Time and its influence on motivation
Ian Smith explains how an athlete's psychological relationship to time will influence their motivation
Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist whose seminal work on human motivation resulted in his Hierarchy of Needs, made two profoundly important statements in relation to achievement: "Man is an ever-wanting animal" and "All behaviour is goal oriented." These are my jumping off point for this article; they can be combined in the single question, what do we want to achieve? That is, and more explicitly in relation to the athletes whom you coach, what is it that at a deep emotional level drives them and, by implication, needs satisfying?
Carrot or stick
An athlete's psychological relationship to time will influence their motivation; equally, it will inform their response to your coaching style and further, it should direct whether you emphasise the "carrot" or the "stick" when coaching them to convert athletic potential into actual achievement.
People can be divided broadly into "In Time" or "Through Time" types. What differentiates them is the direction of their Time Line. A Time Line is an imaginary or virtual line linking a person's past, present and future. People will "see" their Time Line running in one of two alternative directions, relative to the position of their body; it is where their Time Line runs that defines whether a person is "In Time" or "Through Time".
With "In Time" people their Time Line dissects their body: they are, as it were, "In Time". "In Time" people not infrequently see their past and sometimes a part or the whole of their present in front of them. It is not uncommon for "In Time" people to also 'see' their future behind them: their past, which can be in front of them, can be so influential it continues to inform, colour and shape what an "In Time" person 'sees' when they look ahead to tomorrow.
Clearly, there is a high likelihood that an "In Time" person will apply the usual distinguishing definitions of 'past', 'present' and 'future' less strictly; that is, 'past' is not always 'behind', 'gone' and 'future' is not always 'ahead', 'yet to happen'. Such a person's psychology can mean these three periods can be found in front of, or inside or behind their body. An "In Time" person must therefore metaphorically turn their head, to look behind themselves, to 'see' some part of their Time Line. On the other hand, a "Through Time" person will 'see' the whole of their Time Line in front of them, and whether it is organised horizontally in front of them, vertically in front of them or, for some individuals, in a V-configuration on a horizontal or vertical plane in front of them, past, present and future are always in view without any need to metaphorically turn their head to 'see' a part of their Time Line.
A person's Time Line configuration will have an effect on their perception of time; indeed, a Time Line's course, plus the proximity of past, present and future to each other on it, plus the psychological nearness in space of these periods on the Line to the person's body will have a predictable effect on time-related behaviours and practices. (Note, my use of the word 'time' can be in reference to hours and minutes or years.) The major distinction, however, is that for an "In Time" person a part of their Time Line will be behind them and for a "Through Time" person the whole of their Time Line will be in front of them.
In Time people
If, as I have suggested, a person's Time Line influences their behaviours and practices, how might we generically describe "In Time" and "Through Time" people? "In Time" people typically:
Through Time people
On the other hand, "Through Time" people typically:
Clearly, "In Time" and "Through Time" people have different perceptions of time and consequently tend to behave differently, not least due to the influence of their deep lying emotional drivers - those that spur them on to achieving their goals. So now let me turn to the subject of goal achievement.
Every person moves either towards their future or away from their past; which movement is predominant will depend on their Time Line and the influential power of their past, present and future. It is the predominant direction that is important: whether most of the time in most situations the person is motivated by approach, attraction and reward, i.e. a "carrot"; or avoidance, repulsion and punishment i.e. a "stick". In other words, a "Towards" person will move towards what they like and want to achieve in the future, whereas an "Away From" person will move away from what they don't like or from some troubling past. The outcome could well be the same, that is a notable achievement, but what drives a "Towards" person will be the magnet of a clearly seen future, and what drives an "Away From" person will be the repulsion of their clearly seen past. Consider two world-class boxers, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Expressed very simply, we might say that all of Tyson's behaviours speak of someone whose past is always with him, whose past is a constant influence and from which he ceaselessly tries to move away from; whereas Ali's behaviours spoke, and still speak, of someone whose future is the attractor and to which he constantly moves towards. Of course, at some level or other everyone will experience a drive to move towards or away from something; but generally (i.e. most of the time in most situations) "Through Time" people are driven by moving towards future goals and "In Time" people are driven by moving away from their past.
A "Towards" person will be motivated by their desires; so to motivate them, they need a reward or a goal (a 'carrot'). In terms of achievement, a "Towards Goals" person will be motivated by a strong desire to improve personal efficiency even more - to get more value from an activity or life in general. Any system or technique that will help them do this will be welcomed. On the other hand, motivating a "Towards Goals" person with a 'stick' will only serve to make them antagonistic.
"Away From" people
As "Away From" people move away from what they don't like, they can best be motivated by their fears. Trying to motivate such a person with a 'carrot' will rarely work well: they will care little for it. In terms of achievement, then, the 'carrot' of greater personal efficiency, or of winning per se, might not in fact be as powerful a carrot as assumed because they are not motivated by "Towards" goals. They could well be motivated, however, by something significantly negative that they want to move away from, for example a memory or a negative life experience.
Some people can convince themselves they are a "Towards" goals person, but their direction is merely apparent (an illusion) for their inner representation, their deep and truer psychological or emotional stimulus, is "Away From". Hence they repeatedly sabotage their own efforts to achieve a sustainable "Towards" goals direction or outcome by acting according to the "Away From" motive. In a sense, they behave like the Moon circling the Earth: the Moon is always attempting to shoot off into outer space (a "Towards" goals ambition) but is held back, in a fixed orbit, by the Earth's more powerful force. The Moon can thus be said to be in a stuck state. People in a stuck state will never resolve their dilemma until they are able to free themselves from whatever is preventing them seeing their future unencumbered by the influence of their past. Again somewhat simplistically, we might suggest that all Tyson's achievements have been motivated by his drive to get away from his past, but because his past is probably always there in front of him he will see his future through the influential lens of his past, and until he is helped to change the configuration of his Time Line his behaviours will continue to be coloured by what he is trying to get away from. In Maslow's language Tyson's goal-oriented behaviour is designed to dwell upon his past, not to achieve a future, but as his past continues to anchor him in a stuck state he replays his self-sabotaging behaviours.
The question is, are your athletes "In Time" or "Through Time"?
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About the Author
Ian Smith has qualifications in psychology and emotional intelligence assessment. He runs his own training and development consultancy based in the UK, working with both corporate and private clients. Ian also works one-to-one with athletes, as their coach and counsellor, helping them to work through the immense pressures some of them face, due to performance issues, the media, relationship problems, fame, wealth, conflict etc.
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