Issues with motivation in training and life

 Josh Leeger asked a question about my thoughts on motivation following a post of mine below. I decided to transfer my answer to a new post in the hopes that it can lead to more discussion and more meditations on it from me as well. So, my thoughts on motivation:

Motivation is something that I’m increasingly pessimistic about (and I didn’t mean that in an ironic sense). I can only speak for me and my experiences here, but, here’s some points I’ve noticed in my studies of martial arts:

1 – Even a motivated, dedicated person will have different levels of motivation over his lifetime. I can cite myself in this category. With kids, wife, stress, money problems, injuries… all sorts of things conspire together to stand in the way of a good training schedule. I can’t practice as much now as I would like to or did when I was younger. I go through cycles where I train more and when I train less.

2 – I’m not even sure you can “teach” or “inspire” motivation. I’ve seen hundreds of people that would talk the talk, but never got around to walking the walk. And walking the walk long term is what is needed in gongfu – skill acquired through hard work over time. As much as I’ve personally tried to push and lead people to try more and to drive themselves harder, it doesn’t seem to do much. I think I can set an example, I think I can occasionally get like minded people, but I’m just increasingly pessimistic about creating a motivated individual from one who is not.

3 – And honestly, our culture is progressively not promoting self-motivation. Many believe its preferable to go to a group aerobics, yoga or crossfit type class than it is to learn the lessons of forging oneself, the lessons of dedication and self-discovery one can obtain are left by the wayside though, in that case. Being led by the collar is not the same as boldly going forward under one’s own power. But then again, gaining spiritual, meaningful internal insight is not something that society is promoting or putting value on these days.

4 – I personally predominantly teach adults, not young kids in a wrestling program, or zit-faced teenagers at army boot camp. I can’t really force them to do anything. I remember trying to get my students to work towards certain goals over a 3 month period. Although they were all self-dictated goals, they had 3 months, they were concrete and obtainable… only one person out of about half a dozen got anywhere close to completing their goals. Disappointing, but instructive to me as well about the level of people’s motivation. Heck, I can’t even make people come to class on a consistent, regular basis and that is something that I think should be the bare minimum necessary.

5 – My innate nature is to just tell people to suck it up and get to it. When I was a kid if you had to do your chores, you had to. It wouldn’t matter to my Grandpa if I didn’t feel like chopping wood today, either I did it or I didn’t do anything else until I did. Whining is generally the name of the game these days. Whether it’s “I was tired,” to “I had something else to do,” to “I hurt my little thumb and can’t practice,” to the slightly more honest “I just didn’t feel like it” – It’s apparently easier to whine about it than to dig in and do it.

6 – Another cultural reason, many people, in an effort to preserve their own sense of responsibility and prevent damage to their ego, would always prefer to place the blame and responsibility on someone else, rather than themselves. You hurt yourself, you sue someone else. You didn’t learn that in school, you blame the teacher and the school. You’re fat, you blame society and “the man.” It’s always easier for people to feel good about themselves by shifting all this onto something or someone else.

There’s probably a lot more to this. I’ve got to get back to the kids now though. More later.

And I would love to hear other thoughts on this!

About george

George Wood is the head instructor of Zong Wu Men Internal Fighting Arts, based in Northern Virginia. He teaches the martial arts of Baguazhang and Xingyiquan.
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6 Responses to Issues with motivation in training and life

  1. maija says:

    I started teaching a few years back and have found the same thing, about myself, and definitely about students.
    Apparently ‘work’ is a 4 letter word.
    I suspect there is little point in trying to change individual behavior … however I am always fascinated at what actually does change people, physically or mentally. Perhaps if I studied the I Ching more it might become more clear? ….or then again perhaps not 🙂

  2. george says:

    That is the thing for me as well. I still believe that the study of martial arts CAN have a positive impact on people physically, mentally, socially, and psychologically. But that certainly does require that initial spark of desire, and that is something that is hard to force in externally. I’ve definitely seen people progress greatly in their lives and the study of traditional martial arts definitely was a driving force in their improvement. I know its helped me.

    And, welcome to the blog Maija!

  3. jleeger says:

    I agree, it’s a tough issue. I deal with it in my clients all the time as a trainer. I’ve read some research that says that you can improve motivation by creating environments that are more focused on the individual’s own stage in the learning process, and rewards improvements from their level of ability (as opposed to rewarding improvements from the perspective of how everyone – including top students – is doing).

    I’m very interested in this topic, though. I do agree with all of the points you’ve listed. There’s also the person’s past experience with whatever is being taught (or that “type” of thing), which can influence their motivational levels. So multifaceted, that maybe it isn’t worth spending time worrying about…hahaha.

  4. george says:

    In regards to rewarding each individual at their stage in the learning process, yeah. I’m not sure how you do that in your personal training business, but in martial arts I think the most common answer to that is either if you are working with small groups of individuals that all start and progress at the same rate, or if you divide the groups according to ability – the belt method of course being famous for this. Actually, although we don’t really have belts in the Chinese martial arts often, I still don’t see it as a bad thing. It does provide incentive and reward for each student, as well as giving them a clear idea of where they are along the learning continuum and what is required of them at each stage.

    Do you, Josh, have an example of what you meant when you brought up a person’s past experiences affecting them? I’m curious.

  5. maija says:

    I have benefited greatly, I believe, in other areas of my life from training martial arts, not least because it is a very useful life lesson to be bad at something, work hard, and then get better and better at it. I think it’s good to suck, but many people don’t seem like having that pointed out to them. Just as important is that faith/inspiration that keeps you at it, and then the positive feedback you get when you improve.
    Creative thinking, tenacity, focus ..the list of benefits goes on.
    BUT …you have to put in the work. There is no way around it, And you’ll suck …alot. AND, particularly in the arts we choose to study you ain’t even going to end up looking like the model of beauty so many aspire to!
    So all in all it’s a small pond we swim in. I’m tending toward just being happy with the small group I teach and my small group of training friends.
    Of course, perhaps some reverse psychology could be the key …. “No I’m sorry, you can’t come to class, you’re just not up to it/ it’s too secret/ it’s too difficult for you”! You can see where those old tales of the student sitting for days outside the master’s house came from …:-)

  6. jleeger says:

    I agree Maija, you have to create a lot of encouragement in your teaching sometimes, just to keep people motivated…that leads to my answer to your question George.

    I think that something as “general” as a person’s past experiences with not being good at something (anything, or, many things) can cause them to stop trying sooner than someone else who had a more supportive experience in the past when they were bad at something. It can even be that the person wasn’t actually bad at it, but perceived themselves as somehow inadequate…

    I definitely tend to shy away from things that I feel like I’m not good at, or not as good as the other people who are doing it are. Unless, of course, the other person/people are very supportive and are able to “tone down” their skill to help me avoid my own frustration with my ability level at it…

    I think you’re right, George. The belt system can help a lot with this. As long as the teacher is careful, and watches out for older students who might abuse their rank, or newer students who might feel inadequate because of their level.

    You don’t need to “cater” to everyone, but at the same time, you do…hahaha. I find this question of motivation especially important nowadays. Aside from having emotional “baggage,” most people have so many demands on their time (constructed or actual) that it’s hard to prioritize at times…

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