Tactical Thankfulness

As mega doses of caffeine are championed within the training industry, I would like to offer some additional strategy for increasing performance. Thankfulness, as well as providing motivation, has been proven to limit the stress hormone Cortisol which can have negative affect on training gains and recovery.


Peripheral Motivators

Preparing for an optimal performance in a training or game scenario is most often dependent on psychological factors. Many times the answer to performing optimally is simply found in ramping up the nervous system and state of arousal via stimulants of various forms; pre-workout drink formulas, mood altering music, or simply invoking emotion through fear, hate, revenge or the myriad of other human emotions which create drive through external motivation. On a broader scale, a desire for a scholarship, playoff bonus, or to prove someone who rejected you wrong can lay the foundation for performance motivation.

I am not a sports psychologist, but for myself- as a man approaching 40 who is starting his own training facility and has no competition to compete for other than covering the overhead operating costs- I analyze the different forms of training motivation to spark myself into a consistent training routine. Brands are created around motivational sayings and stimulants themselves. We have created a performance culture with motivation the team name itself. Higher intensity modes of training- and their business models such as Cross Fit- have cornered a market on the external motivators. Caffeine is a noun and verb these days. With a rising adult population training with chalk and steel, optimal performance is no longer relegated to training athletes; the average Joe is now a competitive weightlifter and demands an appropriate gym name and T shirt to max out.

This is nothing new and was previously the domain of the run, bike, swim crowd. They were the original amateur performance crowd. Though conjuring different motivational mantras, the physiological demand of their sport doesn’t jive with stimulant qualifiers. Whatever spectrum along the energy system your amateur sport and subsequent cultural identifiers may lay, the fact is that people training need motivation. Furthermore, they need intrinsic motivators that go well beyond the outlying emotional states. Pro athletes push products on television ads, captured sweating profusely, slamming med balls and fluttering battle ropes are usually based on proving someone wrong or fighting back from injury.

Core of Motivation

These are noble pursuits, but I feel there is more to drive competition and perfection of a craft. I wrestle with this as now I am married, no longer competing in sport, and simply trying to cover the overhead costs of my training center. In the midst of admin and daily life, I usually go through the motivational bag of tricks to get me into a training mode. I usually start with mega doses of caffeine, progress to the proper music selection, inject competition, and maybe even raise testosterone levels with female presence. Some days none of these work and even my desire to lead from the front- demonstrate proficiently the lifts and technique I teach- even with mega doses of caffeine- doesn’t always bring me to a great training session.IMG_0721

Of course I start to attribute my lack of motivation due to age, not competing or having the time, being married or whatever else- but when I really think about it, I ponder if I am relying too much on external motivational factors. I also reflect on when my highest training vibe comes. Sure I can coax myself with the right medley of stimulants: Metallica and Milligrams can conjure the sympathetic nervous system for sure. Yet, my highest motivational state is when I am surrounded by people mentoring me or those I am pouring into. In placing oneself under wiser people as well as younger coaches and professionals who challenge me to lead, the motivational coals are stoked.

Unfortunately these opportunities don’t come as often as I would like. When I travel to Sarasota to work Spring Training for the Orioles or go to conference to see a colleague speak I am sparked to life. Conversely, when I show what I still can do for the young bucks in our internship program, I am engaged mentally and physically. I have determined that encouraging others is the purest form of motivational stimulant I could take. It is really the idea of receiving and giving encouragement that moves me deeply and changes the mindset.

Thanksgiving Brings Competition

Strength Coaches are natural born encouragers. This is part of the DNA of really anyone who chooses coaching as their profession. We can do it pretty much on autopilot for others, but for ourselves is- that is the question. How was I going to motivate myself? I have determined that Thanksgiving- being thankful for things I have received- ushers in encouragement for others and ultimately oneself. The natural outpouring of thankfulness and encouragement is then competition.

alpha.talkingCompetition is the manifestation of Thanksgiving. In the day and age when competition is frowned upon and everyone gets a medal, I believe some have lost their way in celebrating competition. They have eliminated it all together. Conversely, others have taken a winner take all mentality where competition and crushing opponents creates a fear based motivation. Competition is a celebration and act of thanks, therefore completing the cycle of first giving thanks. Those hyper or hypo competition mindsets miss the point. I think this is what the NCAA and essential roots of amateur sport in England tried to retain, but fight a losing battle as money and performance enhancing drugs permeate sport culture.

My most memorable days as a coach gradually shift from deafening Twickenham stadium during the final moments of a cup final or a playoff win at Camden yards over the Yankees, but the a late night game of dodge ball with my high school athletes. Of course I can remember most Turkey Bowl games. Competition born from thankfulness, with encouragement as the prime mover, is as close to a worshipful religious experience than the corporate raising of arms and chanting that happens at any stadium. And it is the acknowledgement – or worship- of a gift, rather than oneself- that I believe releases the true gifts within the athletes. When one begins to train as a celebration of their own skill-sets to then give to others, a seemingly endless energy and pursuit of greatness is sustainable.

Limiting Stress Hormones for Greater Performance

Maybe for this reason lower levels of the stress hormone Cortisol are found in the bloodstream after practicing the simple mental process of gratitude. Increased awareness of Heart Rate Variability correlated with less stress were seen in this study (McCraty et al, 1998). There are other studies that reveal how gratitude leads to less depressive states and stronger relationships. It is somewhat counter- intuitive to lower stress to gain awareness and arousal for motivated training; more and more I rely on a tactical practice of giving thanks to things I have received- simply for the skill-sets I have received instead earned- instead of the external motivators. Sure I drink coffee and but good tunes on. I try craft the climate every session for myself and others to bring out their best. But I try not to become dependent on those factors.

Tactical Thankfulness

Practically speaking, before I accelerate my nervous system with coffee, sunlight, goal setting or music, I think of 3 things I am grateful for. I often write or journal prior to training to focus my mind on these things. My most powerful sessions- either coaching or training myself- is when I envision how I am going to positively affect those around me. During Spring Training, when I have to maintain high motivational state for myself and others for over 50 days, I have to do this on a regular basis or I quickly become self-focused where I rely on peripheral motivators which may or may not be there. Beyond just being positive, I purposefully link onto action based encouraging acts. There are many times when I work 12 hour days, have lost my voice, trained a multitude of players and myself with unworldly energy and no caffeine. It came from the deepest wellspring of motivation where I was first thankful for the opportunity, envisioned helping others and worked limitlessly from my skill-set of encouragement.

I not only use this Tactical Thanksgiving leading into training, but employ it at the end of most sessions as I go from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”. When preparing for the Women’s Rugby World Cup last summer, a colleague instituted “Tactical Breathing” post session for the athletes to enter a time of peace and calm to better metabolize proteins for repair and rejuvenation and this requires psychological and breathing integration to relax the body. Our performance director Adam Russell understood the importance of shutting down the sympathetic nervous system via breathing techniques to de-activate the sympathetic nervous system a transfer blood to the internal organs. In conjunction with this tactic of using a 3 minute cycle of 5 second in/out breath cycles lying of their back with eyes closed, I incorporate thankfulness, asking them to think of 3 things they are thankful for and then 3 people they can encourage once they leave the training environment. This practice of diverting focus from self, limits anxiety and aides in recovery.

Not to discount the roles ergogenic aides and training mantras can play in success. Research backs many methods to stimulate neural activity and bring focus for greater performance. Likewise, goal setting and creating a broader inspirational to train and compete within is imperative. Yet, as a larger amateur competitive training population creates cultural identifiers to justify their self-sacrifice, extreme focus on the external motivational factors popularized by t-shirt slogans can create interesting ramifications with what is permissible and in fact what is the end game for the hours put in the gym.

During this time of year, I would like to challenge readers to analyze what really motivates them and moreover what is sustainable. Tactical Thanksgiving, before and after competition brings not only sustainable focus and energy, but is not only good for recovery but integrates an element of charity and purpose for all those hours training.

Paul Cater


Founder of Alpha Project at Central Coast Athletics

Salinas High School, Varsity Baseball, Football 1995
UC Davis: Studied pre-law while playing UC Davis Varsity Football 2000
NSCA, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist 2001
Poliquin Certified Level, 2
Internships include UCLA, San Jose State, San Francisco 49ers
Graduate Degree Exercise Science, Human Performance, Brunel University, London 2010
MSC Strength & Conditioning from Middlesex University, London 2011
Over 15 years of experience as an International strength and conditioning coach working with London Wasps Premier Rugby, Baltimore Orioles, USA Rugby and consulting numerous other High School, College & Professional Athletes
Late Stage Rehab Specialist
USA ambassador for advanced training technology equipment including: Versapulley, Kbox and Smartcoach.