There are certain traits that we envisage professional athletes to possess naturally. One of the standout traits that athletes appear to possess is discipline.
We imagine that the consummate athlete sets themselves rigid tasks and ticks boxes daily, and that it takes white-knuckled discipline to get up every day, put their body through rigorous physical training, regardless if they feel like it or not. We might see them be ‘disciplined’ at the dinner table, saying no to dessert and yes to more boring pasta and olive oil. We suspect that they will complete the workout perfectly, nail the final rep and stop strictly when the prescribed workout is done. Perhaps it is all these things that place an elite athlete a notch above the mere mortals…
I am here to tell you that this is partly true, but there is a caveat. The discipline that we revere is more often than not just a temporary state athletes need to engage when the situation requires it. Underpinning the proverbial ‘firm hand’ are deeper attitudes that can explain an athlete’s edge. Let’s reveal the foundations of daily discipline in sport…
Drive – The unrelenting urge to progress with strong momentum. You want to keep your own wheels in motion, you take action, you seek improvement, you problem-solve on the go. You wrestle through setbacks and approach your pursuit with optimism and energy. With an innate drive. you don’t need to enforce hard rules on yourself, because you naturally make choices that propel you towards your goals. For me, tackling a really challenging workout is simply another wheel in the works that keeps my engine revving.
Desire – This is like the more emotive cousin of drive, coming from a more spiritual part of your athletic identity. It’s instinctual and raw, an inner pull you feel towards your dreams and aspirations. It’s your guide in times of doubt, and it’s the feeling you revisit when you are faced with hardships, and you do what it takes to honour it.
Dedication – possibly the most often interchanged with discipline – dedication is the willingness to give a lot of time and energy to something because it is important to you. It is the commitment to consistency, it’s resilience, it’s the ability to pivot and reframe goals when things go awry. It is failing and trying again, and again. It’s what you do when you have lulls in drive or desire, but you have dedicated yourself to your sport/purpose/project which means you will persist. You prioritise habits and values that contribute to mastery of your craft. For me, it is making life choices that although might be tough,or are made at the expense of something else I also value, are part of my dedication to cycling.
Direction: It is practical, and it is necessary. You have a vision of the direction you want to head, perhaps you don’t know (and can’t possibly) know the exact path that takes you there but you will follow your own North Star nonetheless. For me, it is looking at the next challenge and heading towards it. A harder race, a touger field, a bigger competition on the horizon.
So where does good old fashioned discipline fit into an athlete’s life?
There are athletes who have a deep tendency towards army-recruit style discipline. They thrive on it and are able to engage it when required. It is also quite sport dependent, some sports really do have a lot more acute, repetitive practices like skills or time targets that need this type of discipline (I can only speak for being a free-roaming cyclist).
Other athletes (like me) struggle more to crack the whip on themselves for the sake of sticking to a pre-set routine. I rely more heavily on connecting with my inner drive and the emotional aspects of desire to get me out the door and on the bike every day. This can look quite different to the monk-like athlete who gets it done regardless, but can lead to the same outcome of achieving goals and enjoying the process.
The role discipline plays in my life, (and I know I speak for many others) actually comes in the form of being disciplined enough to hold back from training. Most people who make it to the top level of their sport didn’t get there hating it, they (for the most part) really enjoy it. So being told to go easier, do less, recover from illness or injury by taking a step back actually takes the most discipline in the traditional sense.
I have to really have a firm word with myself and stick to the allotted hours my coach prescribes when the day is really nice and I want to ride forever, but I know its a part of the bigger picture to stick the easy 1 – 2 hour ride that day. Or for example, after contracting Covid and having to really take it easy even if the main symptoms have passed. This type of discipline takes maturity and trust in the grander scheme of your athletic journey, and most importantly respect for your health.
I also have to be disciplined in getting myself to the gym, even if once I am there it is fine. I know it benefits my cycling immensely, but since it isn’t actually cycling itself, I have to just take action despite not having a shred of desire to go squat in front of a mirror or the drive to see improvements in weight reps, sets or PB’s.
So there you have a new perspective on how discipline is factored into the life of an athlete. I must stress that like many things are context-dependent- but since this is my blog you are privy to my relationship and understanding of discipline and how I do (or mostly don’t) engage it.