What motivates you? Is it the desire to achieve a goal? Or is it the need to please others? This applies to all things in life – not just sport. Work and looking after family are two other examples. Perhaps fear motivates you. And here’s why you shouldn’t let fear motivate you, at least not in the long term.

Don’t Let Fear Motivate You

What Motivates You?

Everyone has something that motivates them to act. Why do you put food in your mouth? Because you’re hungry or you regardless you know you should eat.

Why do you run?

Is it because you love the sport and are constantly seeking that self-improvement? Or is it just because you want to win a race? Or maybe it’s because you want to improve your body image so that perhaps others will view you more positively.

If you said ‘yes’ to loving the sport then you aren’t letting fear motivate you (generally a good thing) as long as you have this intrinsic motivation it is likely you will grow and continue to succeed in what you do whether it’s running, another sport or work. It’s important to maintain a strong intrinsic drive as this will allow you to pursue your goals in whatever you do.

If not, then you may make some progress initially, but are likely to drop off as you’re more likely to be motivated by external factors such as wanting a better body image or wanting to say you’ve run a marathon. Once that goal has been achieved, you’re likely to either stop or simply your interest in the activity will start to decline although you may maintain it for a while.

It’s possible to be motivated intrinsically and extrinsically, the difference being which of the two factors motivates you more. Let’s say not wanting to lose a particular race is the extrinsic motivator. In this scenario, intrinsic motivation works great as making sure to stick with what you are doing whilst the extrinsic motivator can help you to train harder during training sessions and to give it everything in a race. As long as the extrinsic motivator (fear-related) is short term, it could help your long term development.

5 Common Drivers Of Fear

David Conroy, a professor at the College of Health and Human Performance at Penn State examined athletes who were motivated by fear and found five common drivers:

  1. Fear of shame and embarrassment.
  2. Fear of an uncertain future.
  3. Fear of important others losing interest.
  4. Fear of upsetting important others.
  5. Fear of losing a positive self-image.

Interpret each of these how you will, but having fear motivate you will be detrimental to your long term development and the sustainability of the activity you are doing. You are more likely to become overly stressed to the point it becomes chronic and your health is compromised. Despite this, try to acknowledge that fear can be a powerful motivator in the short term.

Fear Only Works Short Term

Let’s say you start a new training programme to lose body fat. You want to see results immediately so that people will start to notice your transformation and may even praise you. Maybe you even start to make progress, but because you feel like the progress is too slow or no one has noticed your efforts after a month you may decide to stop altogether. There’s even a chance you may feel burnt out, compromised the health of your immune system or injured yourself from all the physical activity.

Studies have shown that those who fear failure are more likely to improve their results. One study used a handgrip test where first participants were assessed as to whether or not they feared failure. After that, they squeezed a handgrip as hard as possible. Half the participants were told to reflect and write about recent failures whilst the other half were told to think and write about recent successes. Following the writing exercise, all the participants squeezed the handgrip again. In those who didn’t fear failure, what they wrote about had no effect on their handgrip performance, but in those who did fear failure, thinking and writing about failure resulted in a significant improvement in grip strength.

The Effect Of Fear

So fear can be a powerful short term motivator. This is because when we perceive something to be a threat and are fearful, the body and mind prepare you to survive by any means required. Whilst this response is effective in the short term, over a prolonged duration it is much more likely to turn into anxiety.

Fear can be an effective motivator, but as a long term strategy, it’s unsustainable. That said, it is possible for people to achieve some of their goals using fear to drive them whether it’s achieving good exam results or winning a race, but a large consequence of this is a burnt-out mind (and perhaps body too). It’s much better to learn to accept failure and use it to grow.

I’ll be following up this post with a few subsequent posts addressing how to deal with fear and improve your mindset in what you choose to do.


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