Why Willpower Won't Work

I was on the phone with a colleague of mine the other night, Nikki Nieves of Pransky and Associates.  Nikki told me that she had just listened in as another colleague, Linda Pransky, recorded a CD on the difference between Intention and Willpower.  Well, my talk with Nikki really got me thinking about the concept of willpower and sports.  For, it seems that just about all of the athletes we work with believe that willpower is a positive attribute, and often state that they want me to help them develop more.  The problem however, is that willpower will never work, not long term at least.  And in truth, the errant belief, as propagated by the external world (coaches, parents, media, etc.) that you actually need willpower to succeed, is hampering the performance of athletes, coaches, and all of us, on a daily basis.

Those individuals, who continually try to muster up willpower, are among the most inconsistent and unhappiest athletes that I have ever worked with.

For example, just this weekend I watched a TV commercial, where a weight loss company touted their system and how it helps clients develop the willpower to eat less.  Last night, I heard a basketball coach talk about his team’s tendency to take bad fouls under pressure, and his plan to increase the player’s willpower at crunch time.  Now, while the weight loss company might help you take a few pounds off initially, and the team in question might avoid selfish fouls tomorrow night…I can promise you that with willpower at their side, before long the weight will return and the players will revert back to taking bad fouls.  Why?…because willpower has got nothing to do with long term success and those individuals who continually try to muster up or force willpower, are among the most inconsistent and unhappiest athletes that I have ever worked with.

Willpower prevents and athlete from adjusting in the moment, it forces a player to push forward against their better judgment.

Willpower is defined as, “The strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans.”  I suppose that what this definition assumes, is that strength of will actually helps a person to successfully carry out their plans.  I would insightfully disagree.  We are productive, and thus successful, when we apply free will, not strength of will, to a project of any kind.  Free will allows us to adjust and to imagine.  It prevents us from being stuck in our own ways, as we create the appropriate path in spite of our preconceived decisions, wishes or plans.  In truth, willpower, as defined above, prevents an individual from adjusting in the moment, and as consciousness descends it actually forces a player or coach to push forward against his or her better judgment.  NY Giant Head Coach, Tom Coughlin, was for years revered as a brilliant tactician.  But, he was also lambasted for being hard headed and narrow minded.  For much of his career then, Coughlin possessed the willpower to impart his methodology on his team, in spite of obvious signs that it was growing tired and stale.  It was not until Coughlin listened to his gut instincts, freed himself from external definitions (of a head coach) and pulled back on the reigns, that he was able to earn his player’s enduring respect and win a Super Bowl title.

In the in the long run, great play and happiness are spawned from clarity, quiet, and unbounded freedom, not from force of will.

Another essential element to why willpower won’t work is quite simply, if you truly need willpower to push you through a performance of any kind, then my question is- Why are you there (in this low state of mind) in the first place?  Again, think of any performance in your life where you were at your best.  Did you truly need “strength of will” to carry you along?  I’m positive the answer is no.  To the contrary, my bet is that when you weren’t at your best, and you then nobly tried to rally the “ole” willpower, it was pretty much a waste of time and you ultimately failed.  Again, we must never forget that in the long run, great play and happiness are spawned from clarity, quiet, and unbounded freedom, not from force of will.

So, as opposed to conventional wisdom, I am completely certain that when any of us feel the need to exert our willpower on a game, situation, or opponent, we are headed down a self defeating path.  Willpower is synonymous to grinding it out.  It is binding, over bearing, and burdensome.  It means that external circumstances are in charge, not the player.  And while it is possible to (futilely) carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans through the use of willpower, because it prevents an athlete from seeing outside the box, willpower will ultimately serve to shrink the perceptual field as our awareness and feel for the game withers away….. Hence, my heartfelt advice here is to simply look inward and see that a lack of willpower is not a weakness at all.  It is a sign that in your quest for success, contentment, and smooth sailing, you merely exist at the wrong level of well being at a particular moment in time.  And, a simple but profound understanding and thus adjustment, is all that’s required.