Four Keys to Motivation From a World-Champion Triathlete

Triathlon champion and #ASAE18 closing keynote speaker Siri Lindley doesn’t look for talent alone when building teams. She wants to see a willingness to own the hard work that a big task requires.

In her 2016 memoir, Surfacing, world champion triathlete Siri Lindley tells the story of her disastrous first triathlon in the early 1990s. She swam slowly, irking her fellow competitors. On the bike, she got “lapped as if I were soft-pedaling to Sunday brunch.” During the 5K run, she had to stop every 100 meters to “gasp and gag.” She finished nearly dead last, sobbing and humiliated.

Obviously, things have turned out well since then for Lindley, who’s won more than a dozen triathlon championships, was an inductee into the International Triathlon Union Hall of Fame, and is now an in-demand coach. She’s done it, she says, by rejecting the rhetoric of failure.

“I have a mantra that I’ve lived by, and that is that I’m either winning or I’m learning,” she says.

As the closing keynote speaker at the 2018 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Chicago next month, she’ll discuss her story and ways that leaders can help unlock potential in themselves and others. In advance of her talk, she spoke with me about some of her lessons learned, and what leaders can do for themselves and those around them to get motivated and conquer discouragement. A few of those takeaways:

Find your why. Even though Lindley was woefully underprepared for that first triathlon, she recognized that triathlons still lit a fire under her—the sport was the thing she wanted to get better at and improve on. Finding that motivation and that path is essential for any leader, she says.

“I didn’t want to do a triathlon to do a triathlon,” she says. “I was at a stage in my life where I was so desperate to find out who I was and what I was made of. And triathlon presented itself as a perfect vehicle through which I could find myself, test my limits, and earn my own respect for myself. If you want something bad enough for a reason that drives you deeply—I call it a really powerful ‘why’ behind what you’re doing—you will find a way.”

You’re going to make mistakes, and that doesn’t define you.

After a setback, think about solutions. As a coach, Lindley has worked with athletes who’ve pushed themselves to the verge of quitting for good—“literally centimeters from it happening,” she says. In any failure or breakdown, she encourages people to cultivate an analytical mindset. “The biggest thing I have to remind my athletes about is, OK, we’re faced with this problem, but instead of thinking about how bad this problem is and how bad it makes [you] feel and what is preventing you from doing it, let’s focus on the solutions.”

That’s not an easy thing to do, because so much physical and emotional energy is wrapped up in a demanding sport like triathlon. As a coach, she encourages athletes to get some perspective and not treat one setback as a lifetime judgment. “I remember my coach would give me a day off, and after one day of not training hard I would think that I lost all my abilities,” she says. “You’re not going to kill it every time. You’re going to make mistakes, and that doesn’t define you.”

Look for a will to achieve, not just achievements. Triathlon is an individual sport, but Lindley looks for people with a team mindset, even if it’s just a coach-athlete relationship. For that relationship to be effective, everybody needs to have commitment not just to be coached but to coach themselves.

“I’ll have people come to me who are amazing athletes and I’ll say no,” she says. “And they’re like, ‘I don’t get it. I’m winning races. Why don’t you want to coach me?’ But for me, I have a high-performance culture that is based on mutual respect and passion for what we’re doing and gratitude and appreciation for having the ability and the opportunity to push beyond what we think we’re capable of every day. I’m looking for that hunger. I’m looking for people that own themselves.”

Be vulnerable. Communication is essential in triathlon coaching, where the needs are individual, the challenges steep, and the emotions often raw. So while Lindley encourages her athletes to focus on solutions, she knows that they’re not going to get there without being able to express what they feel went wrong. And that means strong leaders need to express their shortcomings too.

“If you’re comfortable getting vulnerable, you’ll inspire them to become vulnerable,” she says. “Everybody has a different reason why they want to be great, why they want to succeed. And in order for me to inspire the team collectively, it’s important that I can communicate with each and every one of my athletes, even though they’re all so very different, in a way that is going to inspire them and motivate them and challenge them enough to really push them beyond what they think they’re capable of.”

(via Siri Lindley's Facebook page)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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