Suffering: It's all about motivation

Training & Health

10/14/2008| 0 comments
by Adam Mills, M.S.Ed., CTS Senior Coach

Suffering: It's all about motivation

At its core, the difference between finishing first and finishing at all comes down to who’s got a better handle on suffering.

At its core, the difference between finishing first and finishing at all comes down to who’s got a better handle on suffering. Coaches use a variety of different names for this condition--“will to win,” “giving your all,” “staying focused”--but all of them connect back to an athlete’s ability to endure more pain and fear than their competition. If you’ve ever competed, you know this feeling all too well. Your heart is pounding through your chest. Your lungs feel as if they are on fire from deep within. Your field of vision narrows down to the painted stripe of the finish line which you push for with every fiber in your being.

But even if you’re a well-conditioned athlete, you may wonder why is it that you’re never able to stay with the last break or stay in the mix for the final sprint. And you may be asking yourself, “What drives these other guys to perform superhuman feats in the face of the same utter exhaustion that I’m dealing with? And how can I tap into it?” 

The simple answer comes down to an individual’s motivation to succeed. When properly motivated, even an average athlete is capable of an extraordinary performance. So why do elite athletes enjoy more of those mind-boggling successes? These riders seem to turn corners faster, accelerate quicker, ride through the gutter if necessary, and always have a knack for being in the winning breakaway. Well, to start, elite athletes are usually trying to make a career of their sport, and a good result means they’ll earn money for food and rent. Now stop and think about what that means: How much would you lay on the line if winning meant you could eat dinner that night?

Factors of Motivation

If you want to get scientific on the subject of motivation and how it overrides suffering, it boils down to three elements: personal background, the environment around you, and the situation at hand (race, club ride, or some other challenge).

Personal Factors

Motivation starts with self-confidence, which begins with an athlete’s internal dialogue. Research shows that elite athletes maintain a positive outlook longer under adverse conditions, while amateurs start thinking negatively sooner and with more frequency. It’s imperative that your internal dialogue stay positive no matter what the situation.

Another personal factor is a quality training plan designed to optimally prepare you for competition. If you train properly, you’ll know you’re physically prepared to perform at the highest level. The morale boost from that knowledge will form a reservoir of mental toughness that you can draw on to motivate you to continue.

Let me tell you about a good friend of mine from Kansas who raced in the 2006 Amgen Tour of California. As a professional bike racer from the Midwest preparing for a multi-day stage race, he could’ve freaked out about competing against some of the best riders in the world. But by turning inward and concentrating on his fitness, skills, and experience, he realization that this race was not about what the other riders were going to do to him, but what he was going to do in the race. This faith allowed him to race to his fullest potential.

Environmental Factors

The next time your teeth are chattering during a ride through the cold rains of spring remember this: Research has shown that environmental stress, primarily the weather, which affects everyone around you, tends to impact your brain before it starts actually messing with your body’s physical condition.

When that first raindrop hits your face, do you think about how much the rest of this ride is going to suck, or do you realize that a bone-chilling downpour is the perfect opportunity to throw down the hammer and put the hurt on the pack? How you react determines how much suffering you’re willing to endure.

Situational Factors

For the specific sport of cycling, this refers to your capacity to handle various tactical situations as they appear. By the sheer volume of their competitive experience, elite athletes posses a greater base of knowledge they can draw from to help them overcome a tactical move that may look to you like a recipe for a sufferfest. They’ve learned that holding on to the last breakaway won’t kill them. By adding to your bank of experience, you too will learn the same knowledge.

The Feedback Loop

Throw all these factors together and you’ve got the formula for enduring when others crack. The cool thing about motivation is that, if it stays strong, it creates a positive feedback loop which turns motivation into resolve and makes the pain and suffering easier to tolerate.

A perfect example of this feedback loop occurred with Jed Schneider from the University of Kansas, who was riding to a second place in the 2001 Collegiate National Road Race Championship in Colorado Springs. He rode the final lap of the course within eyesight of the eventual first place finisher. Thanks to the positive feedback from sticking close to the man ahead, Jed was continuously motivated to ride at his absolute best—and suffer mightily—to try and close the gap. A podium finish was his reward.

Adam Mills is a Senior Coach with Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS) and an experienced competitor in national-level road, mountain, and cyclocross races. To find out what CTS can do for you, visit

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