Coach Tip Tuesday: Don't Let the Cart Get Ahead of the Horse
This post is the second in a series of Coach Tip Tuesdays that explore how focusing on the present is what serves athletes best. Last week, we talked about how looking back can distract from the now. This week, we’re going to explore the opposite of that idea; we’re going to talk about how letting things/events unfold in their proper sequence is what leads to higher rates of success for athletes.
You are who you are today. It’s that simple. You are not who you were yesterday, and you have not yet grown into who you will be tomorrow. Time does unfold in a linear fashion, and like so many things in the world, there is an optimal sequence of events that needs to unfold in order for us to have the highest rate of success of becoming who we want to be in the future. If that is our desired outcome, we cannot let the cart get ahead of the horse.
Athletes set goals, which, by definition, means that they are aiming for something that is going to happen in the future. I think we can all agree that 99% of the goals that are ever set by athletes are things that are beyond their current capabilities. It wouldn’t feel like much of a goal if it wasn’t, right?
Paradoxically, even though athletes understand this truth, on some level, they compare their current selves to the selves they want to be in the future (when they successfully reach their goal). They measure the success of their workouts and activities in the present against where they want to be in the future. Here’s an example:
An athlete has set a goal to be faster in nine months. They may or may not have a specific pace in mind. (Many times, they do have a specific pace in mind, even if they haven’t shared that specific goal with anyone other than themselves and they are keeping it as a secret goal.) That same athlete goes out to do a workout today. They compare the pace of today’s workout against where they need/want to be in nine months. They see that they are not where they need/want to be in nine months.
Raise your hand if this situation sounds all-too-familiar. At best, this is a recipe for disappointment, frustration, and angst. At worst, this is a recipe for missed goals and/or a self-fulfilled negative prophecy. I’m here to tell you a hard and honest truth:
If you have a goal that is beyond your current abilities, of COURSE your current workouts, races, activities, etc. are not where you ultimately want to be. If they were, you almost certainly would have set a different goal. It takes time to go somewhere different. Don’t measure the success of something in the present by where you want to be in the future. Measure the success of the present against a more appropriate time.
Choose Appropriate Reflections
I know I shared last week that looking back can distract from the present, and that is true. Ruminating and/or lamenting about what we once were will not help us now. However, there is a time and a place where mindful reflection can be helpful. Comparing today’s results against relatively recent results (such as from the last 3-6 months) can give us insight into whether we’re making progress and how we, if needed, can change things up.
It is important to note that that timeline is key. Comparing current results against results that happened too recently can generate the same feelings of disappointment, frustration, and angst that comparing our present selves to our future selves can generate. All too often, I observe athletes comparing their workout results against results that are too close to be effectively measured against, such as a similar workout in the previous week or previous month. As tough as it can be, we do need to exercise patience and wait an appropriate amount of time before comparing results. Three to six months is often that “Goldilocks” sweet spot in terms of timelines.
The second most common manifestation that I see of the future being a distraction for athletes is when an athlete focuses too much on what is ahead goal-wise. All too often, athletes are setting goals before they’ve completed a cycle of training for or even attempted another goal they’ve set. This is particularly common in the Autumn/early Winter each year (because the calendar change to a new year often prompts people to try to sort out their goals for the coming year). I’ve shared before how I think patience can be a major asset and that it’s not necessary to set goals until you’ve seen how your current goals pan out, but here’s how this can be an even further distraction:
If you are focusing on what comes next, unavoidably, you are not focused on where you are now. You are letting the cart get ahead of the horse. If you’re focused on what you want to do next, you are not giving yourself the best chance of success at your current goals. Do this over and over again in a season or over a period of years, and you will ultimately end up in a place where you’re looking around wondering why you haven’t hit the goals that you’ve set for yourself. This is another recipe for disappointment and burnout. You need to put your effort into training where you are to get where you want to go.
Many athletes attempt to set goals before they’re through their current goals out of a place of fear (and this behavior is a human one that extends well beyond the world of endurance sports). They may not recognize that fear is driving that decision, but it’s the hard truth. There are so many fears that drive this behavior; some of the main ones are fears of feeling purposeless, of not having a mark to set, of losing motivation, and of losing fitness.
Another reason athletes do this is because they are actually disengaged from their current training cycle or goal process, and they’re looking for something shiny (aka something new and exciting) to motivate them and bring back a feeling of engagement. If you catch yourself looking into the future before your current training cycle or goal process plays out, stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it. Take the hard look in the mirror, and see if it isn’t fear or boredom that is driving you. Be honest with yourself about that why, and make better choices about your present so you can feel good about what you’re currently doing as well as get to where you want to go.
The Bottom Line
If you put the cart in front of the horse, it’s going to be extremely difficult - if not impossible - to get where you want to go. It’s difficult (and even more so in a world that is increasingly on-demand and fast-paced), but it’s so important to exercise patience, focus on the process, focus on the present, and let outcomes unfold over time. All we ever have control over is the present. What we do today will shape and influence what happens tomorrow, but we won’t have control over tomorrow until it is the present. Don’t let the angst or anticipation of tomorrow steal from your today.
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.