Using Discipline When Motivation’s Low

December 23rd 2020

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

Using Discipline When Motivation’s Low

There is no denying that the current situation in the world is affecting us all – COVID-19 has had quite the impact on life and lives! GLOBAL restriction has led to feelings of loss, frustration, and confusion; in all walks of life, but especially in relation to training / hobbies. Most of this year’s races were cancelled and all upcoming race starts are in still doubt.

It certainly is a “worthy” time (if there ever is such a time) for wavering focus and a drop in motivation!

Are Your Inner Demons Taking Over?

You may recognise or have variations of these thought trends:

What’s the point in training?


I have nothing to aim for now, I might as well have time off

These questioning comments are commonplace, can often overpower us and lead to a lack of engagement in training, skipping sessions or even ceasing training all together.

Being demotivated is a powerful (negative) emotional state to be in. It easily overpowers our logical and reasoning mind, which is why we often succumb to the thoughts of quitting and skipping training. Our reasoning minds are not fast enough or strong enough to fight back.

The chances are that you are aware of this shift in mindset (maybe now or from past incidents in life) and you have probably tried to combat it?

External Motivation

Your call to arms when attempting to fix periods of demotivation is most likely to use external sources.  We subconsciously go for the external type because it is faster and easier to “find”. The two most common “top up” methods come in the form of:

  1. Shopping therapy – browsing forums, social media, review sites, etc and then buying new toys, gadgets, clothing, or whatever else may be the case. You create “scapegoats”
  2. Borrowed inspiration – browsing social media (mainly) for inspirational stories, individuals, pictures, etc. You deny taking personal responsibility.

Boosting motivation with these types of influence are not actually linked to our INTERNAL drives. External motivations are not personal, we do not own them, they are not part of our being. Yes, we may physically purchase and own something, but it is NOT part of us – the only thing we truly own is our mind, and the actions we choose to make.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor

Internal motivation

Internal motivation is harder to develop; it cannot be bought or borrowed in a whim. It requires us to assess our state, our actions, our strengths/weaknesses, etc and then develop a sense of direction. We have to dedicate time to being objective and realistic with ourselves, to create concrete desires and action plans (processes) – envisioning where we would like to be at the end of the journey to confirm our motivation points.

External Addiction

Motivation is very much like a drug, and external motivation is the “hard stuff”! We easily become hooked and reliant on external “fixes”. Rather than focusing on the organic but slower, longer lasting doses of internal motivators.

How often do you find yourself (wasting time) on phones / computers / tablets browsing on social media, seeking out YouTube videos, flicking between online shops and review sites for new shoes/bikes/gadgets? (Noting that much of this is no longer voluntary thanks to the hidden algorithms, tracking capabilities and recommendation features of the internet).

After a digital binge, you may find yourself feeling pumped and primed, ready to attack training and conquer your goals. Unfortunately, in a relatively short time, even after a single session, you may find you return to the same feeling of loss and laziness.

These external motivators are NOT part of our true inner drive, so they fade just as quickly as they arrive.

Internal motivators stick around longer because we own them, they are attached to the cause and envisioned end result. They ARE part of who we want to be.

Direct Ownership of Motivation

Not only is EXTERNAL motivation akin to the use of drugs, but it is also an easy “scapegoat” and/or avoidance of you taking personal responsibility of the situation.

(Scapegoat – to blame a person or thing for something bad that happens)


It starts with you spend time browsing online for a new toy, to boost “motivation”. You bounce around for hours from online shop to online shop. You settle upon buying a new pair of carbon-plate shoes, because they can improve your running efficiency by 4%.

They arrive, you feel inspired and ready to attack the roads… and the first run feels good, your mind is telling you that you are definitely moving faster, it’s really feeling easier. Afterwards, you review the data; you weren’t faster, your HR was elevated while at the slower pace, your mechanics were off, etc. As a result, you are now even more demotivated than before. The marketing won you over; the shoes may help those elite athletes but will certainly make no difference if you hadn’t committed to your training and you hadn’t run over the previous two weeks.

Personal Responsibility

Instead of committing to personal development, you spend time online but this time you aren’t looking to spend money, you’re on social media hunting for inspiration. You look at your role models profiles or stumble upon random people from random places in the world (thanks again to being tracked and provided with recommendations). Searching for inspirational stories, videos of people training hard, the underdogs finishing races, and the like.

You become a cyber-stalker, going back through entire post histories. Every post makes them look so happy, so fit, so driven, so successful. Naturally, you begin to copy them (all!), implementing their habits, sessions, and free advice.

This is borrowing motivation. Because it is not YOUR motivation, motivation that you have internally established and bonded with, it fades and is not relatable in times of need. It can also become a scapegoat.

So, if you are not to continually seek out external motivation top-ups, but your original internal motivators are waning, what should you turn to for help?

Enter: Discipline

Discipline is a much misunderstood and underemphasised quality but is often interpreted in the military context of punishment and control.

This military use of discipline does indeed exist and is a “necessary evil” for the good of the individual(s). One day, it may well save their lives and the lives of their comrades! But it is not the only form of discipline.

Discipline comes in many forms, and we use it all the time; it helps us stick to daily routines in life.

Take brushing our teeth, are we “motivated” to do the bi-daily task? Or is it the discipline and routine we have established throughout life, that we keep on doing it? Same goes for going to work, washing clothes, etc.

But does it carry over into maintaining our bikes, our swimming and running kit, training consistently, controlling session intensity, etc?

It’s just a matter of understanding what’s necessary and discipline yourself to do it.”

Arthur Lydiard, Run Coach

In the early stages of a training journey, when we are motivated (internally), we hardly notice our employment and use of discipline. Motivation, combined with discipline, is what help us establish and stick with routines / processes. We prioritise training, time manage effectively, prepare foods, wake earlier to fit in sessions and get to bed at a sensible time to recover rather than watching TV or browsing online.

We integrate these processes into our lives and repeat them somewhat effortlessly.

Relying on Discipline when Demotivated

You WILL experience times of demotivation, and you WILL know when this happens, which is why we have those “call to arms” moments and turn to discipline.

Use discipline to continue following the routine, the one we established to allow us to reach our goal(s). Simultaneously, commit to analysing your internal state, to assess what has really changed, and if necessary, define what new paths and processes are needed to reach the new / altered destination.

Discipline is doing what you hate to do, but doing it like you love it

Mike Tyson, Olympic and Heavy Weight Boxing Champion

Discipline is your safety net, the attribute that keeps you on the straight and narrow until you restore direction and internal drive.

Lockdown and (the need for) discipline

Working habits are probably the biggest daily routine that has been disturbed recently. You may have been forced to work from home or are still at your “normal” place of work but with new rules and restrictions. Either way, you will have independently or collaboratively created new working routines to ensure productivity is maintained. Adopting the routine makes work “flow”, it makes work easier and more effective.

Training is no different. The routines we once had, that worked perfectly and synched with all other responsibilities and commitments, must be re-assessed, and adapted. Adapt and overcome!

The good thing is that almost everyone is free to be active, even if, in the extreme case, its within your own home. Thanks to the tools we now have available there is nothing to stop us training, only ourselves!

Unless we become ill, there’s nothing really stopping us from doing almost the same as we would normally do. Even with the inaccessibility of swimming pools, there are land-based swim alternatives.

To see a man beaten not by a better opponent but by himself is a tragedy.”

Cus D’Amato, Boxing Coach


The cancellation or postponement of races, life changing working arrangements and the knock-on into all other aspects of life will have an impact on motivation. Goals for 2020 have been progressively removed from our grasp, and all due to external circumstances over which we have no control.

Your original aim/goal, spark in desire, may have been to perform well in a race, or selection of races. Or maybe it was to reinvent your life, from one of unhealthy habits to one of health promoting habits?

Whatever your original spark was, it is something attainable in the future; the destination in the training journey. To get there, you have to adopt a mindset to develop the processes to take you from today to that end point.

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t pay attention to the day-to-day details.”

Don Shula, NFL Coach

These training processes must be enforced and supported with discipline. Forming daily habits and routines that eventually allow you to achieve the goal(s.) The outcome is directly attributed to the adherence of the processes; applying them every time you train.

The outcomes: your goal to compete in the race, achieve a time, a ranking, realise the health benefits, etc, are simply a result of the processes (training, time management, fuelling, etc) that you adopt and follow.

Conclusion – You control more than you think (admit)

Spend a little time to search within to find out what you want to do, what you can do and will do and then set goals to motivate yourself. Establish the processes needed to reach these goals. Employ your discipline to ensure you stick to the processes, to enable you to reach your (new) goals.

Your future is in your hands – no one else’s. You can either develop the right attitude, (re-)build your internal motivation and recruit discipline to follow your processes. Or, you can keep cycling through periods of drive and periods of loss.

Either way, YOU are in control of your actions and destiny.