6 months after an injury timeout that resulted in him dropping out of the Top 10 for the first time in over a decade, Roger Federer couldn't wait to start his 2017 campaign and begin the long road back to the top of men's tennis. For years now, I've listened to people condemn arguably the greatest tennis player of all time due to his recent inability to win the major tournaments and say that he is merely a shadow of his former self and should just hang up the racket and retire. "What has he got left to prove" Is what I often hear these people say. Roger Federer turned professional in 1998 and has inspired a generation of athletes and countless people from all walks of life with his exceptional grace and professionalism and a passion for his sport that is unrivalled in the professional sporting world. So I suppose the non-believers (as I like to call them) do have a point. Why, as he enters his 36th year, does he continue to put his aging body on the line in a highly physically demanding sport against an upcoming young generation of players desperately trying to break through to the top with him? It's because he loves the game. I honestly believe that Roger Federer feels exactly the same way about tennis now that he did when he first picked up a racket. He just wants to play because he loves it!
I remember with vivid clarity lying in bed on Friday nights being unable to sleep because I was so excited to play tennis the next day. They weren't all big matches; it was just my normal Saturday morning comp, but I had such an intense love for the game that I all I wanted to do was get on the court and play. Some Fridays after I got picked up from school, when the weather was miserable, I would stand at my back door after getting home and look out over my deck at the clouds and telling myself - "They'll clear. The courts will dry in time." I was absolutely devastated when I got to the club the next day and the courts were under water. It ruined my whole weekend, and all of a sudden I was holding out for training on Monday so I could play again.
Then I got older and started playing at a much higher level. Lying awake before big finals or tournaments not because I was excited, but because I was nervous. I was placing a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted to lead from the front as my Team's top singles player and I knew my performances would affect my position in the team. As I started playing bigger tournaments, rankings points became a factor, and the drive to be the best became a bigger motivator than the enjoyment of playing. Winning was enjoyable. But losing wasn't. I developed a win at all costs mentality and came down so hard on myself after almost every match I lost. I had such high expectations of myself and my performance suffered greatly under my intense desire to be the best. I got angry on court, shouting, swearing and throwing my racket. It wasn't fun anymore. And I wasn't winning anymore.
Sports psychologists often talk about the difference between being motivated extrinsically vs intrinsically. If an athlete is motivated extrinsically, they are motivated by external factors such as winning a medal, trophy or prize money. Conversely, they can be motivated intrinsically; playing and competing just for the good feeling the activity provides. In other words, it comes from inside. Internal and external factors can motivate individuals in all aspects of life as well, not just sport. Losing 10 kilograms or running a 10K in under 50 minutes are examples of extrinsic motivation whilst being fit and healthy enough to keep up with young kids or the endorphin rush and achieving the "runner's high" would be intrinsic factors.
I recently came across a story about Siri Lindley, a former American triathlete. Desperate to represent the United States in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, when triathlon made its debut as an Olympic sport, Siri threw everything she had at it trying to qualify. She didn't make it. She choked under pressure due to the enormous expectations she placed on herself. A few years later, after signing with a new coach, Siri outlined her goals which included winning a World Cup race, and World Championship title. In response, her coach told her to forget about it, "as of today you're retired" is what he told her. He explained that she was placing too much pressure on herself and wanted to try a different approach. He encouraged her to still train as hard as she could, but to focus instead on just seeing how fit, fast and strong she could become, and have fun doing it, to enjoy triathlon again, just like she did when she first decided to take up the sport. Today Siri is regarded as one of the all-time greatest triathletes having won multiple World Championship titles, and has coached several Olympic champions using the same approach.
My uncle who introduced me to running couldn't care less about the speed he runs or how fast he completes a race. In fact, he completely gave away road running due to the competitive environment and now focuses exclusively on trail running - to be out in nature and to enjoy the serenity around him. He runs purely for the fun of it. He's in his mid-50s and he's lightning fast, even over distances exceeding traditional marathon distance!
Having a big external motivator like a weight loss goal or a sporting achievement is important. Crucial even, because it gives us something to focus on and strive towards, so I'm not suggesting forgoing big ambitious goals (quite the opposite in fact), but try not to obsess over them when the going gets tough. The reality is that it's not always going to be smooth sailing and obstacles will manifest themselves and throw spanners in the works. So don't get down on yourself when things aren't moving in the right direction, or if things aren't moving as fast as you would like them to. Try and remember why you got started in the first place. Think about some particular highlights that you've experienced along the way and focus on them instead. Use those intrinsic or inside emotions and feelings as motivators in addition to the big picture goal. I have no doubt that anyone who is able to tap into that reservoir of good feelings and enjoyment is a lot more likely to achieve their goals and get great results, because they'll have fun doing it. There's enough stress and anxiety circulating throughout our everyday lives. Striving for a healthier lifestyle shouldn't be one of them. It's scientifically proven that exercise releases endorphins. It's in our biological makeup to feel good when we exercise!
Roger Federer still wants to win more Grand Slams at the age of 36 (and despite the doubters even managed this feat at the recent Australian Open!). Siri Lindley still wanted to win World Cup and World Championship titles, and I pushed so hard in search of faster marathon and triathlon times that I ended up in hospital with pneumonia right before Christmas. But I loved every second of my training and racing. Roger Federer's love of tennis is legendary and Siri Lindley only started winning at the elite level after reassessing her goals and remembering why she got started in the first place. Just because they're professional athletes doesn't mean we can't learn from them. So get out there and set ambitious goals! But don't forget to have fun whilst striving to achieve them. Enjoy yourself and enjoy the journey! It's not always going to be easy. At times it will be hard. But if you're enjoying your training and having fun doing it you're far more likely to keep going and not give up. We only get one life. Surely it makes sense to make the most of it!
*Disclaimer: Individual results vary based on agreed goals. Click here for details.