Some thoughts on motivation & progress…

Like many athletes I have a lot of personal experience with rehab; the process of mending the body and regaining strength following injuries, surgeries, and illness. The bad news about being in rehab is that it means something nasty happened. The good news? Rehab is the road back to health, and the process can be a great learning experience.

If I ask a group of people what fuels motivation I’ll hear things like enthusiasm, drive, and goals. We might talk about inspiration and incentive. But few things fan the fire of motivation like progress. Working at something with no gains will wear down even a highly motivated person. So as a teacher, an athlete, and a person with physical challenges this means I have to constantly be on the lookout for ways to be aware of even the smallest gains, both for myself and others.

It’s easy to see our progress when it comes readily. In training or rehab we experience periods when we advance well, and there are plateaus when progress seems to come to a halt. The more slowly we progress the more difficult it is to be aware of our gains, and eventually motivation fades. Looking at the big picture is overwhelming, so the key is to invent tools for measuring the improvements you can’t see in that big picture.

Using my own experience as an example, I got into neurological trouble in 2007 (the backstory is in my bio). The original procedure was a success, a year later I was climbing well and living well. But unexpectedly I developed inflammation and swelling, edema, in my brain. It was a real blow. One symptom was the loss of strength and dexterity in my left hand. I lived on dexamethasone for part of the summer; I was in a bloated stupor. My left arm was visibly atrophied, by then it was more than just a hand problem. Other muscles on my left side were not recruiting properly, if at all. But as the edema subsided I began to feel some improvement.

At first I responded well to exercise and my progress was good. I was confident that I could get back to 100%. Then I hit a plateau. If I was making any headway I was unaware of it. All I could see was that my left hand was impaired, I couldn’t climb, I was having weak sessions with my Pilates teacher, I was not recruiting those left side shoulder stabilizers, leaving me vulnerable to injury. I was looking at the big picture and I was overwhelmed, working away with no measurable gains. I was getting worn down, even depressed.

I am lucky to live in Monrovia, California, which is also the home of Yoga teacher Kate Garland. Kate taught me a practice of finger dexterity exercises which is quiet, meditative and centered on one’s breathing. Quickly I was freed from the frustration I was experiencing by doing finger therapy in a less mindful way. Frustration gave way to awareness and I began to see the incremental improvements I was making. My sensation, proprioception and dexterity were getting better. These simple, quiet, mindful sequences were the tools I needed to become aware that I was indeed getting better. I approached the other sides of my rehab the same way.

I invented specific reproducible routines which were benchmarks for progress and awareness. I was able to step back from the blindness of frustration and instead draw motivation from even the small bits of progress from one day, week and month to the next.

My situation was unique, so the takeaway here is not a list of exercises, rather an approach to designing training routines for yourself or for others. When progress is coming readily (I did not say “easily”) we feel good. But the rubber meets the road when we lose that momentum and things get hard. Frustration sets in. Nothing will cause a person to lose focus and awareness faster than frustration, and its partner, anger.

What I do now is choose an activity or exercise; maybe Pilates or Yoga, balance and agility drills, or climbing. I set the difficulty at a threshold where I will be challenged. I will have to make a high quality attempt to do well. Eventually it will become easier. Then it’s time to progress the exercise to increase the challenge in increments which are achievable. This strategy enables me to see that I’m making gains, however small. The means by which these gains are achieved, with mindfulness and awareness, without judgement and frustration, makes them all the more valuable.


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