Coach Tip Tuesday: What Does It Mean to Set a Goal?
As the year comes to a close and we all look ahead to the next one, it’s not uncommon to think about how we can make next year be “better” than this one. All too often, people will set goals (termed “resolutions” around this time of year, but they’re really just goals) with this objective in mind. “Next year, I’m going to [insert lofty ambition here].”
I’ve written in the past how New Year’s Resolutions have - repeatedly - been shown to be ineffective. Not only ineffective, they are often counterproductive and send people in the opposite direction of where they want to go. But this effect isn’t unique to New Year’s Resolutions; I see it all too often in my work as a coach when athletes set goals and fail to achieve them.
What do we do about this? I believe it starts with understanding and embracing what it actually means to set a goal.
What is a Goal?
While there are certainly a lot of flowery and wordy answers to the question “What is a goal?”, the answer is actually pretty concise and simple:
A goal is a thing that you have deemed to be a higher priority than other things.
Whether you realize it or not, setting a goal is a prioritization of what is currently important to you in your life. Let’s take the example of training for a long-course endurance event such as a Century Ride, an IRONMAN 70.3, or a marathon. If you decide that you are training for something like this, here’s what you’re actually saying:
“I want to train for a long-course event, and this means that I want to do the training for this event more than I want to do other things I could be doing and/or that I am already doing in my life right now.”
People like to pretend that this isn’t true, but when you are pursuing something like an endurance sports goal, there are always other opportunities that you are neglecting and choosing not to pursue. Since time is a finite resource, it must be spent in a zero-based budget and thus, saying yes to somethingalways means that you are saying no to something else. In effect, choosing to set a goal means that you are prioritizing how you are going to be spending the most valuable resource you have in the world: your time.
What Setting a Goal Means
The main issue surrounding goal setting that I have observed over the years in my work with athletes is that they don’t actually want to decrease what they’re doing in their lives - whatever it is they are doing - in order to make space for something else. Instead, they try to layer the new thing (or goal) on top of what they are already doing in their lives.
This is a fallacy and a recipe for disappointment and disaster. If we don’t acknowledge, accept, embrace, and plan for the truth that our goal is a higher priority than other things we are currently doing in our lives or than what we could potentially be doing in our lives, we will end up in a frustrating place.
I think that this happens for many reasons, but one of the main ones is that athletes often set goals based on “the glory of the finish”, which is essentially the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what it takes to achieve a goal. When athletes tell me what they want to achieve, they don’t say, “I want to work hard for 8-12 hours a week, sacrifice other hobbies in my life, miss social engagements with my friends, and feel tired and sore.” Nope, they don’t say that at all. They say things like “I want to finish a half marathon” or “I want to finish an IRONMAN” or “I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon.” Their focus is on the finish or end result, not the process.
Because of this, I think that many people get led astray when setting goals. Whether because they truly don’t understand what it takes or because they don’t want to admit to themselves what it is going to take, I’ve watched many athletes set goals and then go off-course in training. Basically, when they get into or see the “grind” of the work that it takes to achieve the goal that they said is important to them, they get distracted and/or realize that they don’t actually want to do this work as much as they imagined that they did at the time they set the goal. This manifests as inconsistent training, missed training, lack of performance, or (in a worst-case scenario) an injury or a missed goal.
I’ve gotten much more comfortable over the years having the hard (yet honest and important) conversation about what a goal is going to take for an athlete to achieve at the time they are considering their goal (aka at the beginning). It’s not uncommon for me to say things like “You will need to neglect some areas of your life that are currently important to you. Your house may not be as clean as you like. Your lawn may not get mowed as often as you like. You probably won’t be able to cook extravagant meals, and your eating habits will need to become more utilitarian. You will have to turn down invites to social events. What are you going to do to carve the time that is necessary for you to have the highest probability of successfully achieving this goal?”
It’s important to note that I’m not saying that an athlete has to give up everything that is important to them in their life in order to pursue a goal. But since all of us - and I do mean all of us - are already spending every single minute we have available in a given day on something, this does mean that we need to stop doing something we are currently doing in order to make that space for the new something we want to pursue.
How to Decide on a Goal
I’ve talked before about how - first and foremost - a goal should be in alignment with your authentic self. It should also be a goal that is not wildly beyond your current capabilities, so accurate self-awareness and honesty about where you actually currently are ability-wise is incredibly important. Even when setting a goal that is just beyond your current ability level, doing the work that is necessary to reach that level of performance is not glamorous. It’s very real, very hard work.
Once these things are evaluated, the next step in setting a goal that you have a higher probability of achieving is determining if you're actually going to be willing to do what it takes along the way. This includes the training itself and the corresponding sacrifices you will need to make in order to have the time, space, and energy for the training and corresponding adaptations.
What are you willing to cut? What are you willing to say no to? If you do your key workouts on the weekends, are you going to be willing to turn down invitations for parties, getaway trips, or other “fun” activities? If you travel more than 1-2 days per month, are you going to be willing to train when you are outside of your normal environment? Are you going to be willing to get an appropriate amount of sleep to match your training?
It’s important to think about this and answer these questions at the beginning or when you are considering a goal. If you do not, you will find out the answers along the way and you won’t necessarily like them. You may learn that you’re not willing to give up the activities you’re currently doing to train more. You may learn that you are unwilling to go to bed earlier or sleep in later to get an appropriate amount of sleep. When this happens, you will have a very difficult time, because you’ll be wrestling with the intense discomfort of knowing you’re not on track toward your goal. Because the truth will come out in the end, it’s much better to understand what your truth is at the beginning of the goal-setting process so you can decide on a goal that is in closest alignment with what you’re actually willing to do.
The Bottom Line
There are so many goals out there that could be set, and there are so many things each of us is capable of achieving. However, just because we have it in us to achieve something doesn’t mean that we are willing to do what it is actually going to take to achieve it.
We should seek to set goals that are in alignment with our authentic selves, our current abilities, and that we are willing to actually prioritize over other things in our lives. Setting a goal - by default - means that we are saying that one thing is more important to us than another thing. Write down (with actual pen and paper) and/or say out loud which things you are going to de-prioritize as you set your goals for the upcoming season and you will have a higher probability of successfully achieving them.
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.