The Dark Side of Motivation

This… this was a rough ride the past six weeks or so. I turned 30 the last week of June, and ever since then it seems like it’s all been downhill! I pulled my hamstring attempting a deadlift PR, and rehabbed that fairly quickly -- just in time to bruise my ribs on my absolutely beautiful new P2 lever belt (protip: bend your new belt back and forth a few times before cranking it down). Ribs cleared up and my girlfriend and I promptly contracted a stomach flu. A full week of 1.5 meals per day, night sweats and muscle cramps later, I finally managed to knock out a few solid training sessions in the end of the month.

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A couple of years ago, a month like this would’ve had me straight-up depressed. Training is really important to me -- just like it is to everyone who’s a part of EliteFTS -- and when it’s not going well for whatever reason, it’s often difficult to maintain a positive mindset. But if there’s a bright side to 30, it’s the benefit of a little more perspective. It’s so easy to think, “hey, I’m a professional athlete -- I shouldn’t have a totally balanced life, and if training isn’t going well, I need to cut back on or give up in other areas of my life so that I can just try harder!”

Joe Schillero wrote an excellent post explaining this a few days ago. Dave Tate calls it the “blast and dust” mistake. Blasting is focusing your entire self on what’s most important to you; dusting is blowing off anything that isn’t that thing. Guess what? Blasting and dusting your way through life doesn’t work.

Blasting with everything he had left no time to focus on anything else. If something didn’t involve training, he relegated it to the dust pile and found something else to focus on. He called this “balance.” By placing one hundred percent of his focus on one thing and then the next, he stayed in blast mode constantly. He did this to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

This didn’t give him the pleasure he wanted, so he created new and bigger blast goals. He told himself, “If I could just get this…If I could just do that…In just one more year, I’ll be able to do this…” The obsession with these things never stopped, but happiness never came. He thought this was because he hadn’t yet achieved his ultimate goal—the one that would finally prove his worth for all time.

Thirty years later, I now understand that I was blind to things that should have been important because I was trying to prove something to myself. What I didn’t understand was that this something didn’t need to be proved. It needed to be embraced. I was trying to prove something that couldn’t be proven in the first place.

I can’t say it any better than Dave, but if you’re struggling with the blast and dust mistake yourself, maybe I can share some of the things I’ve learned in the last couple of years.

No one can run at 100% forever. Not even Wolverine.

Look, I don’t care who you are: at some point, life is going to catch up with you. If you push too hard for too long, you’ll get injured, or burn out, or just get really fucking unlucky, and things will take a downturn.

So that’s when you put your head down, chin up, and push even harder, right?

C’mon. We just established that pushing too hard for too long is what got you into this situation in the first place. You really think more of the same is going to fix it? Besides being the definition of insanity, that’s only going to cause you more pain, more frustration, and more setbacks.

Instead, give yourself a little space to recover. Recognize that it’s a downturn, stop fighting it, and take a little more time for yourself to recover physically and mentally. This doesn’t mean you should stop training, but put your energies into something a little different. Maybe that means a little hypertrophy work, or technique analysis, or cleaning up your diet. Maybe it means stepping away from the weights and bringing up your GPP or mobility or mental game. Doesn’t really matter as long as you’re giving yourself the space you need.

Tough times make the good times good.

This one holds true in two different ways. First, from a physical standpoint, lighter or restorative training is a fundamental part of any successful training cycle, regardless of whether it’s purposefully integrated into your long-term plan or imposed by external circumstances. So if you’re forced to take some time off, you can take solace in the knowledge that that alone is literally an important part of your future peaking.

Second, from a mental standpoint, recognize that happiness, satisfaction, whatever -- they’re all relative to frustration, pain, and other negative emotions. In other words, if you never had any tough times, the good times wouldn’t feel good, they’d just feel… normal. The lack of contrast would cause you to perceive all of your experiences as muted -- kind of like how cranking down the contrast on your monitor makes the picture more blurry.

There’s more to life than lifting.

I’m gonna brag a little to make this point: I’ve set big records, won big meets, even won big money lifting, and I’ll cherish all of those experiences forever, but in themselves, they haven’t made me a happy person. Happiness doesn’t work that way. If you feel like you can’t be happy because you’re not lifting well, you’ve got some deeper and harder things to look at then why you missed a rep or lost a meet.

What To Do About It All

All of that might be easy to rationalize, but in practical terms, probably doesn’t help much. So, if you’re injured, sick, or just had shitty workout, what do you do?

There’s no one right answer to this question, but for me, nothing is more helpful than meditation. Meditation doesn’t have to be some very rigorous or mystic practice (although a bit of discipline will go a long way towards helping you to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine). Next time you need a boost, give this simple technique a try:

  1. Sit down. You can meditate in any position, but sitting tends to be the simplest.
  2. Take a deep, deep breath, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. As you exhale, close your eyes.
  3. Take a few more deep breaths, inhaling through your nose for a count of four, holding the air in your lungs for a count of seven, and then slowly exhaling through your mouth for a count of eight. Really focus on your breathing pattern here -- don’t let your mind drift off.
  4. Let your breathing return to normal as you visualize a time when you were at your absolute best -- whether that was in the gym, at work, in a relationship, whatever. Try not to think about the moment! Just visualize how it felt at the time: the energy, or compassion, or calm feeling you had at the time. If you’re drawing on a strong memory, this is easier than it sounds, I promise.
  5. Just hang out there for a while, observing the feeling. In a few minutes, you’ll notice that it feels much less powerful than it did when you first began the exercise, and that’s okay. You’ll probably also notice you feel much calmer and probably happier, too.
  6. Take one last deep breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth, and as you breath out, open your eyes.

I use this exercise all the time, and not just for when I’m dealing with adversity. In fact, this is the same practice I’ll do to center myself before my heaviest lifts. If it seems difficult at first, that’s okay -- just stick with it, and it’ll get easier and work better.

The Dark Side of Motivation

I want to wrap this up with something a client shared with me last week:

In order to be really good you do need to care a little too much.

It’s absolutely true -- if you have the motivation to be a great lifter, then you’re very invested in lifting. It sounds so obvious that it seems tautological, but it’s a very important truth to own. That feeling -- anger, frustration, loathing, sadness all wrapped up into one -- that you get when you miss a lift, or have a bad workout, or get hurt? That feeling is motivation -- the dark side of motivation. You can’t be motivated without experiencing it at some point.

So don’t let it get you too down, don’t obsess about it. Embrace it, because it means that you’ll be back ready to fight harder than ever to reach your goals.

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