One of the most important pieces to the fitness puzzle is actually paying attention and doing the work. Regularly. Consistently. And for the long haul. This requires a lot of things, but most importantly, motivation. Motivation is a science in and of itself and can derive from any number of sources: rewards, accountability, social obligations, etc. However, there is one source of motivation that I find especially powerful and that is autonomy.

Autonomy is by definition, “the right or condition of self-government”.

I am going to tell you a story about middle school boys and self-governance. Those two things probably sound like a terrible thing to combine, but in actuality, when they are given the autonomy to choose how to govern themselves, they will often do a better job than if we just give orders.

I coached the cross country team at my children’s middle school for four years and at the beginning of summer training for the fourth year, I found myself in a bit of a bind. These were unofficial practices that I hosted to get the kids ready for the competitive season which began only two weeks after we were back in school. It was a great opportunity for everyone to build up some miles and get themselves conditioned before official practice began and also get to know our new team members. We would meet at Lake Lynn, a park with a 2 mile path around its perimeter, at 8 am twice a week. It was a great place to run because the paths were mostly surrounded by trees and so the North Carolina heat was mitigated for at least a little while.

My youngest son was starting 8th grade and I was looking forward to him and any other 8th graders who attended to provide some leadership for the team so I could start the process of selecting team captains. However, when I asked them to lead warmups, I encountered a problem. One of the more influential 8th graders had convinced the others that listening to Coach and doing their best was not cool and so instead of leading warm-ups like I asked, my 8th graders were just fooling around and doing their best to pretend they didn’t hear me. I corrected this much to my son’s embarassment, but realized I had a big problem on my hands.

After practice that day, my son and I were hanging out in our pool and being uncharacteristically serious, I could tell he had a lot on his mind. “Mom, I don’t really like it when you yell at my friends.”

I paused. My first reaction was anger. But, I took a deep breath and responded.
“I don’t like to yell at your friends either. But, I need you all to be leaders, not trouble makers. If you don’t want me yelling at your friends, then you need to take the lead.”

He glared at me and started to tell me how he hated cross country and thought it was dumb and why did I have to be the coach and so on. We had actually been struggling with this for a few years as I was also the assistant coach for his lacrosse team. I was honestly not trying to make him a pariah by volunteering, there was just a shortage of available and qualified adults. And as a kid who had struggled with fitness coming out of elementary school, I was trying to be as supportive of him as possible. But still, I could see he was struggling with taking the risk of breaking ranks. So I pushed him a little bit.

“You know what? Your friends have no idea what is cool and what isn’t. They follow whoever tells them what to do and right now they are following this kid who really doesn’t care about anything other than being followed. You can be a leader or a follower in this life, but you have to decide which you are going to be. I guarantee you that if you stop following this other kid and start leading, they will follow you instead. And I won’t have to yell at anyone ever again.”

(No, I was not actually this diplomatic, most of you know I am a lot more “colorful” when jerking a knot in someone’s tail, but for the purposes of this story, we’ll pretend these were my words.)

He stopped glaring at me, actually avoided eye contact for a little while, and then we moved on and didn’t talk about it again.

Much to my suprise, at the following practice, without me prompting him, my son called out to everyone in a deeper-than-normal voice and said, “Come on guys, we are going to start with high knees!” and proceeded to do just that. As I predicted, all the other kids who were previously too cool to lead warm-ups, immediately joined in.

That day there was a sea change in the group. They actually tried to run the whole two miles instead of walking as soon as I was out of sight. They asked me if I could time their runs next time. And they came up with warm-up ideas for the next practice. By giving them the opportunity to lead themselves, I was giving them self-governance which is a powerful thing when it comes to motivation.

We went on to have a great season with these kids leading all the practices, encouraging our sixth and seventh graders, and really pushing themselves to do their best. All I had to do was give them the day’s training plan, tell them they could do it, and they did the rest. They never thought about what they couldn’t do because there was no one holding them back.

Giving middle schoolers the power to decide on their own success may sound like a gamble, but it got them to focus not only on their own success, but the success of the team as a whole. Their autonomy ultimately allowed them to take pride in their efforts and at the end of the season, they knew that it was their hard work that paid off.

Sometimes, when you get into a rut, its a good idea to shut off the outside noise and decide for yourself where your path is going to lead and then make a plan to get there. Get rid of the excuses and the negative self-talk and decide to be a leader of one. Yes, you may make mistakes, but they will be your mistakes, and at the end, the success will be all yours as well.

“An excuse is the most expensive brand of self defeat you will ever purchase.”
― Johnnie Dent Jr.

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