The motivation trapdoor – deliver success like an Olympic Champion by Dean Leak

Just 2 weeks later, how’s your New Year’s resolution looking? Here’s why they rarely work: The motivation trapdoor.

There is often a view that Olympic Champions and high-level business leaders have a special dose of motivational superhuman powers. They’re born with more drive, more energy and more get go in the morning. They’re able to push through barriers, put in more hours than anyone else and when really challenged, keep pushing through to succeed.

This certainly seems the case from the outside looking in.

I’ve worked with 100’s of athletes across different sports. Some have gone on to succeed at the top level in sport and some have not. For super elite athletes, research suggests there are often common behaviours and patterns such as a need for success, selfishness and resilience to perform under pressure which separates them from the rest.

High levels of motivation, however, often appears to be the most commentated characteristic for super elite success. I would like to clear up this myth.

Motivation alone is too unreliable to drive success. Think about yourself for a moment. How many times have you set yourself a new year’s resolution, a weight loss goal or a target to create a new behaviour? How many times did you follow through with your goal? On the times it did not work for you, how much did you put down to a lack of motivation? I certainly have and we’re all in danger of falling down the motivation trapdoor!

Whilst motivation on the surface might seem to be the key driver, dig a little bit deeper and you will find it is not just motivation driving an athlete’s success. It is something else and it is a skill you can develop.


I was fortunate to work alongside Professor Steve Peters using his Chimp Management model which has influenced a lot of my thinking. The premise of commitment vs motivation is motivation relates to pleasure – it gives you that ‘get go feeling’, a connection to something in that moment. It is a feeling and therefore an emotion.

Feelings are temporary – we can be feeling one thing one minute and something different the next. A classic example would be wanting to go to the gym, but not going because you ‘feel tired’ or ‘don’t have the time’. Our emotions are very powerful and without a plan to manage them, you will be guided by your emotional thinking rather than what you want to do. You end up falling down the motivation trapdoor.

Commitment, however, is based what you want and acting on your plan, regardless of your motivational state or how you are feeling. Athletes have a huge dream, but what often separates them for the rest is a strong planning process, emotional management and taking action.

Clearly, the mind is very complex and being committed the whole time is not always realistic and requires mental resilience. We’re all humans after all. However, I’ve highlighted a simple process to follow which may help you avoid the trapdoor and achieve success through commitment;

  1. Have a compelling dream: this should be something which really excites you. It is not a goal (as these are controllable) – this is something out of your control that you’re striving for. In other words, what is your north star dream?
  2. Have a detailed plan: a breakdown of what you need to do to give yourself the best opportunity to achieve your dream. Set SMART goals. In the Olympic world – in most cases an athlete will have a four-year strategy, an annual plan and a weekly and daily plan. As a minimum it will contain their physical training plan, a nutrition plan and a psychological plan. Breakdown exactly what you need to do to achieve your goal for these areas.
  3. Have a ‘help/stop’ strategy; you can have the most fantastic plan in the world, designed by an expert, yet in order to execute the plan you need to consider what will help you deliver the plan and what obstacles might stop you achieving it. List all the things that will help you achieve your goals and all the things that will stop you. This is a crucial point. Self-awareness is key in noticing your thoughts and differentiating your emotional thoughts and what you’ve planned for. Along the journey to success, you’ll have hundreds of unhelpful thoughts (which are automatic and subconscious) which will try and derail you. ‘I can’t do this’. ‘I’m too tired’. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. ‘I don’t have time’. Capturing your thoughts in a notebook may be a helpful way to notice common thoughts you’re having.
  4. Review! It sounds obvious yet often the stage missed the most. Take time to track your progress. Assess how you’re progressing against your goals and how your help/stop strategy is going.

In summary, have a big dream, have a plan on how to deliver this, develop a help/stop strategy and review your progress. Athletes and successful people do not have motivational superpowers or have secret ingredients. They act on a plan – not just their emotions. They do the basics exceptionally well and more times than not, commit to their plan over how they are feeling in the moment.

Successful athletes and business leaders don’t have New Year’s resolutions. They’re already acting now and following a plan.

Dean is a Director at CDP Leadership Consultants; he is a transformational leader and coach with 10 years’ experience working for Sport’s National Governing Bodies to support Gold medal winning Olympic and Paralympic athletes. You can read more of his writing at and contact him at