Coach Tip Tuesday: Ask the Correct Questions to Achieve Your Goals
Over the course of these first few weeks of 2023, I’ve written about various aspects of goal setting, including how it’s important to be gracious with ourselves and how thinking and doing are two different things. Today is the 45th day of 2023, which means that a majority of people who set New Year’s Resolutions or intentions six weeks ago have started to falter - if not give up completely - along the path to those goals. Rather than abandoning the process when encountering any speed bumps or adversity, I want to encourage you to rethink how you set goals in the first place.
When setting a goal, athletes ask the question, “What do I want to achieve at this race?”
Sounds appropriate, right? Goals are set around what we want to achieve, right?
Wrong. After so many years of observing people both make goals and then set out to achieve them, I have come to realize that this is a flawed approach and is often the biggest mistake athletes make when they are setting goals. Instead, I now firmly believe that athletes should be asking the following two questions (in this order) to guide their goal setting:
“What can I do?”
“What am I likely to do at my goal event?”
Wanting something doesn’t make it so. In fact, due to a lack of self-awareness surrounding the two questions I shared above, what athletes want is often very far apart from what they are able to do and what they are likely to do. I’ve listened to athletes say how they want to hit a specific goal at races, and then I’ve watched them not do it - sometimes race after race after race. Afterwards, those athletes are always scratching their heads and asking “Why?”
Though many athletes (and some coaches) are quick to point to (and try to correct and/or change) external factors such as the weather, their equipment, the terrain, race logistics, their bike fit, other athletes or challenges on the course, I believe that - if anything - these are secondary complications to the actual core issue that athletes face.
I believe that athletes don’t reach their goals because they were not honest about where they were, what kind of training they would be willing and able to do, what it would actually take for them to reach their goal, and because they had a general unwillingness to admit that what they wanted might be too far out of reach for them unless they were willing to make massive (and/or uncomfortable/undesirable) changes to their lives and/or training.
This may sound harsh, but I’ve observed time and time again that it’s true. An effective coach will hold up the mirror for you and help you see what is really there, even if you don’t really like it and want to turn away and/or deny what you see. So imagine me holding up that mirror for you right now. Only by being honest can you embark on a successful path to reaching goals.
This being said, I do believe that most goals are attainable - with the correct amount of training, the correct quality of training, the correct frequency of workouts, sufficient consistency over time, an appropriate lead-time before attempting to achieve one’s desired result, and under the right set of circumstances.
All of these things must be true for an athlete to have the highest probability of success. Not one of these things…all of these things. You can’t be consistent with the incorrect amount of training or improper types of workouts and still achieve success. You can’t have an inadequate amount of time to prepare (and what meets the definition of “adequate time to prepare” greatly differs for each athlete) and be doing the correct quality of training and still achieve success. Yes, it’s a bit of a Goldilocks situation, but everything needs to be just right for an athlete to have a shot (not a guarantee) of success.
This process starts with asking those important questions. What are you currently able to do? If you've selected your goal event, once you've honestly answered that question (and only then!), then ask yourself what are you likely to do at that event? When answering that question, be sure to account for the timeline you have left to prepare, the amount of training you’re currently doing, the types of workouts you’re doing, and with how consistent (or inconsistent ;) ) you’ve been both recently and over the last several years.
If what you are currently able to do and what you are likely to do doesn't line up with what you ultimately want to do, the goal event you’ve selected for this year may end up being a “stepping stone goal race” rather than the BIG goal race you originally envisioned. This is very okay. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s great. It’s an opportunity for you to evaluate where you’re at and then use what you learn from what racing experience to inform your next batch of training. After all, at that point, what you’re currently able to and what you’re likely to do at your next goal event will have progressed a bit forward from where you are now. Keep doing this, and you’ll snowball your way to your ultimate goal.
Mindset and positive thinking are key pieces of this equation, but simply thinking something will not manifest it as true. Using an example from the financial world: we can want $1 million. However, in order to acquire $1 million we must follow a specific set of steps completed properly, in order, and do a significant amount of work over time.
Wanting a goal in athletics without being honest about where we are and what we’re likely to do is the same thing. We might want to achieve a specific time at a race we decided to sign up for in July, but that may not be the right timeline. We may want to complete a specific distance of a particular sport this year, but that may not be realistic based on the volume of training we are currently willing and able to do. However, what we are able to do this year can help pave the way toward what we ultimately seek to achieve.
We can and will only accomplish goals that are rooted in honest self-awareness and that follow a specific sequence of events. You may ultimately achieve the goal you want, but you will only do so by first asking yourself these two incredibly important questions. What are you able to do? What are you likely to do? Start there, and take the necessary from there to build to where you want to go.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.