Mihayli Csikszentmihaly, the author of Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, noted, “Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”
An example is the Greek mythical story of Sisyphus. Punished by Zeus, Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity to push a large boulder up a steep hill until he reached the top. Because of the weight of the rock, he was not able to accomplish this feat. However, Sisyphus was clever. He attempted to meet the challenge using different tactics. He would push the heavy boulder up the hill quickly or slowly or gracefully.
For some, athletic performance feels like a Sisyphus judgment driving competitive outcomes “up steep hills.” Some days you are focused and in the moment; others, success appears unfeasible. In those instances when one aspect of your performance becomes erratic, focus on the Sisyphus approach, and embrace the challenge.
Dr. Tim Taylor noted, “Where then does challenge come from? It starts with a focus on achieving success rather than avoiding failure. With challenge, there is no fear of failure but rather a profound desire to pursue your sport goals with complete vigor and without hesitation. Challenge is associated with your enjoying the process of your sport regardless of whether you succeed or fail.
What motivated one of golf’s greatest, Jack Nicklaus? Nicklaus didn’t just want to win or to compete. He loved the challenge of the game. He stated, “Of course I [took each competition] as a challenge. Who wouldn’t? There were all these young guys coming along” like Trevino, Miller, Weiskoff, Langer, Woosnam, Norman, “saying, ‘Oh, here’s the next guy that’s gonna take Nicklaus off the throne.’ Fine. I love that.”
The winner of 18 Majors–including The Masters, U.S. Open, The Open, and PGA Championship–finished runner-up in these tournaments 19 times. Nicklaus claimed he learned more from those second-placed finishes than from the times he won. Being oh-so-close isn’t negative; rather, it sparks a level of determination that a true professional has when they’re not quite on top. With that purpose and motivation comes introspection, trial and error, and a greater effort to find out how to do things better.
“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi.
It is not often success comes naturally. Effort is demanded. Motivation is required. Embracing the challenge is rewarded.
That was what motivated the greatest athletes of their generation.
Dr. Kevin Goddu