The Secret to Gold Medal Motivation

Do you ever wonder how are people motivated enough to work 14 hours per day, or to make 90 phone calls per day, or how Olympic athletes will train 7 hours a day, six days a week, eleven months per year with no guarantee of even making a team, much less winning a medal?

When I was a competing athlete, it certainly wasn’t always easy to get up every day and train and there were certainly days I didn’t want to even get out of bed, but on the whole I didn’t need any special motivation to get up and train.  In fact, one of the most important lessons of my career was to know when to back off, to not do too much.  I was enormously internally motivated.

Over the years I’ve had bursts of intense work in my professional life, but I’ve never seemed to be able to sustain the type of year-in year-out motivation that came easily with my skating.  That’s not to say I haven’t had goals; I have.  But they don’t seem to spark the same passion and drive that my skating goals did and I think I’ve stumbled on the answer as to why.

Motivation and Goals are not the same thing.

That might seem self-evident, but I think it’s worth exploring.  Goals are the manifestations of motivation. And for me, motivation can be traced to very rare and very potent moments that for lack of a better term I’m going to call ‘Awe’ moments.  As in moments when you are totally awed by something.

Have you ever seen a child watching a sporting event, or a video game, or rock performance in total wonder?  There’s a look on their face of awe and captivation.  They gaze on, mesmerized and transported to another world.  And when that event ends, they run around the living room pretending to land that flip on the beam, destroy the bad guys, play air guitar totally unconcerned for the mechanics of how to accomplish that feat, only knowing that they want to taste that experience.  That’s an ‘Awe’ moment.

My entire skating career was augured by two of those moments.  When I was 10 years old, I’d been racing on roller skates (not even inlines yet!) for three months when my mom took my brother and I to watch the national championships in Florida.  We traveled 10 hours in our old van and I sat in the stands and watched a boy named Bryce Jagel absolutely destroy the entire field.  He stood head and shoulders (literally) above the rest of the competitors and I looked on and said: “I. Want. To. Do. That.” 

Chasing the legend. Yours truly in the white and blue, Bryce Jagel in gray with orange and blue.

When I returned from that competition, there was nothing on earth that was going to stop me from attaining my goals.  I’d train harder than any other person. I’d get up before school to get in extra practices.  But the vision of what was possible, that was my motivation.  I had to know what it felt like to be the best.  11 months later I was standing on the podium at the national championships as an eleven year old with Bryce.  I hadn’t beaten him, but I’d taken a shot and just months after putting on skates for the first time in my life I was in the top three ranked skaters in the nation.

15 months after putting on skates, at age group National Championships. Mullets were all the rage.

A few years later, now an inline junior national champion, as I watched the ’94 Olympics in Lillehamer, Norway, I saw Dan Jansen finally win his gold medal and I watched Johann Olaf Koss win his three gold medals and looked at my mom and said: “I want to do that.”  Eight years later, after having lived in a half-dozen cities, struggling and training and frequently days away from being broke, I was standing on the podium at the 2002 Olympic Games.

Three Olympics after watching Koss the Boss, we got a pic.

In writing, where we’ve come to expect the hyperbolic, those five little words “I want to do that,” don’t seem so compelling, but I believe those words, in some form, are the root of which more, Olympic champions, rock stars, politicians, and tycoons than you can imagine sprang from.

The simple, unadulterated desire to perform something so otherworldly as to appear to be magic and proclaim out into the ether: I WANT TO DO THAT!!!  That, is what motivation is.  Goals, strategy, vision, these are all just the stepping stones; the implementation details for realizing that deep, human desire.

In my professional life there’ve been times I’ve set goals, fallen short, felt side-tracked, and derailed.  I’ve been at times relatively successful, but that same burning fire that gets me to wake up before the sun and fight until I can barely lift a muscle has often felt far away, like a memory of a past life.  Until recently.  Goals come after motivation.  Not before.  They don’t spark motivation, they measure it. 

I’ve had a few other moments in my adult life where I’ve said: “I want do to do that,” in that way that means: I have to do that.  But as an adult it’s so easy to be distracted by the concerns of the  now, the worry that you might not measure up, or the fear that you might try your best and not succeed.  Cynicism is the armor of adulthood and the poison of motivation.

Remembering what I want to do, what I want to be – that’s empowering.  Remembering the feeling of being a child who didn’t care whether or not it was possible or whether I should –  that’s motivation.


Joey Cheek is an Olympic gold medalist, entrepreneur, and humanitarian.  He regularly speaks to audiences about the secrets of super performers.  To have him speak to your team, click here.