Do not - under any circumstances - set secret goals.
A secret goal is a goal that you tell no one but yourself. I rarely deal in absolutes, however this is an instance where an absolute is appropriate; in over a decade of coaching and working with athletes, I haven’t ever seen a secret goal be helpful for an athlete. I’ve only seen them cause harm, disappointment, and frustration.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of all secret goals, here are some of the most common examples of secret goals that I’ve encountered working with athletes (of course, I learned about these secret goals after the fact):
A time-based goal (such as a personal best or breaking a certain time barrier)
A results-based goal (such as winning an age group or overall award in a race)
A qualification-based goal (such as qualifying for the Boston Marathon, the IRONMAN World Championship, etc.)
A competitive goal (such as beating a friend, family member, or local rival at a race)
A “down the road” goal (such as ultimately seeking to train for something beyond the current goal)
Secret goals are harmful at best and disastrous at their worst. This is especially true if you work with a coach or any other fitness professional. (However, to be clear: Even if you are self-coached, secret goals are harmful.) If you are not honest with yourself and/or do not share what your true goals are with the team you have built to help you achieve your goals, they (and therefore you!) are doomed to fail.
If the team helping you prepare for your goals doesn’t know what your goals actually are, they will not be making the best recommendations or planning the best training for you to reach the secret/true goal. Therefore, if they are not doling out the most appropriate advice or planning the training that is needed to hit the secret/true goal, you will ultimately be prepared for a different goal than the one you actually set and care about. If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time. Your coach or team preparing you for a goal that is different than the one you actually care about is effectively aiming at nothing, because they are not aiming toward where you actually want to go. And thus, you will end up hitting nothing - aka not hitting the goal you truly want to achieve.
In my experience, secret goals are born out of fear; fear is what keeps them a secret. Though they may not articulate out loud (or even to themselves) that fear is driving this, athletes often think that the goal they want to see is “too” something - too much, too hard, too fast, too crazy, too beyond their current capabilities. They are afraid that they might fail at achieving the secret goal. And so, they keep the goal a secret, often feeling that the sting of failure will be diminished if they don’t tell anyone but themselves what their goal really is. (Spoiler: The sting of failure and the feelings of disappointment are just as poignant - if not more so - for unrealized secret goals as they are for unrealized declared goals.)
In some limited cases, an athlete’s goal may actually be “too much.” However, what is more frequently true is this: The goal is too much right now. I truly believe that athletes can achieve many - if not most - of the goals they can dream up…under the right circumstances and with the proper preparation. The truth of the matter is this: Most athletes don’t achieve goals that are “too [insert adjective here]” because they are unwilling to do what it takes to create the right circumstances and to properly prepare for the goal. (They might think they are willing to do what it takes and/or they may want to believe that they are willing to do what it takes, but many athletes simply are not willing to do what it actually takes.) However, if an athlete is willing to cultivate the right environment/circumstances for themselves and they are willing to actually do the preparation that is necessary to achieve their goal, there often isn’t a force on Earth that can stop them from being successful.
Hold that mirror up this week and ask yourselves: Have you set any secret goals for yourself this year? If you have a goal that you want to achieve that you haven’t told anyone about, you are guilty of setting a secret goal. Know that it is very okay to set “big hairy audacious goals” - goals that seem really difficult and that might take a long time to achieve. Furthermore, it’s okay to stumble along the way and not hit those goals the first time you set out to achieve them. And it’s very okay if you don’t want to share that goal with everyone in your life.
However, it’s so important that you share what you actually want to achieve with your team (coach, fitness professionals, etc.) and with yourself. Say what you want out loud. Be extremely specific about what you goal is - and write it down. Put it into real words. Keeping goals a secret or unspoken doesn’t eradicate their existence (if anything, it gives them more festering power). Write your goals down and speak your goals out loud to everyone who can help you chart a course to success, and your probability of success will increase radically.
You are worth setting goals that you openly declare with fervor and honesty. Do not ever set a secret goal!
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.