On Discipline, Motivation, and Coaching

I used to pitch a fit when people talked about motivation vs. discipline. In fact, when I rage-quit social media a few years back, an argument about this was the catalyst for me throwing in the towel.

I threw in the motivation towel for a bit

This says more about me than it does about other people, but that’s another article for another day.

This topic always hit home for me, as motivation theory is appiicable not just for my own goal achievement, but for the goals of my clients, whether I am constructing a massage treatment plan, an exercise program, or just mindset coaching.

So as part of my growth process, instead of stomping my feet and throwing a tantrum like a toddler, I have learned to offer different perspectives because the psychology field is a shitshow and people operatively define everything differently.

The above statement is made without even getting started on the pop-culture psychology rubbish. I’ll leave that alone, for now, as even in the shallow end there are snake oils and charlatans to be found; you’d be surprised how difficult it can be to tread water. Did I mention I'm in the massage industry?

The inspiration for this article was a video posted by a trainer named Scott from Kansas City. Scott recently commented on the need for discipline versus motivation, and how he told one of his clients that what she needed was not motivation, it was to be more disciplined. What I offer here is another perspective, and a glimpse at how great coaches, like Scott, often step in to act as an external regulator when clients need it – and don’t even realize that they did it. I bet Scott didn’t realize what he did.

This is coaching.

This is leadership.

On the topic of motivation, there is some confusion. So, let me speak to this through the lens of Self-determination Theory, and Sport Psychology, and almost 40 years of wandering around on this planet and trying to lead and coach people (often reluctantly).

The primary issue with motivation is the general understanding of it. We treat it as a “thing”. We tend to think of motivation as something that we can gather or harvest, put in a tank, and draw on whenever we need a boost. Like we are shooting a spurt of nitrous into the combustion chambers of our engines.

Things are more nuanced than this, but the actual definition of motivation is deceptively simple:

To be motivated means to be moved to do something. (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Motivation is whatever moves you to action, and whatever moves you falls among a continuum from external (coach putting a foot in your ass) to internal (working out for the sake of working out) and everything between: guilt; understanding benefits of the activity as it contributes to another; identifying as a person that would do the specific behavior; etc.

It’s simple, yet not, and therein lies the problem: The popular “mindset gurus” don’t know shit, but know just enough to be dangerous. They will lead you to believe that you are either intrinsically motivated – that is, you do something for the sake of doing it – or you are a loser.

The gurus know nothing of motivation...or massage for that matter

I realize that the choice of “loser” is a strong word, but many influencers will have you believe that the need for any extrinsic motivation, from rewards on up, makes a person weak.

But extrinsic motivation – yes, to include trophies – isn’t useless or weak in most contexts. It's really all in the application…which is really all in the COACHING. More specifically, it is in the ability of the coach to recognize the motivation level and meet the client where they are at.

I have noted that much of the discipline vs. motivation stuff can be traced back to Jocko Willink, or at least to his fans.

For the record, I love Jocko. I really do. We were both “Khakis” in the Navy, with me being Senior Enlisted (Chief Petty Officer) and him being an Officer (Commander). If you have ever watched my videos, you can conspicuously see at least two Jocko books on my bookshelf. Much of what he says soothes me and, in many ways, his audience simply misunderstands him.

For example, even in his Field Manual, he talks about the “why”?

His “why”, as he notes, is remembering his fallen SEAL comrades and honoring them in his daily efforts. This is a powerful motivator. It is also extrinsic motivation, not discipline, per se. Am I saying he isn’t disciplined? Fuck no. Am I saying discipline is irrelevant? Absolutely not. What I’m saying is that Jocko’s own discipline – his established routines and behaviors that he has ingrained into his daily processes – was motivated by something.

Disciplines are sets of behaviors. Discipline and establishing discipline arises from motivation, regardless of how internalized said motivation is. External locus of control is irrelevant for the establishment of behaviors, other than that more internalized motivation is more likely to lead to sustained behavior.

In English: People love to talk about intrinsic motivation because it is sexy and leads to sustained performance of specific behaviors, whereas extrinsic motivators are not sufficiently internalized enough, in some cases, to cause someone to continue a behavior.

Extrinsic motivation, and especially external regulation (the most externalized form of it) gets a very bad rap and seems to have this perpetually negative connotation associated with it. Deci and Ryan themselves acknowledged this in a paper they wrote in 2000, the same one I pulled the above quote from.

“In the classic literature, extrinsic motivation has typically been characterized as a pale and impoverished (even if powerful) form of motivation that contrasts with intrinsic motivation*.”

(*I have referenced and linked this paper. It is WELL worth a read and gives a good primer on SDT, particularly Organismic Integration Theory (OIT), a part of SDT.)

We tend to look at extrinsic motivators as they have been popularized. With external regulation personified by a screaming drill instructor or introjected regulation personified as guilt. The truth is that, although certain extrinsic motivations are less autonomous than others, this doesn’t translate them into being negative or positive forces. In fact, I think Deci and Ryan would argue that whether they are perceived as negative or not could be something influenced in an external locus of control.

Again, in English: A good coach could make even the most external motivation enjoyable for an athlete. External regulation does not have to consist of screaming and prodding an athlete. It could be done in a loving, facilitative way that set up the environment to bolster intrinsic motivation. Sometimes a coach has to step in and provide motivation when a client has a bad day, or has life issues, or there is a PANDEMIC.

Scott did this. I’m trained to recognize this. His intent did NOT go unnoticed.

Self-determination theory has, and always will postulate that some extrinsic motivation isn’t so great. Some is. It is about level and intent. It is also about the way a coach or leader uses it.

Consider what Scott did:

During a pandemic, in a real time of crisis and uncertainty, a client came to him with a lack of motivation. to perform a specific behavior. As such, to this person, in this moment, he was the external regulator. To me, this isn’t a bad thing. I have done this with massage therapy clients, I have done this with exercise trainees.

It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a leader recognizing that someone needs help and stepping in. I could nitpick the theory - and in a way, I am - but his grasp of coaching can be contested.

People have this odd notion that in an ideal world, everyone would be intrinsically motivated to do everything. In this ideal world, by the very nature of motivation, we wouldn’t need coaches all that much. At least not in an emotional sense. In this world a coach would teach technique, provide feedback, adjust numbers, and not much else.

Human beings don’t work that way, though, and the reality is that some of us will never be motivated 100% intrinsically in certain tasks. This is why coaching, REAL coaching, is as much of an art as it is a skill.

What Scott did was great. It was gorgeous in that it speaks to the heart of what a Coach is: a mentor, a support system, and sometimes the driver. The catalyst when no others exist.

Any asshole can write a program. Only a select few can coach.


Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67.

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