Coach Tip Tuesday: How Do You Answer “What’s Next?”
During the last weeks of 2023, our conversations centered around common end-of-year themes of reflection, goal setting, and forward thinking. As we start our path into 2024, I want to share a personal story about a valuable perspective that I learned several years ago.
So much of the narrative this time of year is about goals, resolutions, and changes that people propose to make in their lives. While my life experience thus far has demonstrated that setting resolutions is not productive (and research backs me up on this), I do think that times that generate The Fresh Start Effect provide a nice opportunity to share perspectives that might be useful to consider.
Several years ago when I was working with a strength coach, I met another person who was working out at the gym on the same days and around the same times as me. I’m changing his name to respect his privacy, but we’ll call him Tim. Meeting Tim and observing his workouts at the gym had a profound impact on how I view my athletic training and honestly, how I view humanity and the world.
Tim had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. While rare, ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that results in the progressive loss of motor neurons that control voluntary muscles. ALS is always - and I mean always - fatal. Most people die between two and four years after being diagnosed. (That being said, it is important to note that there are some iterations of the disease that people can live with for longer than that; for example, Stephen Hawking had one of these forms of ALS.)
There is no known cure for the disease. Care for those who have ALS consists of managing their symptoms and keeping them as comfortable as possible. Death occurs via respiratory failure for most people with ALS. While dementia is a symptom in a small percentage of cases, most people with ALS remain themselves mentally while their body literally wastes away around them until it fails and they cease to be able to breathe. In other words, the disease progresses until it causes a very difficult and - in my opinion - horribly sad way to die.
While this all might seem like a bit of a downer, knowing exactly what ALS is is important in this case, because it’s crucial that I convey that Tim knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, not only that he was going to die, but how he would eventually die. He may not have known when, but he definitely understood that ALS was going to be the thing that took him from this planet, and there wasn’t a thing in the world he could do to stop that.
Slow Time Down
So Tim knew he had a terminal disease. He knew that his muscles were never, ever going to be able to get stronger again. He knew that they were going to literally waste away right before his eyes. He would lose the ability to move his body under his own power. The rest of his life would be a march toward this inevitable end.
As an endurance athlete and especially as an endurance coach, I constantly hear people talking about “What’s next?” What so many people actually mean when they ask this question is “What am I going to do next that is bigger and/or better than what I have done before?” Think about it. When someone runs a 5K, many of them feel that they then need to set a goal to run a 10K. And then a half marathon. And then a marathon. And then an ultra marathon. Or, if they finish an IRONMAN 70.3 in five hours and fifteen minutes, they feel that their next goal needs to be to finish an IRONMAN 70.3 faster than that. It’s not generally acceptable to say “I want to do my next race slower than what I just did.” In fact, saying something like that wouldn’t ever even cross someone’s mind.
In other words, athletes are always seeking “better”, which is the word that athletes use when they actually mean longer and/or faster. To put it another way: better is synonymous with more. In fact, many athletes have told me - point blank - that they don’t see a point in doing anything if there isn’t a possibility of progress, of being better, of getting faster, of doing something bigger than they’ve done previously.
This makes sense. Culturally, we are obsessed with progress, and humans have been since the Scientific Revolution occurred 600 years ago. In the 21st Century, the explosion of readily available trackable metrics has only served to further our cultural obsession with progress. We can compare yesterday and other past days to today and we can tell if we slept more, ran faster, had a higher power output, walked more steps, and if we were symmetrical when we did it. In the endurance sports world, entire training platforms are now being developed around this singular focus and goal of progress (but that’s a different conversation for a different day). We are rapidly losing our ability to see that progress isn’t the only thing that matters.
And the fact that progress isn’t the only thing that matters is the lesson that Tim taught me.
Better is in the Eye of the Beholder
This may sound harsh, but the only certain progress that Tim was facing in his life was progress toward his death. For him, the answer to the question of “What’s next?” was “Dying.” Even though it was a certainty that Tim was going to die and that he’d never do anything “better” metrics-wise than he had before ever again, he showed up to the gym. He worked with a strength coach to help retain what muscular function he did have and to try to slow that relentless progress of ALS. For Tim, “progress” and “better” took on different forms. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that “progress” and “better” as we tend to define them culturally were probably not Tim’s objectives.
If he couldn’t get better, why did he show up? What was the point of doing anything if he wouldn’t see progress? Tim had to confront these questions and answer them in a very real way. He was forced to recalibrate his way of thinking and he had to redefine what was valuable and worthwhile. When he went through this internal reconciliation, Tim realized that progress wasn’t actually the only thing worth striving for. If he did think that progress was the only thing that was valuable, he would have been forced to give up, there and then. In other words, in his case with his diagnosis, it would mean accepting death, and perhaps even hastening it along by not doing anything. But when faced with this situation, he chose to see something else.
Tim deeply appreciated every day he had. What I’m sharing here are my observations of him, not necessarily anything he said to me. And while he never did speak of it, his sense of gratitude was as deep as the ocean and it radiated off of him through his actions. He appreciated the opportunity to come to the gym, to get in a workout, and to challenge his body and his mind. He valued giving his best effort, even when he knew it wouldn’t end with his best quantifiable result. (That being said, as an aside, I would make the case that what he was doing might have yielded the best subjective results of his life.)
Grateful for Opportunities
In endurance sports, it is so easy to fall into the trap of valuing tangible, numbers-based results. After all, in endurance sports, the time on the clock is how we are “officially” measured and judged in endurance sports. Furthermore, “What was your time?” is the most common question most of us endurance athletes are confronted with when we do something, whether it be a 5K, a century ride, or a triathlon. If we’re being honest, in the world now in 2024, the trap of valuing results extends well beyond endurance sports. In the other arenas of our lives, our salaries are often tied to the results we produce for our employers. Our retirements are based on the results of work we did over the course of our lives. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
What Tim taught me is that we as humans are more than our results. We are more than what a clock says, what results we produce at work, or even what our bodies are capable of. Our spirit is what makes us human. And thus, our attitude, how we face the world, and how we treat others is what defines who we are.
I watched Tim come to the gym day-in and day-out until his body deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t walk under his own power anymore. And ever since my life path crossed with Tim’s, I’ve had a deep appreciation for every run I’m able to do, every ride I’m able to go on, every mountain I’m able to hike, and every step I’m able to take. It’s okay if I never do anything as “big” as I once did or as fast as I once did. It’s also okay if I do. But I don’t need to be seeking relentless forward progress and judging my current actions against what those same actions yielded in the past in order to find joy, contentment, and peace. The fact that I’m able to do something is enough.
The Bottom Line
Measurable, tangible progress is not the only thing that matters. There are so many other things in this world that matter equally - if not more - than progress. Showing up, giving your best effort, and appreciating the opportunity to do the things you do matters. Tim showed me all of this, and he did so with strength, class, a sense of humor, and unwavering faith. I will never forget him.
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.