Elephant & Rider: A Tale of Motivation

As a sports coach, one of my jobs is to help motivate.  I suppose, ideally, each person would find her own motivation, but we all have days when we are a bit off, so I know that at any given practice, at least one person will not be at her best.  And some days,  the whole team might be suffering from a general malaise.  Sigh. . . .

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, author Jonathan Haidt writes about a Buddhist metaphor for motivation.  The conscious mind is the rider, and the unconscious mind is the elephant.  As the logical one, the rider is able to see the big picture, to plan, and to reason.  The elephant, then, represents emotions and impulses.

Bottom line is that each of us needs to learn how to train our elephant.  By being patient and not necessarily acting on our emotional impulses, we can find the key to motivation and self-improvement.

One of the things that helps me train my own elephant is to find that which is greater than the “quick fix.”  Remember, that emotionally-driven elephant is a heckuva lot bigger than the rider.  So I have to find something REALLY compelling to keep that elephant on the road I choose.

In a sports setting, I can use motivators that might seem a little negative or taunting.  For example, I might push an athlete by asking, “What are YOU going to do for this team?  What are YOU going to give RIGHT NOW?”  I often encourage my team members to find out what they are made of, to push more than they thought they could give.

But in a personal setting, when you don’t have a coach yelling in your ear, how do you dig down deep and wrangle that elephant?  Are you able to focus on that big-picture goal and wisely and gently keep your elephant’s eyes on the true prize?

Who guides your actions, elephant or rider?


The Lesson List

Coaching is one of those things that makes you pull your hair out with a smile on your face.  All season, you push, motivate, hound, and shake your head.  Every now and then, you have that glorious moment when your athlete “gets it” or scores or overcomes.  And sometimes, it all comes together for the whole team, and they dig down deep and find what they are made of ON RACE DAY!

This past weekend, however, it all came together for me.

On Saturday, I coached two teams at a local dragon boat festival.  A dragon boat is a long canoe for 20 paddlers, a steersperson, and a drummer.  It originated in China thousands of years ago, and most of the races are sprint distances.  Here’s what it looks like in action:

Dragon Boat Race

Now, I need to make a confession here.  To look at me, you might see a 5′ 2″ person who looks young for her age–in other words, I look like a little girl.  But in reality, I have a surprising amount of rage contained in that small body.  I HATE when people don’t use turn signals or when they throw cigarette butts out of the car window.  I FUME when people don’t say please or thank you.  You don’t even want to know what I wish upon animal abusers, terrorists, and selfish people.

So on race day, when a situation arose that I considered unfair and unsportsmanlike, well, I reacted rather strongly.  By the last race of the day, I was dropping more F-Bombs than Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas.”

The thing is, though, as a friend pointed out to me later, I actually managed to direct that righteous anger in the right direction.  In my pre-race motivational talk to one of my teams, I talked (okay, ranted) about racing with integrity, with heart, with purpose.  I wanted to fire them up to race as good sportsmen and sportswomen.

I don’t mean to justify my bad language or my anger.  It really did feel like a good lesson learned for me–I took a “character flaw” and tried to re-purpose it for good.

So all weekend I have been thinking about Learning Lessons and how that really is the main point of life, in my book.  It occurred to me that, instead of a typical Bucket List, where people usually just list fun adventures or vacations, maybe a Lesson List is what would motivate me.  (Hmm, okay, so that came out sounding a bit uptight and puritanical….. perhaps I should put “learn to have fun” on my list.)

Anyway, for me I think a Lesson List is the way to go.  It fits with my beliefs and my personality.  Here, then, are the beginnings of my Lesson List:

  1. Learn to have fun.  🙂
  2. Learn to play the drums.  I regret giving up music lessons in junior high, and I think music is so very important.
  3. Continue to learn how to use my “gift” of anger in better ways.
  4. Learn to be more compassionate.
  5. Learn patience.


How about you?  Would a Lesson List work for you?  What would be on it?