Phil Daru is a world-renowned strength coach in mixed martial arts and a former professional fighter. In an interview recently, he mentioned that the great ones have a bigger purpose than themselves that drives them to keep pushing and overcome obstacles.
During his fighting career, he described his desire to train every day came from focusing on the process and the day-to-day task of getting better instead of looking at the fight date.
Phil's way of thinking is supported by the literature focusing on goal achievement and valuing the process. It creates a more intrinsic drive to be successful, and if the drive is intrinsic, athletes are more likely to stay the course and keep pushing.
If an athlete is focused on the extrinsic drive to improve, like becoming the champ or obtaining followers and likes on social media, they are more likely to quit when the going gets tough.
Intrinsic drive creates personal ownership of the task, and they feel authentic. From a goal-setting perspective, these goals are termed self-congruent.
Extrinsic drive relates to self-discrepant goals facilitated by external pressures and conflict with the self because it is not really the goal of the individual. Instead, it's a facade to appeal to social obligations (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999). (1)
Intrinsic Motivation Versus Extrinsic Motivation
This brings us to the idea of intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation. Both can have their place in the context of motivation, but research has shown time and time again that intrinsic motivation is better for long-term goal setting and completion. When the training gets hard, and the end goal seems so far away, that intrinsic drive is what pushes you to keep going.
According to John Marshall Reeve (2) in his book Understanding Motivation and Emotion:
"Intrinsically motivated people show initiative, pursue interests, act spontaneously and creatively, strive to learn, strive to extend themselves and their capabilities, process information deeply, and conceptually, show greater task persistence, and experience greater positive emotion, vitality, and well-being."
Intrinsic drive has to come from within, knowing that what you are doing is bigger than yourself or any accolade you may receive when it is all said and done. It is just you with you, and you have to answer that bell of "Did I do everything I could have today to get better, or could I have done more?"
Understand not every day will be a home run. Sometimes it may take you 10, 20, and even 30 minutes to get going, but the difference between the person who gets going on bad days versus the one who sits it out or sleeps in or quits is what separates the best from the people you never heard of.
Phil's intrinsic motivation is powered by his faith in God. In his mind, God put him here on this planet to be exceptional, and every day he goes to work, it's for his faith.
Marine Recon Sniper Zachary Dunkle told me in an interview that he does it for his friends and Marines who are no longer with him. Because they sacrificed everything, he makes every day count. It becomes hard to stop and quit when it becomes bigger than you.
Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts
In a paper by Collins et al. 2016 (3), they looked at the biggest difference between three subcategories: Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts. They recruited a total of 54 performers ranging from team sports to individual sports. Within these cohorts, Super Champions played at the highest level of their given sport, with more than 50 appearances for their national team. The Champions played at the same level but had achieved fewer international caps. The Almosts achieved high praise at the youth level and played at the national level as their highest achievement.
They conducted interviews with the subjects and found that Super Champions displayed the highest levels of intrinsic motivation and reflection.
One combat Super Champion stated, "For me, it was all about getting better; about perfecting this combination, then this one. Building my armory so that I felt…so I would be impregnable."
Where Champions and Almosts were extrinsically driven, one Champion stated, "My whole focus was competition. I would beat most people in randori [free practice training fights], but it meant nothing… It had to be in the event. Looking back, I recognize how foolish I was in not trying to transfer from one to the other. At the time, they were just completely separate entities. I see the same thing in powerlifting. Lifters are so fixated on improving their total and defining themselves by it that when something goes wrong or they get injured, they're wrecked emotionally and go into a state of depression. When you become defined by the outcome, you will always feel incomplete and empty because no matter how hard you try, it will never be good enough. When you are extrinsically motivated, you always seek that next dopamine hit from social media or everyone telling you how great you are. When that goes away, you have nothing left."
The lifters who rely heavily on the process and intrinsic motivation when an injury occurs find things to do and are determined to come back even stronger. Collins found the same to be true regarding Super Champions and stated in his paper that the Super Champions spoke about how injuries and setbacks became drivers for their development rather than roadblocks.
Super Champions found the challenge of overcoming adversity to be more of an opportunity for growth. Instead of being defeated, they worked even harder to come back and be at their all-time strongest.
I am sure we have all heard the story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his basketball team and vowed to work even harder so he would never have to face that let down again.
The greats use adversity as a driver to improvement and growth.
Whether you want to be a Super Champion or not, there is a valuable lesson to be had—life is going to be hard, and the tasks you choose will create an extra level of pain when you are just starting or when you are trying to accomplish something big. You can either choose to avoid that feeling or dig in and get after it. Realize that these sessions will make or break the rest of your life.
The ease and comfort of your couch and air-conditioned home will always be calling your name. Most succumb to that feeling, but those with a why and a reason to strive will overcome that self-imposed burden and become something more than they ever thought possible. It requires an intense focus on being present in the moment and having a burning desire not to stop.
The study on Super Champions also looked at a few other markers that separated the top performers from the rest. They looked at commitment and found that most Super Champions were committed to their sport early on in life, although they played other sports growing up. The Super Champions loved to play and can push social events aside if it means missing out on playing or practicing. The Super Champions also reflected a lot after games on finding ways to improve and get better, while the Champions reflected on how well they played or how many points they scored. The Super Champion's siblings played a huge role in their drive and desire to get better and found that their coaches and parents just facilitated things but never pushed. Whereas the Champions said, the coaches and parents were more hands-on, pushing them to get better.
As stated above, the ones who rely heavily on others and outside factors don't make it as far.
When extrinsic motivation is the biggest driver for improvement, long-term success seems to suffer. The desire and love for the sport fades, especially if that sport suddenly becomes difficult.
Realize, extrinsic is not all bad; it's all about delivery. Research by Deci et al 1981 (4) shows that when the focus and pressure of winning are based on the social context of winning, such as newspaper headlines, championship trophies, and scholarship implications, the drive to compete and intrinsic motivation goes down. It becomes far more about the outcome rather than the process.
If the group or athlete is talented enough, that can serve them well for a time, but eventually, the level of competition will climb, and the tasks will get monumentally harder. The lack of intrinsic motivation will drive them to quit. Instead, if the social context were based on improvement and progress, a high level of intrinsic motivation based on competence would spur the notion to keep improving (Vansteenkiste & Deci, 2003)(5).
Olympic, Paralympic, and World Champions
A similar study to the Super Champions conducted by Burns et al. 2018 is titled Lifestyle and Mindsets of Olympic, Paralympic, and World Champions: Is an integrated approach the key to elite performance? (6) They interviewed ten athletes who have won gold medals in the Olympics, Paralympics, or World Championships.
They found some commonalities in psychological attributes like superior self-regulation, intrinsic motivation, effective visualization and imagery strategies, reliance on faith, routines, or rituals, a strong work ethic, self-confidence and dominance, and effective coping strategies and positive mindset.
With these studies and interviews, I want to lay down the foundational groundwork of these athletes' makeup that pushes them to the top. This is looking beyond genetics because we are well aware that genetics play a huge role in our makeup. According to some research, it can make up 20-80% of the variance in various attributes, such as explosive strength, running speed, VO2max, and lean muscle mass (7), just to name a few.
The cards we are dealt are not something we can control, and if we sulk on the things we don't have, we can create roadblocks to the things we can potentially become. Some people don't know their genetic potential until they push it, and others have the best genetics in the world but can't put the work ethic behind it to become great. We are dealing with those intangibles of work ethic and checking off all the boxes.
- Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-concordance model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 482-497. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2062
- Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion. Wiley Global Education.
- Collins, D., MacNamara, Á., & McCarthy, N. (2016). Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important differences and commonalities on the rocky road. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02009
- Deci, E. L., Betley, G., Kahle, J., Abrams, L., & Porac, J. (1981). When trying to win. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7(1), 79-83. https://doi.org/10.1177/014616728171012
- Vansteenkiste, M., Deci, E.L. Competitively Contingent Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Can Losers Remain Motivated?. Motivation and Emotion 27, 273–299 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1026259005264
- Burns, L., Weissensteiner, J. R., & Cohen, M. (2018). Lifestyles and mindsets of Olympic, paralympic and world champions: Is an integrated approach the key to elite performance? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(13), 818-824. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-099217
- Rees, T., Hardy, L., Güllich, A., Abernethy, B., Côté, J., Woodman, T., Montgomery, H., Laing, S., & Warr, C. (2016). The great British medalists project: A review of current knowledge on the development of the world's best sporting talent. Sports Medicine, 46(8), 1041-1058. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0476-2
Tony Montgomery lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He studied exercise science at Florida Atlantic University, received his Master's of Science in Exercise Science at the University of South Florida, and is currently pursuing his Doctorate of Philosophy in Health, Leisure, and Human Performance at Oklahoma State University. He owns Team Phoenix Performance (an online coaching company), Subject Zero Supplements, and Coaches Corner University (an online education platform). Tony competed in strongman and powerlifting, where he hit a 2,001-pound total in the 242-pound class with wraps. Now he competes in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and endurance events. He also served four years in the United States Marine Corps with 2nd Recon Bn.