Friday, 4 December 2009

Thoughts On Motivation

Today's post comes from Adam Hesch, a former CrossFit Monterey athlete and a member of the United States Navy.  The following are his thoughts on the immensely important subject of motivation.


This is a great quote from a recent EYF post that serves as a good point of departure for discussing motivation: “Accuracy and precision in language are necessary for the intelligent analysis of data that CrossFit is based upon. As CrossFitters, we should insist upon using correct terminology where it exists, and creating it where it doesn’t.” I find this statement to be true, but I also find it to be applicable to the aspects of motivation that involve the usage of language as well.

I continue by selecting what I have found to be a useful definition of motivation according to To Motivate: to provide with a motive. Motive: An emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as an incitement (to incite: to provoke or urge on) to action. If our goal is to become better at at any endeavor (such as CrossFit), I submit that having an effective source of motivation is important for achieving this goal.

My first, and most important contention regarding motivation is this: improving one's internal sources of motivation are more important than improving one's external sources of motivation. Here's why: the conditions in which we are expected to function, in any endeavor, may change. Therefore, whatever our impulse to action (motivation) towards any end in life may be, if we desire to continuously be able to succeed at this act regardless of circumstance we need to be able take this motivation with us wherever we go (intrinsic motivation), without requirement for any additional external mental or physical condition (extrinsic motivation). Note that I have not made any claims as to which source of motivation is more effective, extrinsic or intrinsic. That is a worthy discussion for another time. I only assert that the development of internal motivations is more important, because of its transferability.

About 3 weeks back, I heard someone tell another athlete in a workout “Hurry up, you’re going fucking slow.” with the apparent intention of motivating them (although I concede I could be wrong on this. It may have been simply a true statement of fact. However, assuming that motivation was the intention, I continue.) This may very well have motivated that athlete, but it wouldn't have motivated me. It reminded me of the incessant droning from drill instructors during basic training, of which after a few days no one can take as a point of serious motivation. At a different point, I heard an address to all the athletes: “Let’s go you guys! How do you want to remember this workout – that you were a pussy or a total badass?” Again, perhaps some athletes did derive motivation from this expression, but again speaking personally, I myself did not. From a functional standpoint, I never use the words “pussy” or “badass” so it was hard for me at first to relate to their intended meaning. Further, even from the standpoint of the intended meaning, I am not personally able to motivate myself by considering how I might remember myself during a particular workout; my own motivations come from other sources. And so, I am brought to my next point. Any source of external motivation, used in a group setting, should have two traits in order to be optimally effective: utilitarianism (affects the greatest performance for the greatest number of people), and the promotion of individual intrinsic motivation (which as mentioned, I believe to be the most important part). 

I would like to challenge the “extrinsic motivation paradigm” (if we can create such an idea) to focus more on the development of intrinsic motivation for the purposes already described – the most effective preparation for an unforeseeable future. Let's get rid of music one day during a 20 minute AMRAP, so that we depend not on the beat of the music but the drive of our mind to fuel our performance. Another way we can pursue intrinsic motivation by means of an extrinsic source is to have the question be posed-

Why are you here?

-to be answered only to ourselves in our minds, because a simple reiteration to ourselves of our purpose for doing a CrossFit workout (or any other endeavor in life) will keep our mind focused on just that: the real reason we are there – which as I mentioned, is dependent upon the individual. Lastly, let's replace the commonly-heard phrase “Remember the number one rule of [insert box here] – don't be a pussy!” with the more universal, functional, and intrinsically-rooted admonition, “Give me your best.” Can we really ask for more than that?

What are your thoughts?


Jay Ashman said...

any trainer who uses "pussy, badass, fucking slow" is an idiot. How about using "let's go, keep pushing hard, keep moving, keep it up"... something constructive and non-profane. Its one thing if the members curse, its another if the trainer/owner does. We run businesses and we need to remain constructive and professional.

I like the idea of no music. I have no say in that where I work out of so its a dead issue for me, I can workout in dead silence or with the stereo cranking my tunes, doesn't matter... what I do hate at times is when I have to workout alone. Sometimes, due to time, I have to do it and I miss someone pushing me when that happens.

John said...

During a workout Russ Greene once asked me, "How bad do you want it?"
I think about that question every time I work out.

Great post. I agree that internal motivation is more important than external, and should be cultivated. That's useful information right there.

anywherefit said...

"why are you here?"

thats perfect.

Serge said...

A large reason why we saw so many PRs in the deadlifts at the Crossfit Games was due to the roar of the crowd and that positive motivation that they gave the athletes. The lifters felt as if the whole crowd wanted them to move that weight more than anything in the world and it was true. I bet Bullfrog that Speal would PR on his deadlift for a free beer, guess what? I got that beer. Thank you Bullfrog :)
But on a more serious note, positively pushing someone and cheering them on gives them a sense of glory and valor in their efforts, as if they are doing this workout for a cause. Little do they know, they actually are, they are bettering themselves and being able to tackle life on new levels which were not seen before.

Tsypkin said...

Jay, you say:

"Its one thing if the members curse, its another if the trainer/owner does. We run businesses and we need to remain constructive and professional."

I've got to ask...why? I curse. Now, I don't curse at my athletes, but I'll certainly say "get on the damn bar," "let's fucking go," etc. And if one of my athletes is going at a pace I know is less than they should be doing in that WOD, I'll tell them "You're moving fucking slow, pick it up."

I don't see what I do as running a business. I run a strength and conditioning facility which charges it's athletes so that I can stay in operation. Part of the reason I love it so much is that I don't have to fake anything. I think you can motivate positively and still be aggressive and curse, etc. My athletes understand that if I say something like "you're moving fucking slow," it doesn't mean "you're a pussy," it means "I know you can do better."

RDCP said...

Good post, but I have to disagree with some of these points. I don't think the distinction between internal and external motivation is always clear. Community and the expectations of those who have faith in you can be powerful drivers that often resonate with something inside of you.

A push from a good coach or a training partner that genuinely cares about your progress is not fitness peer pressure. Usually "do your best" is not enough, because we train to expand our best by achieving what we genuinely believed we could not do and by learning to push harder while working better and more efficiently. I can give a workout what I thought was my all, but when I am done, no matter how exhausted, I am usually confident that I repeat the workout again in a few days or a week and do better (I have even done so several times) because now I know what to push through or where I can save time or add load.

Even advice like "Don't be a pussy" (or, for those in the know, "Remember what Toren's grandmother always says") has its place. It has certainly helped me in the past, not because I sometimes accidentally forget to work hard or because I am afraid Russ or Jacob won't like me anymore, but because it reminds me of the values of this community- effort, intensity, but also lightheartedness and humor.

tundranerd said...

After living in Salt Lake City for the last five years and tip-toeing around fragile ears and sensitivities... I absofuckinglutely expect to curse and be cursed at, If I wanted to be coddled I'd still be working out at 24 Hour Fitness

adam said...

Jacob - I'm interested to hear Jay's reply, but will reply as well.
In addressing your reply, I refer to my very first paragraph which elaborates upon Russ's statement, which I encourage you to read again.
If you disagree with it, then I believe my response to you ends here and we can simply agree to disagree on the topic. But if you agree with my 1st paragraph topic sentence, I continue:

You say "My athletes understand that if I say something like 'you're moving fucking slow,' it doesn't mean 'you're a pussy,' it means 'I know you can do better.'"
If you have the words necessary to express a certain idea, why choose some other words to express it, making the assumption that the implied yet unstated meaning is understood by all, which has a higher chance of leading to miscommunication?
I don't deny that cussing may have motivational value for some people; I only assert that it might not have motivational value for everyone. If our goal as individuals in a leadership position is utilitarian motivation (UM) --that is, the greatest amount of motivation for the greatest number of people--is it not a worthy question to consider what language we use and how we convey it in order to acheive the best possible UM? (I would be quite interested to hear the answer to this question from a representative sample group of athletes from any gym in the country.) If it is not, then I am additionally interested in hearing your opinion regarding our responsibilities as leaders regarding the topic of motivation in a group setting, if any.

I make a final distinction regarding how cussing is used. I assert that cussing is more effective/humorous when used in a generic sense, like "Shit!" as a response to a generic situation than when ascribed as a trait to a certain individual, such as "You're going fucking slow" or Don't be a pussy" which both directly describe the supposed condition of the individual being addressed.

adam said...


In your first paragrpah, you make a good point. It may very well be that there is often no distinct line between internal and external motivation. I would only submit that when that line is clear (as I think it sometimes can be), we serve ourselves more by focusing on developing our intrinsic motivation, if our goal indeed is to prepare for the unknown and unknowable.
You say "Usually 'do your best' is not enough..." - are you speaking on behalf of yourself, or the majority of people? Regardless of your answer, I think you would agree with my stated principle of the need for utilitarian motivation (UM). I do also add, though - if you are correct that that phrase is not enough for the majority of people, I find that to be valuable feedback for my own goals of personal goals of UM, and will keep that in mind.
The same goes for "Don't be a pussy" - if that motivates yourself, then that is one more source of external/internal motivation you can keep for yourself, which is a good thing - especially since, for you, it also has connotations for effort, intensity, lightheartedness, and humor. I would only contend that anyone using that phrase in a public setting (as with any phrase) ought not to assume that these same connotations with that phrase are shared universally by all people, because they are not.

adam said...

tundranerd - More effective dialogue could be had by using vocabulary already mentioned in the aforementioned article/comments, and not speaking off of implication (as I suggested to Jacob, regarding the use of language in making statements). If your implication is that avoiding phrases such as "don't be a pussy" or "you're going fucking slow" amounts to "coddling", then I believe you are misunderstanding the issue, and I would also like to introduce you to a retired Special Forces Colonel and a Lieutenant-Colonel Grade Aviator I know who both choose not to use cuss words in their own leadership. While it may very well be that they are not good at motivating people as a result (though I would submit this is unlikely), I don't believe cussing is a requirement for motivation - or perhaps, as you would say, to avoid "coddling". If you, personally, get motivated by others cussing at you, then for you that self-awareness is a good thing and can be used to motivate yourself while working out. I only appeal to the principle of Utilitarian Motivation when considering its usage in a group setting.

Tsypkin said...

Adam, you say:

1) "If you have the words necessary to express a certain idea, why choose some other words to express it, making the assumption that the implied yet unstated meaning is understood by all, which has a higher chance of leading to miscommunication?"

I'm striking a balance. On the one hand, it is very important to me to motivate my athletes, and as such, I do my best to understand what motivates them (this will be further addressed in my next point.) On the other hand, however, a big part of the reason I started CrossFit Monterey is so I can do what I love and be myself. Myself cusses, a lot. In a cost/benefit analysis, I find the cost to myself by completely reigning in the way I talk greater than the benefits to my athletes. However, finding a balance between "you're moving fucking slow" and "come on, get back on the bar, you can do this" (I should point out that you will hear the latter more than the former, but the point stands) allows me to talk the way I want to talk and still motivate people.

2) The key is knowing what motivates people. Tundranerd likes being yelled at. You don't. Do I get it wrong sometimes? Absolutely. But I'm not willing to sacrifice the way I talk (and I talk the way I talk because I like to talk that way) for fear that someone may not be motivated by it.

Jay Ashman said...

Jacob, I don't necessarily agree with that. I am a curser, I come from a long line of eloquently cursing, so I can understand that; however, in a group setting some people may not appreciate that, may not know it is not directed at them and may get offended to the point of disgust.

Not saying that it doesn't have its place... like "good fucking job, guys", or "let's pick up the fucking pace, move faster".. is a ton better than "you are a fucking pussy"... I've been known to yell back "fuck you" and continue working out when some people push too hard. Not everyone is like that, some get hurt...

should they toughen up, probably, but its the unfortunate fact.

Its a very hard call, I just choose not to insult when motivating. No matter how much the athlete may not mind it.

With certain athletes, you can yell at them, but I don't play that game of breaking them down to bring them up, not saying you do, but calling someone a pussy (intentions being meant as good) is breaking them down to bring them up and that is one thing I don't agree with.

I've seen too many kids in sports teams get broken over stuff like that and I cannot do it. Hell it happened to me in grade school when I screwed up in a baseball game and lucky for me I had enough internal toughness to do better next time, not all people have that.

Of course CF is different, because we are adults, but the personalities remain the same.

I have no doubt, Jacob, that you are a fantastic coach (its obvious), I just prefer to not use words like pussy and badass when motivating people.

Russ Greene said...

Adam raised a good point. It was my fault that I didn't consider that some people would find my curse words insulting or even de-motivating.

I have covered before the fact that I can't tell who is going to be a good Crossfitter and who isn't. I certainly can't write someone off as a prospective Crossfitter because he finds curse words offensive. If my goal is to spread as much fitness to as many people as possible, then I have to target my words towards that objective.

Thanks, Adam.

Tsypkin said...

In response to the question in the post "Why are you here?"

I came across a quote the other day that sums up very well why I do it (rather why I continue to do it now that I am in a better place in my life.):

"For life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do."
-From "White Fang" by Jack London

Jason Lyons said...

I think "why are you here" could very easily be misinterpreted to mean, "you disgust me and you do not belong here". In fact, when I read that statement, my first thought is not one of innner questioning but rather one of self doubt. That may mean something about my psyche but I just wanted to point it out to everyone that may use it. Granted it would work on me because I would be like, I will show you who does not belong but a 50 some mother struggling with some pullups hearing that phrase may ask herself, why am I here, I do not belong. Just food for thought.

I guess the point is in a similar manner to you saying you do not need to curse at people to make them motivated...everything that comes out of your mouth can be interpreted many ways. If you want to eliminate confusion, you do not ask an open ended question. You should know your clients well enough to know what they need to here. For some of our clients, it is knowing the fact that they will beat me if they push, for others it is fighting to be healthy for their kids. You should be intuned to everyone in your gym and say things to them personally that will motivate them. Everyone is different.

adam said...

Jay - Great perspective on when/how cussing should and should not be used. It is a matter of personal opinion to each individual, but I would side with you 99% because I'm trying not to cuss at all in life.... but I'm still far from it. ;)

Jacob - I don't believe I said that I didn't like getting yelled at; I believe I only (at least in the original article) remarked about the hindered-applicability of 3 (apparent) forms of motivation that I have heard that I believe oughtn't to be used: the appeal to the memory of one's image/performance (being remembered as a "badass" or as a "pussy"); the usage of terms such as "pussy" and "badass" in general (because some people can't take their usage seriously); and the down-putting phrase of "You're going fucking slow". I myself do get motivated by being yelled at, but it is very much dependent on the phrase being used in the yelling.

Also I understand what you said about how you said you like to strike a balance. This reminded me of another point I wish I had put in the initial article: at the end of the day, motivation is a personal responsibility. While we should be grateful for motivation provided by others, and should strive to motivate others too, we can't invest all of our motivation in an external source lest that source be taken away and we be tasked with a certain job that still demands it.

Also - I loved the quote by Jack London, that's an awesome one. That's another reason I love dancing. Breakdancing promotes this in the individual. Dancing with a woman is an awesome way to share this truth another person that you care about, especially aerials, they're fun as hell.

adam said...

Jason - Self doubt sucks man. I want to say that first and foremost. I've been there and it's not comfortable. Screw self doubt.

Then, I want to say I completely understand how you feel, but I completely disagree with how you approach it.

Can you imagine how inefficient and complicated communication would be if we went around tailoring what we said to appeal to people's "interpretations" of the words we used?

This is why I am absolutely a firm believe of "functional language." We ought to make our point clearly with the words we use; communication would be like swimming in molasses if worried too much about how we "came off". This is one reason I am particularly against usage of the words "pussy" and "you're going fucking slow" - standing on their own, if you delve into their actual functional meaning and where they come from, they are inefficient usages of English language. These phrases bear much more chance of being misinterpreted than the more straightforward "Why are you here?"

If it helps at all, I believe "Why are you here?" ought to be used in a 3 to 4 sentence long discussion posed before a work out, expressed sincerely, devoid of judgment as to anyone's answer (which should just be given for themselves and in their own heads in the first place) and as a challenge to every athlete to give their best effort in the work-out -- in order that they might really live up to their own answer. I really do believe this question, posed honestly, empowers people to motivate themselves better than any other single quote out there.

Let me finish by saying that as much as "functional language" ought to be used in every aspect of life, I know this can't always be the case. I've been in a relationship, and I've been the moron who "drew out" stupid implications from a statement that weren't even there in the first place... (if my ex ever reads this she might be happy to know that I finally realized this.)

I myself believe the answer is use proper language as much as possible; seek to empower people to motivate THEMSELVES in ways that can drive them on their own (which is a powerful trait of great leaders); and if you do both of the above with the PROPER intent (genuinely caring about the success of your people/athletes) then it will genuinely show and they will understand your meaning without a doubt, and will then be doubly excited to perform well for you/others as much as for themselves (actually, perhaps ideally, even more so. developing intrinsic motivation).

Jason Lyons said...


I do not think that we are in disagreement. My post was about using language that can only be interpreted one way. I, for one, can interpret "why are you here" two different ways so I would tend not to use that type of motivation. I tend to say things like, "I know you can do this" or "You are strong, show it".

You say that using you are going f'n slow is bad. What if you said, "I know you can go faster"? Do you have equal hesitation in saying this and if so, why? I believe that it shows the person that you have confidence in their ability and you believe in them and what they are capable of doing. It is basically saying the same thing while eliminating a curse word. I am curious if the issue at hand is about positive reinforcement versus what can be considered negative reinforcement?

Jason Lyons said...

Also, I forgot, I do agree with you regarding "why are you here" as a discussion before class when everyone is focused and can think about what they need long as it is very clear what the intent is when you say it.

I have heard of boxes having white boards that are permanent fixures that are dedicated to "Why I Fight" and people write their answers, "For my mother fighting breast cancer", "For all of those that said I cannot" etc. It is very moving to read when you visit those boxes and it is something that we will be implementing at KoP.

adam said...

Jason: For formatting, your quotes begin after a hyphen for spacing and an asterisk begins the quote; my reply is a paragraph break beneath it. Additionally, note my reply is broken into 2 posts because of its length.

*I do not think that we are in disagreement.

I agree in that our end is not in disagreement; though I do think our means towards this might be.
*You say that using you are going f'n slow is bad. What if you said, "I know you can go faster"? Do you have equal hesitation in saying this and if so, why?

At this point I feel like we are splitting hairs - and I should add that I am unlike many people in that I assert that splitting hairs is one of the most important things we can do. [This is phrased many different ways: "Attention to detail." "It's the little things that count." "The devil is in the details." Or, as the CrossFit movie title claims, "Every Second Counts", which is total crap, because tenths and hundredths of seconds are what actually make the difference when you are on the cusp of a single second with an opponent.]

Heck, the Large Hadron Collider that was recently re-opened under France dedicated 9 billion dollars and 17 miles worth of track to a particle that, in comparison to hair follicles, is the same as a millimeter compared to one-quarter of the earth's circumference. Splitting hairs is nothing.

At any rate, I believe you get my point. Debating things that seem trivial or small to me have a lot of value, and I find the differences in how you and I motivate others to be quite small - and also quite worth discussion.

To me, "I know you can go faster" is not useful if for no other reason than it's not functional language. Someone may be having a slow day, but you may be unaware of some external limiting factor that prevents them from going any faster. Therefore, you would simply be wrong in your statement (for that particular day I mean), despite your good intentions.

Secondly, speaking only for myself, I can't assert enough the importance of empowering others. This is an important principle for many aspects of life. I once heard a SEAL Master Chief say that a leader is only effective when his team can accomplish its mission with or without its leader, because at that point, on their own, they know exactly what they need to do, how to get it done, and why they need to do it. If you are in any sort of business where you try to motivate others, I ask, are you equipping them with the mental tools they need to excel when you are not around? When they do a WOD on their own, are they able to push themselves hard of their own accord just as they are able to be pushed when you are encouraging them?

If you truly believe "I know you can go faster" is just as empowering and effective at developing intrinsic motivation (or perhaps even more so) as "Why are you here?" or, as I also add, "Is that as fast as you can go?", then my argument ends here, and perhaps we do in fact have the same end as well as means in common, with only a difference of opinion regarding the words we use, but not their function or role.

adam said...

*I believe that it shows the person that you have confidence in their ability and you believe in them and what they are capable of doing.

This is another instance of something being interpreted different ways. If I hear a phrase like that, I think "How do you know? And who are you to define or judge the pace and effort with which I can or ought to move without knowing the context within which I work out? It might turn out that I have a second WOD planned after this, and perhaps for a legitimate reason, there is good cause for me to be going at sub-optimal speed." Or, if it is my only WOD, and I am in fact sand-bagging it but let my pride get in the way, another thought is the more simple "Screw you" which is an indirect confession of something I know I ought to be doing better. And yet, speaking only for me, when I am asked "Why are you here?" it becomes not an issue of defense/ego between the person talking to me and myself; the issue is drawn out bigger than myself, and if I have good external cause for pushing myself as much as possible (being a firefighter, etc) it is this third, external cause that drives me (which I argue is a more powerful motivator than either my own confidence in myself or even the confidence of the encourager, as you say), which could not have occurred with the phrases that you use. These are of course only personal opinions from personal experience. We again perhaps see the dilemna in how motivation varies from person to person. Good discussion, though it perhaps goes best not forgotten that of course we're all responsible for our own motivation at the end of the day.
*Also, I forgot, I do agree with you regarding "why are you here" as a discussion before class when everyone is focused and can think about what they need long as it is very clear what the intent is when you say it.

Agreed. I believe intent expressed via the meaning we ascribe to words in the English language is what is most important. And then tone, eye-contact, etc come into play.
*I have heard of boxes having white boards that are permanent fixures that are dedicated to "Why I Fight" and people write their answers, "For my mother fighting breast cancer", "For all of those that said I cannot" etc. It is very moving to read when you visit those boxes and it is something that we will be implementing at KoP.

I've been to a few WODs at CrossFit Albuquerque and they have one of those boards here, it is pretty awesome. What is KoP?

Jason Lyons said...


Sorry, KoP = King of Prussia. We are CrossFit King of Prussia.