A lot of the conversations I have with the athletes I coach around this time of year revolve around setting goals for the upcoming year/season. Some of them come to me with goals they have in mind (or that they’ve already decided to set) and others ask me for my input about a buffet of possible goals they are considering.
While I’m capable of (and happy to!) give tactical, honest advice about the goals they are considering, there’s one question I encourage athletes to consider above all else when it comes to setting a goal:
What option are you most excited about?
At face value, this might not appear to be a pragmatic way to approach goal setting. However, I’ve learned after 15+ years as an endurance athlete and 10+ years as a coach that this is - by far - the most important question to ask oneself when setting goals. Effectively, what I’m asking an athlete to do is to check in with their authentic self and to set a goal based on who they are and what matters to them. In short: I am advising them to set an authentic goal.
Setting Appropriate Goals
The first step to setting authentic goals is to assess whether a goal is appropriate. Our culture loves to tell us to “shoot for the moon!” (because (allegedly) even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars). I’ve learned that this is pretty poor advice. Research indicates that setting big goals that are too far removed from our current abilities can have the opposite effect of what is intended: They can ultimately be demotivating and result in a lack of goal achievement.
What are your current capabilities? You need to honestly and truly understand where you currently are. Not where you would like to be. Not where you wish you were. Not where you think you can be. Where you are. If you can accurately assess where you currently are, then you can effectively establish what lies just beyond your current capabilities. That “zone” - just beyond your current capabilities - is where you should set your goals. (My experience has taught me that athletes sometimes have a hard time deciphering what their current abilities are; this is where working with an honest and caring coach can be useful, as they will be able to provide that insight.)
If your goal and what you can currently do are too mismatched, your motivation will decrease. Maybe not immediately, but it is a certainty that it will. Even if your conscious self doesn’t want to admit it, your brain will be detecting that what you’re aiming for is too far away from where you are, and it will subconsciously be sending messages such as “What’s the point?” That leads to avoidance behaviors, including micro-quitting. You will be unintentionally shutting down your internal drive before you even begin the path to a goal that is mismatched from your current capabilities.
While it can be tempting to “go big”, I recommend taking an accurate assessment of where you are and then determining a few possible goals to choose from that lie just beyond your current abilities. Doing so will lead to a higher probability of achieving the goal you ultimately select.
Know Your Authentic Self
Some people achieve a majority of the goals they set. Other people continually fall short. Research indicates that the difference between people who achieve their goals and people who do not is that the people who achieve their goals know and understand their authentic selves and set goals that are in alignment with that. In contrast, people who set goals based on their public self or based on external pressures had a significantly lower probability of achieving the goal they set.
In the endurance sports world, this usually manifests as people selecting goals based on what their friends or family members are doing. Contrary to the advice I give, they are not truly asking themselves what they are excited about. They are looking to others to see what others are excited about, and they are setting goals for themselves based on what is important to other people.
Who are you? What matters to you? If you choose a goal that is imposed on you by your spouse, parent, sibling, friend, coach, or society in general, you will have a higher chance of failure than if you answer these questions and select a goal that is in alignment with your answers. Answering these questions requires time and hard work. Journaling, introspection, and conversations with close family and friends are ways that you can get closer to honest answers to them. An important question you can ask yourself as part of this process is:
If only two people other than you in the entire world will know that you achieved the goal, will it still be meaningful to you and/or would you still want to work toward it?
If the answer is no, then you may be setting a goal that isn’t in alignment with your authentic self. It may be a goal that is heavily influenced and motivated by external factors. We are social creatures and sharing is part of our nature. However, while accolades, cheers, and external rewards are certainly nice, research (along with my experience as a coach and athlete) shows that they are not sufficient motivators. You will have a higher probability of maintaining motivation and a higher probability of reaching your goal if it’s an authentic one that aligns with who you are as a person and what truly matters to you.
The Bottom Line
I’ve preached so many timesover the years about how self-awareness is a cornerstone for both goal achievement and happiness in endurance sports. If you want a higher probability of reaching the goals you set, you need to set authentic goals that are in alignment with your current capabilities and with your true self. As you look to next season and to the future beyond it: Don’t look to others to determine what you want. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: What do I want? What is exciting to me? Am I willing to do what it takes to not only be true to myself, but to work toward a goal that is in alignment with that true self? Be sure to answer honestly; your answers could very well be the difference between success and failure.
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.