Motivation. What does the word bring to mind? Maybe it’s a linebacker, doggedly holding on to his target until the tackle is made. Maybe it’s a student, pouring over notes, determined to pass his test tomorrow. What I think of is a differentiating factor, the single most important distinction between success and failure. Things don’t happen without it. This is true in athletics, where physical prowess must be matched by an equal mental commitment. It’s true in academics and a whole host of other areas, but for this post I’m going to focus on motivation in sports.
A coach once told me “your body will go as far as your mind is willing to take it”. That’s how someone like Michael Phelps can do what he does. His body at the age of thirty-one was absolutely not in it’s physical prime. He was competing with athletes 15 or more years his junior in a sport that is, to put it kindly, unforgiving. Swimming (full disclosure, I swam competitively for 14 years and now coach it at the college level) is the ultimate test of the human body in my opinion, because the water is not where we are meant to be. The fastest runners, the strongest bodybuilders, and the sharpest shooters will all struggle in the water. It’s the ultimate equalizer, a medium where all men are on the same footing.
So at the age of 31, Michael Phelps challenged himself to go one more Olympic games. His body, after 20 years of training, had no business going to another games. He could easily have kicked back and enjoyed the fruits of his success: a super model girlfriend, a newborn son, enough money from various sponsorships to live comfortably to the end of his days. He had nothing to prove, with more medals and more records than any other athlete in modern history. But he wanted more. Not just wanted more – even deeper than that. He needed more.
What drives someone like that? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not money. He already had money, and he could have made more money just by having so much money. His coach didn’t push him to come back. He had nothing left to prove in the pool – he was already the greatest athlete in modern history. It’s not about any of that. It’s personal, like a light in your head that you just can’t turn off. You need to test yourself. And so Phelps did return to the world stage one more time, and he tested himself against the world’s best athletes again.
“Your body will go as far as your mind it willing to take it.”
Peyton Manning was the same way. He could easily have retired as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, taken a job as an “analyst” for ESPN and continued being ridiculously wealthy and famous. Tons of football players do it, and there would’ve been no shame in it.
Their drive to keep going is so strong, they don’t feel pain. They don’t notice their body slowing down with age. They only see the competition, the next race, the next game, the next victory (because of course it will be a victory). Like a horse with blinders on, their inner motivation whips them in pursuit of a single goal. When I swam, I remember standing behind the blocks for a race and not even hearing the crowd. When you’re in that moment, all you’re thinking is let me at ’em!
This intangible quality is what defines true competitors. When they see a challenge, their only thought is of success. Good leaders can help harness the motivation within you and push you forward, but no one can give it to you. When you get knocked down, like Phelps did in 2014 after two arrests and a suspension handed down from USA Swimming, or Manning did when the Colts released him upon hearing of his medical problems, you can’t let yourself stay down. You can get up if you will it.
Being a boxer doesn’t make you a brute. It’s not a show of physical fight; it’s how much fight a man carries with him in his heart. The best of us will never be kept down.
Get up and fight.