As the time to write up my research study on “motivation to practice movement, exercise, and/or sport, and how it changes over time“ fast approaches, I pause to reflect on the process to date.
The study began in March 2021 with the intention of taking 6 months for data collection and a further 6 months for the write-up. I am now a year or so behind schedule, largely due to work and there being only so many hours in one day.
Another reason for my lengthy timeline is my reluctance to sit down and write. My body has been resisting, particularly my lower back which needs more movement and my dry eyes, which are frequently irritated and sore. Increasingly I’ve felt the brunt of a sedentary academic job that has me seated and staring at a screen, sometimes for 14 hours on end. The last thing I want to do after those long days is continue sitting and thinking intellectually about my research study.
Taking on a qualitative research study on top of a full-time computer-bound job wasn’t well thought-out on my part. The idea was that the study would be a useful stepping stone to a PhD, where I could then lay out a more useful theory on a narrow strand of movement psychology. The other idea was writing up a book on movement practice. Both are still viable options but the motivation to write is still forthcoming.
It’s been frustrating to see one month after the other pass this year without me sitting down to write (for those who might be wondering, speaking into a voice recorder and having that automatically transcribed isn't an easy feat with masses of written data to analyse or decipher, nor is a walking desk an option). Yet my mind and body have remained connected to my research, mulling over the participants’ interview transcripts which are almost etched on my mind. The generation of theory is alive in my mind and body, it just needs time to be able to make its way into written format on a page.
My frustration has led me to reflect on how much of academic research and the generation of theory has relied on spoken and written words. In much of qualitative research, we are analysing the participants’ words. It is as if the body - ours' and theirs' - doesn't feature, unless it is an object of study. Yet this isn’t the only way of research, as I was to find out earlier this year.
Laura Ellington PhD, a health communications researcher, proposes embodiment as a form of qualitative research. Through reading her writings (Ellingson, 2017), and listening to her speak this year, I have seen how much we need to bring the body into the research process, our own bodies as researchers and those of our participants. As a movement researcher, it strikes me as a necessary step, for how can I truly grasp my participants’ motivation to practice if I cannot feel it for myself?
All of my research interviews have taken place on Zoom and the thematic analyses that followed have emphasised the spoken word. Yet I also took extensive reflective notes where I paid attention to the impact of their words on my temporal selves (past, present, future), and states of being - mental, emotional, and physical (Coker, 2020). And a part of the study invites them to capture their various states in relation to motivation, as well as their temporal selves in relation to their motivation to practice over time.
The longer timeline also brought opportunities, not just frustrations and obstacles. One insight gained is how valuable an extended timeline can be. Taking an extra year has offered breathing space for new ideas and insights to incubate and germinate. I have watered those seeds regularly in my mind and through my own movement practices.
For example, when I run I have reflected on one of my participants who is an endurance runner. When I swim I have remembered my participant who is a swimmer. It is the same for the yoga practitioners, the walkers, and the solitary martial artist. That I can remember much of their interviews by heart makes it easier to tap into what they say motivates them and feel some small aspect of that for myself.
Because I've lived this research alongside many working hours, it is only natural I suppose that the two have collided. Why do people practice anything, and how does it change (them) over time, became a question that seeped into my work.
In my day job, I train people to become Positive Psychology Practitioners, a process that can take around two years. It is a fairly long period of time for them to spend with me and over time, I see them pass through various stages of growth in relation to their practice and gradual understanding of self in relation to practice.
First there is the spark of interest or pull (or sometimes push) to study Positive Psychology. Something, or an accumulation of “some things”, leads them to this path. Often, it is a search for answers they haven’t been able to find elsewhere, and a desire for some kind of inner peace or happiness that has eluded them. They catch glimpses of this peace or happiness in Positive Psychology, and decide to go all in.
Initially, motivation to practice (in this early stage of practitioner training, this means study) is high. With the first testing (i.e. their first written assignment), this motivation can wane. Few people enjoy being assessed, particularly the older they get. Many of our students work full-time and I certainly understand their pressures on time and energy.
Once their knowledge base evolves, the next struggle is to figure out how to practice Positive Psychology on themselves. By then, their heads are filled with research studies and common sense becomes a more precious resource than before.
On the one hand it is so simple. Take a small aspect of the field - let’s say, gratitude - and stick with that. Go deep and then wide, is what I tell them, yet rarely do they listen. There is a tendency to want to understand it all and with that attitude comes restlessness and a habit of spreading oneself and one’s knowledge base thinly.
They rarely trust me when I say that going deep in one area will equip them with the skills they need to do that again and again, however often they want. In a multi-disciplinary field as vast as Positive Psychology, it’s nigh impossible to see where it begins and where it ends. The field is understood one theory and one concept at a time, with no end in sight and no promise of mastering its entirety for it is ever evolving.
To me it seems so obvious. Positive Psychology is something I hold lightly. I don’t identify with the field or feel a sense of belonging to it; rather I connect with the essence of it, which is familiar to me. For me, the practice and philosophy of martial arts brings Positive Psychology to life. From that vantage point, I have decades of reference points for the embodiment of character and wellbeing, which are central themes in Positive Psychology as well as martial arts. Finding (or rather stumbling on) Positive Psychology in my late 30s was a natural outcome of my martial arts path.
The martial arts are such a vast field that it is also impossible to understand it all, nor would the average practitioner believe they can. Furthermore, there is always someone who knows more and who has been practicing longer and is "better". We eventually learn to focus on our own path, settle on a style, and train in that for years in order to achieve some small degree of mastery and personal development. Some of us hop around from time to time but if we stay the course, we’ll find a way to embody what we have learned and practiced over time.
Through that process of embodiment, the self will naturally be transformed. For people reading this who aren't familiar with martial arts, I'll be more specific. Martial arts teaches attention to detail (prudence and appreciation of beauty and excellence in Positive Psychology). With the repetition of movement and attention to detail in movement, the person also learns to endure (perseverance in Positive Psychology). They may be tested in sparring with the risk of getting physically hurt (bravery and courage in Positive Psychology) and may be called to teach a new student what they have learned (leadership in Positive Psychology).
All of these character-building lessons are action-oriented and thus practiced and over time, gradually embodied. The student's curiosity and love of learning will keep them coming back again and again, as might a few other strengths that resonate with their style. As my earlier research study on motivation to teach martial arts and/or self-defence showed (Higgins, 2019), it is these character strengths that make up the motivation to practice and eventually teach over time.
Transitioning to practitioner training (the second stage in one of our longer courses) from the depths of academia is no easy feat if the academic way has not included aspects of embodied character development. I liken it to reading a book on martial arts, writing papers on it, reflecting on what it all means to self, without having to actually practice any of it regularly on self. Then suddenly you’re thrown into a class and expected not only to practice on self but also, learn how to practice (e.g. train, coach, or facilitate) with others. You just won't be ready or competent, for competency requires the development and application of knowledge and skills over time.
Although I encourage students to practice on self throughout their academic learning, I see many struggle with the “how” of practice. The “how“ of a karate class on the other hand and how to copy part of this at home in solo training is straightforward. We have kihon (basics), kata (choreographed solo fights), and kumite (sparring). All the movements have names and are physically taught through demonstration and experience. The “how” of any practice of movement, exercise, or sport is fairly similar. The emphasis is on the physical for obvious reasons. Through the training of the physical state, the other states (mental, emotional, spiritual) naturally evolve.
And so to me it was fairly obvious that any practice that included character development, such as Positive Psychology, needs to become embodied. A small obstacle is that Positive Psychology is (in my view) not yet there in terms of generating best practices or guidance for practitioners. It is still in its early decades of research, where the emphasis has been on science rather than its philosophical roots or social dimensions, which qualitative methods are arguably better placed to research. There is also a lack of certified practitioners coming forwards to challenge research, something that I hope a few of my students will one day tackle, and a tendency to look for shortcuts yet when it comes to character development, those tend not to exist.
It has surprised me how many overlaps there have been this past year between my research on motivation to practice and how it changes over time, what my students have experienced in their practitioner training, and what I have experienced as the practitioner who is helping to develop them. Where these points converge is in the process of embodiment as actualisation and sometimes, transcendence of self.
The more we practice what we know, the more we can become it and over time, ultimately transcend or move beyond it. Our practice becomes less and less about us and more and more about the people and phenomenon around us. We naturally move from introspection to extrospection and perhaps therein lies the meaning of life.
Knowledge has to be practiced before it can be embodied (Coker, 2020). Knowledge that is conceptual and theoretical can seem so abstract compared to knowledge of how to practice a physical movement. I can show martial arts students a punch or block using my own body, and I can watch them do it afterwards. I can explain it biomechanically and physiologically. I can assess their technical skills. Their subjective experience of it is a minor part of this teaching process. It is an outcome of their practice over time and something that emerges arguably in the form of "ki" or "chi" (their energy or spirit) and capacity to focus, both of which are linked to character. This is something that is much harder to assess for it isn't seen but rather felt.
On the other hand, take a Positive Psychology character-based concept such as kindness or leadership. Again, I can demonstrate it in my behaviour but will my students see it? Herein lies the challenge, for demonstrating a punch or block for the purpose of learning is an embodied performance yet we have to question whether concepts such as kindness and leadership can also be performed in an embodied way. I would argue not, for there is a felt sense in people on the receiving end of these concepts that requires a deeper level of sincerity and connection compared to the student observing a punch.
My students can sometimes observe and learn from the Positive Psychology concepts I embody. For example, appreciation of beauty and excellence, spirituality, creativity and hope, provided they can pick up on these in a virtual setting. For the most part though, I am a conveyor of abstract knowledge, teaching them to fish for their own knowledge and find ways to develop their own practices. A humanistic person-centred approach with a reflective and introspective process, and a firm knowledge base, is perhaps the most effective way to do this, within a transformational learning environment that offers a pathway out of introspection and into the world around them.
There are so many reflections and questions this year has left me with that I have yet to unpack. About work, about Positive Psychology, about movement, and about life. More specifically on the research front, there is my own practice. Why is it that certain kata evoke certain emotions and memories in me, I found myself questioning earlier today as I practiced Unsu, a Shotokan karate kata, after my gym session. And what is the relationship between neural pathways formed through practice and the individual’s capacity for character, cognition, and emotion?
The photo that leads this blog entry is one that symbolises a memory of practicing Unsu (see the video below), which means "cloud hands" in Japanese, with my last Sensei. The opening movements of this kata are a gentle gathering of hands towards the sky and extension from the body, followed by swift movements of the upper body. He taught me to stand in sea water up to my hips so that I could feel the lifting and slicing of the water through these movements with my hands. To this day, practicing this kata evokes positive memories of this kata and today was no exception. This is an example of Positive Psychology in action, although it is unnecessary for me to call it that.
As I look towards 2023, I am hopeful and determined that this will be the year I write my research up and share my many thoughts with a wider audience, inviting a conversation on what it means to practice. Not just a form of movement, exercise, or sport, but any kind of practice, be it Positive Psychology, art, music, or anything you can imagine. To practice that which ultimately transforms you, and makes your life worth living.
I've cleared the decks for this write-up to take place, shaving off the first two hours of work each day throughout the year to allow for a 12pm start. I often have to work late, so a later start rather than an earlier finish makes sense.
If there is anything I've learned this past year, it is that practice takes time, trial, and error. But if you stay the course, and if you have chosen well, your practice will become a part of you, and you a part of it.
I end this year with gratitude to my 7 research participants who have stayed the course with me as I‘ve taken extra time to head towards this finishing line. For all the frustrations I’ve faced, and a few tragedies along the way, this research study has become one of the most meaningful pieces of work that I have ever undertaken and for this opportunity, I feel truly blessed.
Coker, R. (2020). 3 Pillars of Practice. Positive Psychology Guild.
Coker, R. (2020). TSI System. Positive Psychology Guild.
Ellingson, L. (2017). Embodiment in Qualitative Research. Routledge.
Higgins, C. (2019). Motivation to teach martial arts and/or self-defence. Manchester Metropolitan University.