Having worked with some of Britain’s best known and most successful sportspeople, such as Ronnie O’Sullivan, Dame Ellen MacArthur and Sally Gunnell OBE, I’m often asked by those looking to emulate their achievements what it is exactly that drives them. The answer I always give is that different people are of course spurred on by different things, but I think elite sportspeople fall into three basic motivational categories.
Some are driven by the fear of losing and some see victory as the only game in town, but there is another group that fascinates me – those who just love what they do and simply want to master their discipline. This group is chock full with the real cream of the crop, the kind of people who possess the emotional intelligence to detach themselves from the meaning the rest of us attach to winning and losing.
What they’re chasing is something altogether more transcendental, its meaning rooted in the experience itself.
Success is temporary in sport – as soon as it visits you, it disappears and, if attaining it is your motivation, you’re back at square one before you know it and having to prepare to go after it all over again. But for those who primarily pursue mastery, success and adulation, not to mention the financial rewards they bestow, are little more than a handy by-product.
For Michael Jordan, his best game was of little significance to anyone not directly involved. It was a practice match after which his opponent that day, Magic Johnson no less, told him he had assumed the mantle of the main man in basketball. For all his preening, do we really think Cristiano Ronaldo, or Leo Messi for that matter, got where they are without a deep love for football and a burning desire to master it?
The practice of Zen archery is one of the world’s oldest sports but its purpose differs from almost all of the rest. The primary aim is not to hit the target but to achieve an emptying of the mind before, during and after the release of the arrow. This state of serenity and calm was dubbed ‘mu’ by the Japanese horsemen who trained their minds and bodies to become one.
In the 21st century, we commonly refer to it as ‘the zone’, a quasi-mythical place few are able to find and with no revelatory ‘X marks the spot’ on a psychologist or physiologist’s map. All we know is that we must put ourselves in a position where we allow ourselves to enter it.
The truth is that nobody knows the full extent of their potential, in sport or in any other field. In order to get anywhere near reaching that potential, it goes without saying that we must apply ourselves to practice in the first place. And that raises the question of how far we are willing to go to find out exactly what we can deliver.
My answer to that is to always believe we have more ‘in the basement’. Jose Mourinho is a case in point. His motivation lies in testing himself in new environments in order to improve but his readiness to move on is often criticised.
For me, however, that speaks of the realisation that progress is incremental, plus an appreciation of patience as a virtue and that losing can prove positive. In this way defeat has more use than success and, rather than sitting on our laurels, it enables us to step back and rationalise our performances.
Rory McIlroy’s meltdown at the Masters in 2011, while hard to take at the time, did him no end of favours and, having got in touch with his motivations and added fuel to his fire, he now stands at the top of golf.
In short, the elite sportspeople who get the very best from themselves are those who want to be the very best. They are the ones prepared to search the depths of their souls to find the extra resources required and they are the ones who see victory as just another part of the process.
Placing a greater emphasis on the pursuit of perfection is the key and, as perfection doesn’t really exist, there is always, always room for improvement.
Pete Cohen is the founder of Future Diamond. Future Diamond is committed to help people with a unique business opportunity as well as train and support their journey to success and financial freedom.