We all want to have long and healthy relationships with our athletic pursuits, so we take care of our bodies through proper training, sleep, nutrition, and mobility. And while that’s all important—vital, even—few of us pay as much attention to how we nurture our minds. For example, how do we sustain passion for a sport over the course of a lifetime? How do we keep a healthy perspective on competition? How do we bounce back when we fail to achieve our goals, and at the same time, prevent ourselves from becoming addicted to success and results?
The key, psychologists say, may lie in the difference between two mindsets: harmonious passion and obsessive passion. In harmonious passion, you become hooked on an activity—music, art, writing, sport—because of how it makes you feel; you are driven from within and want to get better for the sake of personal improvement and fulfillment. With obsessive passion, externals like achievement, results, rewards, and recognition become more important. According to 2012 research published in the journal Psychology of Well Being: Theory, Research, and Practice, people who exemplify harmonious passion are generally happier, healthier, sustain higher performance, and are less prone to burnout than those who demonstrate obsessive passion, which is linked to depression, anxiety, and poor overall life satisfaction. Another study, published in 2016 in the Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, found that athletes who display obsessive passion are more likely to have favorable attitudes toward the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Harmonious and obsessive passion are not mutually exclusive. For most athletes, it is important to care about results in some capacity—the goals and benchmarks you set facilitate progress. The key, according to Ricky Soos, a middle-distance coach at ALTIS World and former Olympian in the 800 meters, is to ensure that the majority of your motivation remains personal and harmonious. “It sounds cliché, but it’s really important to emphasize mastery and a focus on the long-term process of getting better over immediate outcomes,” he says.
“I struggle to know if I actually loved running, or if I just loved the positive feedback that came with it.”
This, of course, is easier said than done—athletes care about miles logged, calories burned, rankings, and personal records. And while Soos admits that obsessive passion can, at times, lead to positive short-term results, in the long-term both physical and mental health inevitably suffer. “As obsession with numbers goes up, joy in what you’re doing goes down. Sport turns into compulsion,” he says. “If left unchecked, obsessive passion can, in varying degrees, lead to depression. As an athlete becomes more single-minded, they begin to withdraw from their normal support networks.”
“Everyone says they are doing something because they love it,” says Phoebe Wright, a recently retired 800-meter runner who just barely missed qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games. “Yet it’s easy to love something when you’re winning. I struggle to know if I actually loved running, or if I just loved the positive feedback that came with it.” Wright says that as her career progressed, her passion for running went from harmonious to being more obsessive. “In college, I had emotional support and could focus on getting better for the sake of getting better. When I turned pro, I had an employer, Nike, that basically said, ‘If you don’t hit these certain marks, you’ll get fired.’ That’s not a good way to thrive.” As pressure mounted, Wright became focused on attaining results and enjoyed running less. She walked away from the sport at age 28.
Though few compete at the same level as Wright, everyone could benefit from cultivating a harmonious passionate toward their sport or career. Though there is no one-size-fits-all plan, Soos says a few key practices can help.
Focus on the Process, Not the Results
You can’t control who else shows up to the starting line. You can control your preparation and training. Two-time Olympic marathoner Des Linden maintains harmonious passion by always linking results to her broader personal development. “I ask myself: What did I gain from the last four months beyond a number? How did I grow as a person?”
Stay True to What You Loved About Your Sport
Few people initially take up a sport with the sole intention to win. Instead, it’s about how the sport makes you feel, a healthy sense of competition, or being part of a community. Regularly reflect on your original reasons for being an athlete, especially after big wins or losses.
Linden says she regularly reminds herself that it’s just a sport. “We are running from A to B, not curing cancer.” It was only after Linden was sidelined with a femoral stress fracture following the 2012 London Games that she realized “I really like running for the sake of running itself.”
Seek Social Support
Surround yourself with other athletes who seem to have a harmonious passion with their sport. Research shows that motivation is contagious.
Periodically Remove Objective Feedback
Complete a few workouts where you pay no attention to pace, pounds, or any other metrics. Doing so allows you to experience the freedom of simply enjoying your sport.
Set an Ultimate Goal of Personal Development
You can learn and grow from both failure and success. If your objective is to get better as a person, literally any athletic result will help.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Science of Performance column and is author of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.