On a recent weekday evening, Abby Hornacek was telling me over the phone about her training routine, and just hearing it was making me tired. The high school senior from Paradise Valley, Ariz., was a blue-chip recruit in both indoor and beach volleyball and will begin her collegiate career next year as a member of the University of Southern California sand team, and she is serious about her workouts. Very serious.
Here’s some of what she puts herself through to stay in shape:
- Sits against the wall while brushing her teeth to strengthen her hams, quads, glutes and abdominals.
- Does footwork drills when she walks across the square tiles of her family’s home.
- Sprints while pulling a sled.
- Wakes up early before school to do crunches.
- Does ladder exercises every day.
It doesn’t take a Mensa mind to figure out that motivation – or lack thereof – isn’t a problem for Abby. She was born motivated, and that’s not a huge surprise when you consider her genetics. Her dad, Jeff Hornacek, played 14 years in the NBA from 1986 to 2000 and is now an assistant coach with the Utah Jazz. Abby fondly tells the story of her dad’s will to improve his game as a kid, when he spent many an afternoon shooting hoops outside in the frigid Chicago winter weather. He kept a bucket of warm water nearby to thaw his hands when they got cold.
The more I thought about the work that Abby and her dad have put into maximizing their athletic potential, the more it made me chew on the age-old question: What part of motivation is learned, and what part is simply DNA? My hope, of course, is that it’s not all genetic because, unlike Abby, I do not wake up in the morning with a burning desire to burn my core muscles.
I decided the subject of self-motivation warranted research, so I called Terry Liskevych, whom I’ve known for more than 20 years. He coached the U.S. Women’s National Team in three Olympics, including 1992, when the team won a bronze medal, and he is currently the head women’s coach at Oregon State. Terry is what you might call a learning addict. When you bring up a topic with him, even if it’s miles away from volleyball, he has likely either read up on the subject or knows someone who has covered it in a Ph.D. dissertation. Or both.
I kicked off our discussion with the fundamental question: Motivation – nature or nurture? Terry’s take: A certain baseline is genetic, but after that you can enhance it if you’re able to push the right buttons.
Much of what I’ve read and heard supports this. A good chunk of motivation is genetic. How much? That’s subject to debate. A recent study that was written about in the New York Times monitored exercise habits of identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genome) and non-identical twins (who share 50 percent) and found that the identical twins were more likely to follow similar exercises patterns. The conclusion: When it comes to the motivation to exercise, about 60 percent is from your parents, and not just because they signed you up for Little League and soccer. That resides in the other 40 percent under the “Nurture” heading.
For our purposes, I assumed a certain amount of “baseline drive” and then explored ways to build on it. “The first step,” Liskevych told me, “is developing a work ethic. It’s the cornerstone of success.” Terry’s father, a Ukrainian immigrant, would frequently say to him: “This is a great country. If you work hard, anything is possible. Understand, though, that you may work hard and not get what you want. But you’ll never get what you want if you don’t work hard.”
Whether you’re fully wired for bolt-out-of-bed motivation or not, hard work is clearly a choice, and it’s a choice that athletes and coaches who have achieved a high level of success will tell you is not optional. In his book “The Vision of a Champion,” North Carolina Women’s Soccer Coach Anson Dorrance, who has won a record 20 NCAA women’s soccer championships and was the coach of the USA women’s national soccer team from 1986 to 1994, addresses work ethic by describing what it takes to develop a winning mentality:
“(It’s) partly optimism, but mostly it’s a combination of focus, pride, competitive anger, relentlessness, hardness, fitness and courage. … This type of mentality is not about your skills or tactics. What it comes down to is intense desire. To get this winning edge, you need to build an indomitable will. This means you must be relentless … and never give up.
“What I love about this mentality is that it’s not talent; it’s not part of a genetic code. It’s a choice you make … to develop it. It’s not an easy choice, but it is what is going to elevate you from an ordinary player. The question is: Can you make the choice to be indomitable?”
If getting to indomitable, or at least getting to where you’re going full throttle every day in practice, is the destination, then, in the view of many athletes and coaches I have spoken with, you need goals – written goals. That opinion is shared by Glen Albaugh, whom Terry suggested I call to discuss this topic. Albaugh, author of “Winning the Battle Within” about the mental side of sports performance, taught sports psychology for 28 years at the University of the Pacific, and he also coached the school’s golf team. He continues to work with athletes in a variety of sports, and the first thing he has them do is write down five reasons why they play their sport and then make a two-sided motivation scale, one side being a list of internal motivations – for instance, loving to learn new skills, enjoying competition – and the other side being external motivations: fame, fortune, recognition.
“Both are important, but it becomes really dangerous if external motivations outweigh the ones that are internal because external motivations can go away in a heartbeat,” he says. “Internal motivations thrive and thrive.”
Once motivations are determined, Albaugh has athletes write down goals. He says the physical act of writing them, pen on paper, is important in itself because it makes you think about where you’re headed, take ownership of what you’re trying to accomplish, and it gives you data that you can refer to at any time. One category is outcome goals – wanting to make the team, wanting to start, wanting to make a certain number of digs or kills. But more important, he says, are performance goals, which are the things you do every day. This could cover any number of subjects, from attention to nutrition to managing your emotions to improving your conditioning. For Abby Hornacek, doing crunches every morning before school and sticking to her routine of sitting against the wall when brushing her teeth would be on the performance goals list.
Goal setting is a routine part of each season for the world’s No. 1 ranked beach volleyball player, Todd Rogers, who teamed with Phil Dalhausser to win a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and will defend the title with Dalhausser this summer in London. Rogers writes down goals early each year, and he stresses the importance of having smaller goals – a lot of smaller goals – that build toward the ultimate goal. In his view, the “pie in the sky” goal is fine as long as you have more reachable goals in front of it to give you “wins” along the way. Most people don’t reach the pie in the sky, but if you’ve fulfilled goals as part of the process, the experience is usually a good one.
“You might have a hundred goals, and the 100th is winning an Olympic gold medal, but you start at No. 1,” Rogers says. “For a pro, goal No. 1 might be making the main draw of a tournament. And each time you reach a goal, you can look back and say, ‘I did that well; I met that goal – now I’ve got to keep climbing that mountain and grab another one.’ That shows you that you can accomplish these things. It’s like taking baby steps. Babies don’t say, ‘Today I’m going to hop up and strut around.’ They fall and fall and fall, and then they finally get it.”
The more Rogers talked to me about motivation, the more the theme of hard work surfaced in the conversation. Reflecting on it later, it struck me that his message was the antithesis of the popular saying, “It’s all good.” And by that I mean – it’s not always all good. If you play volleyball and your passes are spraying all over the place, that should fire you up to spend some extra time passing the ball off the garage when you get home from practice, not make you shrug and say, “Oh, well. I’m just here to have fun.” Bottom line: Nothing is fun when you stink at it. The fun comes when you can do something well, and that, all by itself, should be motivation to work your hardest.
Don Patterson is the editorial director at JDP Publishing Group, which owns DiG magazine and handles all content for VolleyballUSA, the official publication of the sport's national governing body. He is also an editor at CBSsports.com and a former sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times.