Bad feelings can be very good for motivation

by Dr Stephanie A. Burns



In July 2000, 10 weeks before the start of the Olympic Games in Sydney, I was invited to speak to the Australian Olympic Tae Kwon Do team by Richard Walsh, the team's manager. I flew to Melbourne to meet with members of the team at the Victorian Institute of Sport. There I met with 6 of the 8 athletes chosen to represent Australia in this event.

The topic was goal achievement, with a special focus on the dynamics surrounding motivating positive actions as the goal nears completion. This is a period of time when many people, having done all the necessary hard work, scuttle their own success. There were several interesting insights that emerged from our discussions, but one in particular struck home and I thought many of you would benefit by reflecting on this lesson.

How many of you have been taught to visualise the end goal, the result? To picture that time richly? Taught that by imagining the benefit and all the positive associated feelings, you will influence your behaviour now? Meaning, those images and the feelings they elicit will have the power to influence your behaviour today ensuring you take the action necessary to reach the end result.

Along with this, how many of you have been taught to use positive affirmations in relation to goal achievement?

Good, now look back at the goals you have used these techniques for. What has been the result?


This article is dedicated to the members of the
Australian Tae Kwon Do team for their performances at the Sydney Olympics. Congratulations!


Martin Hall (coach), Paul Lyons,
Carlo Massimino, Stephanie Burns, Lisa O'Keefe, Cynthia Cameron, Tanya White, Ross Hartnett


What an amazing time this
was in Sydney


Who would think that being part of the Olympic Games would NOT be big enough to motivate you to drink water!


About this time in the ceremony when the athletes were gathered on the floor of the stadium we decided to see if Mel (Gainsford-Taylor) had her mobile phone on .. she did and it was busy .. now who could she have been talking to!

We eventually got through to Mel on the phone and were transported from the lounge room right to Stadium Australia .. the energy was so high it could be felt over the phone.





Both Mel and coach Jackie Byrnes were out there that night with all the members of the Tae Kwon Do team.

I learned a great deal about action and avoidance from my time training with Mel and Jackie.


Here's the story

Working with these athletes at this stage in their preparation for the Olympics, I knew that the foundation for their skills was set and there was no more technical work that would likely influence the performance on the day. I also knew that there was nothing more they could do in the short term to influence other attributes that influence performance in the martial arts, such as, flexibility and strength. Their technical skills, flexibility and strength had been established slowly over many years. At this stage, they would have to live with the results of the actions they had been taking during the previous years.

What was, however, going to have a direct impact on their performance at the Games, were the small actions that would affect their state of mind and body on the day. For instance, what they choose to eat, how much they decided to rest and recover and how they interpreted events leading to their emotional state of mind. As Jackie Byrnes, my sprint coach at the time, always remind us ... "You run tomorrow on what you eat today."

The athlete's task

I asked these athletes to list all of the activities they knew that if they did would have a positive impact on their performance at the Olympic Games.

I then asked them to put a check next to any of these activities that, although knowing their importance, they were successfully avoiding or procrastinating. They picked up their pens and busied themselves.

Each athlete had one or more actions they knew that if they took would benefit their performance on the day ... some of these things the athlete was not doing at all or was not doing them as frequently or well as they could. The activities in this list contained:

eating properly
eating at all!
icing after training
seeing the physio and
talking with the coach about problems.

Prior to doing my PhD study on goal achievement, these lists would have really shocked me. I certainly would have imagined that if I had the skills to make an Olympic team, I'd be doing everything right. I'd have thought that sacrifice and "discipline" would be easy, if I knew the payoff was as big as participating in an Olympic Games. Of course, I wasn't very smart about these things at that time.

I have since learned that sacrifice (going to bed early, eating properly, drinking water!) doesn't "feel good" and leads to avoidance in all humans who lack a cognitive method for overriding the urge to avoid or delay the discomfort for as long as possible.

Of course, those of you who have been following my work on goal achievement in other articles or through the Labyrinth online course, won't be surprised at all. The items on this list aren't particularly demanding, but they do err on the mundane and boring side of the life of an athlete.

Interestingly, no one else can really tell when you don't do small things. There is no external factor providing a consequence if you don't do the right thing. Now, I think if your face turned into a big pimple if you didn't drink 2 litres of water during the day ... drinking water would be an easier decision to make!

You might be able to tell when you've stayed out too late, but others would not easily pick it and of course you're not telling anybody!

Now, this in itself is interesting. I would think for myself that if I knew I was going to the Olympic Games, it would not be difficult at all for me to motivate myself to do what seem to be simple activities in order to perform my best on the day. (I'm not going to the Olympics so I might just have a beer at lunch!)

Back to the athletes

I asked the athletes what they had been taught to do to motivate themselves. They told me they have been taught to visualise winning, getting on the dais, wearing a medal or simply getting further then they have in the past. As they spoke about these images I could see the changes in their physiology and hear it in their voices. These are exciting images and they were getting excited as they described them.

But in an instant, a shade of realisation dropped over the group.

The excitement of the positive image of performing at the Olympic Games and even the image of winning a gold medal was NOT strong enough, or compelling enough, or timely enough to affect their behaviour NOW.

The athletes were going to lunch after my session. They realised that even the enormity of their Olympic goals and being so close to achieving them was not powerful enough to affect what they chose to eat for lunch! Some knew they would not eat properly that day. Some knew they would find an excuse to miss meditation that day.

I know many people who would swear that if they could go to the Olympic Games as an athlete, they'd give up or do just about anything. Great idea, but not great in reality!

The Solution

I have worked with enough successful people to know that the actual achievement of a goal, while exciting to think about (and even more exciting to achieve) is rarely compelling enough to influence us, in the moment, to either avoid pleasant things we want (staying up late, eating chips), or to do unpleasant things.

What I suggested to these athletes, in the face of the evidence, was that they change the point in time upon which they focus.

I asked them right then and there to think about how they would feel the day after their competition when they are looking back on it. I wanted to know, for them to know, how they were going to feel the day after the competition when they saw their performance in the reflection of what they did or didn't do in the last few weeks before the Games.

One of the athletes asked if I was trying to make them feel guilty. I asked if feeling guilty was motivating? She just smiled.

I have discovered that going past the goal and looking back is a far more compelling place in time in some situations.

What Situations?

That's simple. Anytime you have a significant goal, the achievement of which has a great benefit for your life, and yet you are not doing everything you know that if you did would get you there in the best shape you could be. If visualising your goal being achieved is not motivating your actions now, then stop doing it. It clearly isn't working!



This strategy and others are taught in the Leadership Labyrinth
on-line course.

Click here to learn more about the Labyrinth online course


The Emotional Experience of the Adult Learner

This PhD thesis is a popular resources for trainers and HR managers

Copies can be ordered via the kiosk. Use the 4th button from the left.





Try it!

Find a goal that requires action now that you are not doing ... saving money for the future, eating properly, exercising daily (even taking the stairs instead of the elevator type exercise). Pick something like that ... most of us have goals like this.

Then go out to some time past the goal and look back. If you are supposed to be saving money for a vacation, a little each week, but you keep avoiding the action of getting to the bank, then go to the time a few weeks after the date you wanted that money saved. Look at that day. You don't have the money. You can't do what you want to do. More time has passed and you are no better off. If you had done that few minute action each week imagine how different you would have felt on that day.

I use this strategy for most of my long term goals. We all have activities that are unpleasant in the moment. I would not have finished my PhD without this strategy.

My Story

I had come up with some very good sounding excuses and rationale for abandoning my University studies for my doctorate - and this surprises most people who hear it. But it was definitely in the too hard basket on many days. I had successfully convinced myself that it really didn't matter. Certainly my credibility in business had been established long before I started that degree.

On and on the inner chatter went. I am very good at figuring out ways to make whatever it is I am doing, or not doing, be just right.

But, I also knew all this internal chatter was simply self-delusion. I knew at the heart of it the PhD was indeed important to me.

How did I know? How did I keep taking action?

I kept using my imagination to go out to the time I would be 50 years old. I would look around at my life then. I would look back from that time to the present time. I knew on that day I would be very angry and sad if I had abandoned the PhD just because I didn't want to do some of the tasks I had to do in order to finish. I knew I would still be wanting to pursue a PhD even at 50 years old, and I certainly did not want to wake up on that day and begin the process all over again.

It worked for me in this situation, and it has worked for me in many other situations. This strategy gets me to do things today - the benefits of which will not be realised for many years to come.

It also works for me in short term actions related to my goals. I do some activities early in the morning in which the motivation is thinking about how I will feel at 12 noon if I still have to do them. In this way I get all my physical training done by thinking about how bad I will feel on Saturday if, when I'm reviewing my week, I didn't do my weight training, or get to the pool, or get my massage. I rarely am motivated in this instance by thinking about how good I will feel having done them, only how rotten I feel if I haven't done them.

If your strategy for motivation isn't working, try something else. Start feeling bad :-)

Go well





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