrease it. Learn deep breathing, employ it in all realms of your life to get you through difficult moments, and especially during moments of extreme exertion or stress. Even putting your attention on the breath will take your mind away from the din of anxious thoughts urging you to give up.
The mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn has taught us all to separate pain from suffering, by pointing out that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I am making a similar claim about hard work: hard moments in sport, and life, are inevitable, but separating the panic of the effort from the effort is optional. Liberate the effort. And yourself.