Didn't like the training? Probably not enough umami
My shoe digs into the waterlogged terrain. It doesn't matter, it's still wet from the muddy puddle by the road. The forest path transitions into taller grass. Nothing in front of me, just a few hundred square metres of open meadow. Open space. Freedom? The zigzagging between roots has replaced the zero excitement of the monotonous landscape. Now a gentle hill. But I don't want to go up it. It's raining. 6:20. Still a little dark. About 5 kilometers until I can take a shower.
I didn't taste it today.
Motivation is an essential ingredient for athletic endeavours and success. But what do we really mean when we say “motivation” and, more importantly, where can we get it? What keeps us from hitting the alarm five times in the morning and instead, getting up and going for a run before work? Why don't we call it quits while still heading uphill? What force pulls us through a race when our legs refuse to work?
Our bodies can normally recognise four basic tastes - sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. And then there's umami, the fifth taste, which is hard to describe, but our mouths love it. It’s a little something extra that can shoot food up several levels and make us want to taste it again and again. How do these two things relate? Setting aside the fact that food itself acts as the engine of any performance, similar alchemy (more like chemistry) must be at work in sports.
The power of inner energy
Due to its abstract nature, we may sometimes fail to see how much impact motivation has. Or rather, we may not be able to take full advantage of it. Is this where the gap between hobbyists and pros is born? Maybe so, either way, motivation is a certain internal energy that greatly influences our behaviour. It affects how we behave, how we think, and how we act and interact with others. It then helps athletes to translate their abilities and ambitions into concrete results. To tap into their potential.
There are several types, but intrinsic motivation is considered the healthiest. Logically, it comes from within, from inside ourselves, and is characterised by interest (in sports) and the enjoyment associated with it. In other words, we are driven to achieve our goals using our own reassurances. We don't have to have a coach on our backs all the time (although extrinsic motivation is also important, of course) or some other flashing alert. In terms of long-term planning, we can hardly do without intrinsic motivation. How else can we sustain an effort over a longer period of time?
Powerful but fragile
There comes a point when it's no longer fun. Instead, fatigue, pain, and sometimes stagnation will set in. Is there a place that sorts the top athletes from the mediocre? Some stay at the same level, others give up altogether, and yet the super motivated keep working hard and going after their dreams. The breaking point. But how to handle it - love it? Hate it? Or just accept it emotionlessly as part of the game. This phase may not be pleasant, but it gets better as you see success coming. When the efforts made start to get closer to the goals set. When the bridge between the two worlds gradually begins to shorten.
Well, umami is actually monosodium glutamate, a white crystalline powder. Okay, let's not delude ourselves that the sports world couldn't find a white-glowing ingredient. But let's stay in the abstract. According to Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the highest level of intrinsic motivation is called flow. A mental state where we completely immerse ourselves in feelings of maximum focus, enthusiasm, and achievement during an activity. Nothing else matters. We ride the wave of spontaneous joy and personal happiness. We are in “it” and living in the here and now. For athletes, there must be a perfect match between perceived demands and one's own abilities or skills. Then they can fully connect with the activity. Running shoes connect to our feet, a paddle becomes an extension of our arm, a bike is our body as it flawlessly pedals onwards.
The pandemic tested you
No official starting line. Minimal races. Zero scenery. Few cheering fans at the track. Quarantines, movement restrictions, and other measures. A million opportunities to give up. Intrinsic motivation must be deeply rooted and form a solid foundation for the extrinsic to work. Because when the cold, stagnation, boredom, injury, or COVID sets in, it's easy to go down the path of comfort and warmth. Because it's easy to find excuses and stay in a heated bed. Because it's easy to stop believing.