Sports Science: What Separates the Good from the Great?

Our Year 13s looked at the experiences of Polar Explorer Ben Saunders as part of their AS Sports Science Course just before half term. Intrigued by what differentiates a good athlete from a great athlete, Ursula reached out to Ben on social media to find out more.

By Ursula C (Year 13)

As a sport science student, I have often wondered what exactly goes on in the minds of the elite athletes, record breakers and world champions. These wildly successful people seem to have no trouble training for hours on end and pushing themselves to the absolute limit; so what is their secret? The answer in my opinion is mindset, specifically motivation. It is motivation that separates the good from the great. 

There is no denying that natural talent is often an important factor in being successful at a given sport or activity however, it will only take you so far. The rest of success is fuelled by a person’s motivation; that inner drive that allows them to push their bodies beyond its capabilities and then some. So, what really is motivation in that case? Well, motivation can be defined as the internal mechanisms and external factors that stimulate and direct our behaviour. Put simply, motivation is what pushes us to learn, develop and achieve our goals, whether it be running 5km or walking across the arctic; it is our reason why. 

There are two types of motivation; you have the intrinsic motivation and the extrinsic, and it is usually a combination of both that keeps us all ticking. Intrinsic motivation is the internal drive that encourages you to succeed, ranging from feelings of pride when you achieve something to just loving whatever it is that you do. Ultimately, internal drive is a collection of your thoughts and feelings that are responsible for your motivation, think of it as your own personal cheerleader; a voice in your head telling you ‘you can’. But to give all the credit to intrinsic motivation would be ignoring the elephant in the room; the reward. Though it may be hard to admit, the shiny medal at the end of a race or the opinions of others can greatly influence us and our behaviour. After all, a lot of what we do is powered by the desire to be recognised and praised; in a way I think it is part of human nature. These external factors are what is known as extrinsic motivation. Some may view these factors as the slightly more selfish ones, such as trophies, titles and recognition, however, this motivation also comes in the form of pressure from our peers, the expectations of our family as well as simply not wanting to let down a friend. All of us in some way or another experience motivation, albeit in different forms, but someone I believe we can all learn a lot from is the Polar explorer Ben Saunders.

Ben is known around the world for his extraordinary accomplishments including; leading the longest human-powered polar journey and covering vast amounts of the Arctic on foot. He is not only a record holder, but his achievements forced him to put his mind and body to the ultimate test as he endured extreme weather, hunger and exhaustion in many of his expeditions. In my eyes, Ben Saunders is the complete embodiment of motivation. Now you must be thinking; how on earth did Ben Saunders motivate himself all that time in those unforgiving and brutal arctic conditions? Well, I asked him and he was kind enough to reply via social media! Ben explained that a lot of his motivation was derived from those ever important external factors, in his case friendship. He told me ‘I felt a surprising amount of internal pressure to keep going for the sake of my teammate and great friend’ revealing his feelings of responsibility as he recalls, ‘I was aware how much he had committed and risked to be there with me, and how hard he was working, so a part of me didn’t want to let him down.’. What is particularly fascinating about Ben’s experience is that he was able to motivate himself through some of the toughest times in his life by allowing a teammate to hold him accountable, something quite simple but extremely valuable. As a rower myself, I have found that being part of a team and sharing goals with friends has been the ultimate motivator, particularly through some tough training sessions. Allowing myself to learn from crewmates and their dedication has always inspired me to stay motivated and it is not to be underestimated.

Now more than ever finding the motivation to challenge yourself and perform well feels like a near impossible feat when most of us are stuck indoors or are unable to always surround ourselves with those we love. However, finding yourself someone you can tackle a challenge with, whether it be a sibling or a virtual friend, is an amazing way to keep moving forward. 

In Ben’s recent article, ‘Lessons of lockdown, learnt on ice’, he describes how redefining success allowed him to maintain that intrinsic motivation, noting, ‘I used to see it as a finish line – the accomplishment of a goal. I now see it as continuing to strive well.’ In Ben’s eyes ‘the destination is the journey,’ meaning that we all need to learn to love the process a little more if we want to sustain our intrinsic motivation. 

Whilst you wouldn’t think there are many ways to relate to a polar explorer during lockdown, something Ben has definitely mastered is the art of motivation and there is a lot to be learned from his experience. Motivation during Coronavirus is all about finding someone to lean on and letting them hold you accountable because everything feels easier when you have a team cheering you on. 

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