Goal Setting: Yes or No?

“Every man’s got the right to decide his own destiny.”
–Bob Marley

One of the questions that comes up at the dawn of every new season is, What goals do I want to accomplish this year? While some athletes like to have clear, concrete goals to shoot for from the outset, others prefer to go with the flow, so to speak, instead of putting the undue pressure on themselves that can come with having unachieved goals hanging over their heads. This article will address the question as to whether or not it is beneficial to set personal goals prior to the beginning of a new season, and, if so, how one should go about it.

The Commitment factor
Because the season is so long, it is too easy, without specific goals, to lose focus and motivation. In the low-key early season meets especially, when the weather hasn’t yet broken, it is easy to just go through the motions of getting races over with. Also, in training, it’s too easy to throw a day a way here and there, claiming to be “too busy,” “too tired,” “too stressed out,” or too something to give it all you’ve got in practice. When Magic Johnson was inducted into the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame several years ago, he said in his acceptance speech that he always kept improving his game every summer because he knew that his chief rival, Larry Bird, was working on his game over the summer. He knew he wanted to win a championship, and he knew that if he let Bird get the upper hand on him, he would fall short of his goal. What Magic realized was that, if you just say to yourself “I want to do the best I can,” but have no clear idea as to what your “best” is, then you won’t do the best you can because you won’t do the work necessary to do the best you can. When shortcuts are made available, you’ll take them.

I remember a teammate I had during my freshman year of high school. He was a junior who frustrated our coach to no end. He always tried his hardest to win on the day of a meet, giving everything he had from the starting line to the finish line. But he would often skip practice, approaching Coach beforehand, dressed in his school clothes, claiming, “I got a test tomorrow,” or “I got a paper due tomorrow,” or something to that effect. He would constantly find reasons not to come to practice. Then, when he was there, he wouldn’t give his best. He’d complain about a sore ankle, sore shins, etc.; he had a knack for coming up with “legitimate” reasons to cut workouts short. When I think back to him and his approach to training, I can see that his attitude is a reflection of what happens to athletes when they don’t have goals. They get complacent. “Pretty good” – whether it’s a pretty good effort or a pretty good race – is good enough. It’s acceptable. The less time commitment you put into your sport, the less emotional commitment you invest in your sport. Disappointing performances are rationalized with a flippant, “Hey, I did my best.” Indeed, you may have done your best on the day of the race, but you didn’t do your best in preparing for the race, so, you didn’t really do your best, and you still have no way of knowing what your best is.

This fear of making the emotional commitment to reaching a goal is something that Michael Johnson discusses in one of the later chapters of Slaying the Dragon – an autobiographical, inspirational book he wrote shortly after his dominant performances in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Slaying the Dragon is one of the best sports books I have ever read. It’s very hard to find now, but I believe that used copies can still be bought at amazon.com. I highly recommend it. Anyway, the point that Johnson makes is that you have to admit to yourself that you want to achieve your goal. Don’t back down or shy away from your own desires. They won’t go away by denying them. On the contrary, they’ll persist, and they’ll grow even more pronounced. The healthiest approach, in my interpretation of Johnson’s discursion, is to go into a race admitting to yourself that you really, really want to win, but acknowledging that there are no guarantees that you will; admitting to yourself that you really, really want to make it to the finals, but acknowledging that there are no guarantees that you will; admitting to yourself that you want to qualify for the state championships, but acknowledging that there are no guarantees that you will. By accepting the fact that disappointment is a real possibility – that you could, indeed, fall short of your goals – but still acknowledging that you do, in fact, desire to achieve them, you free yourself from fear of failure, and you enter a mindset in which the challenge of meeting your destiny (success) is a welcome one, an inspiring one, not a terrifying one.

Meanwhile, the example of my former teammate raises an interesting point: If, sincerely, too many other things in your life take up large chunks of your time, then you need to reconsider whether you want to participate in the sport at all. We all need to prioritize. If hurdling doesn’t mean enough to you to make time for it, to give your all to it, then I know that I as a coach would rather you just say so and move on with your life, rather than hang on out of a false sense of quasi-obligation, and make life miserable for me, for yourself, and for your teammates. As a high school coach, I often come across athletes who join the track team because they just want to lose weight, get in shape, or get in better shape for their “main” sport, which is usually a team sport. Generally, these types of athletes come to Track & Field with a poor work ethic and poor attitude, even if they have a solid work ethic and a positive attitude when engaged in endeavors they actually enjoy. As a coach, my attitude is, you’re not doing me or anyone else any favors by coming out for track if you don’t sincerely want to run track; if you don’t enjoy this, then don’t do this. I ain’t mad at ya, but go away.

Defining Goals
When it comes to setting goals and using them as a motivational tool throughout the course of a season, the difficulty lies in defining what the goals should be. If you set your goals too high, then the frustrations you encounter along the road to accomplishing them will discourage you immensely, possibly even to the degree of leading you to quit the sport altogether. What happens is, once you realize that your goals are unachievable, you lose faith – in yourself, in your coach, and in the sport itself – and your energy level drops dramatically. On the other hand, if you set your goals too low and you consequently reach them too soon, the “now what?” syndrome sets in, and you approach the rest of the season with the attitude of, “Everything else from here on in is gravy, so I’ll go into cruise control effort-wise.”

When it comes to goal-setting, one thing that is definitely of value is setting short-term goals in addition to long-term goals. In the world of sports, we hear a lot of clichés all of the time about the importance of not thinking too far ahead into the future. How many times have you heard phrases like, “Take it one game at a time” and “The most important game is the next game”? The thing is, the clichés ring true. The next one is the most important one. In his deeply introspective book, Sacred Hoops, L.A. Lakers coach and former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson discusses at length the need to keep one’s mind focused solely on the moment, to not allow thoughts of future hopes or worries over potential failures to distract you from the task at hand. The Bulls teams of the 1990’s, Jackson explained, won all those championships not by focusing on winning championships, but by focusing on winning the next game, on winning the next quarter, on effectively executing the next play. For a professional basketball team, the goal of winning a championship in June, while you’re slogging through a road trip in December, does not serve to provide much motivation. It’s just too far away. However, the goal of going undefeated on the road trip can provide useful motivation. The same logic applies to any sport, including Track & Field, and, for our purposes, the hurdling events. Long-term goals are achieved by setting and fulfilling a series of short-term goals. Confidence gradually builds over the course of a long season, leading to the belief, by championship season, that, as the cliché says, you truly can do anything you put your mind to.

As it is Written . . .
If you’re going to set goals, write them down. Make yourself accountable. One of the mysteries of this life lies in the fact that thoughts, ideas, and dreams are somehow more real when they’re written down than when they’re just floating around in your head. Also, it’s important to review your goals periodically – at least once a month, although once a week is certainly preferable. In addition, constantly re-evaluate your goals, and make alterations to them if necessary. And I may be stating the obvious here, but I’ll say it anyway: discuss your goals with your coach. If you and your coach are not on the same page, the relationship between the two of you could become an antagonistic one, even if you are both striving for the same objective of creating your athletic success. If, for example, your goal is to run a 14.5 in the 110’s and your coach’s goal for you is to get you down to a 48.0 4×4 split, then there is obviously a conflict that needs to be resolved. The simple ability to communicate effectively can help you to avoid potential misunderstandings. Finally, remember that goals aren’t rules; you don’t have to achieve your goals. The world won’t end, your world won’t end, if you don’t. Goals are guides, not laws. They serve as a roadmap, so use them as such.

Who Needs Goals?
In spite of all I have written in the previous paragraphs, I would agree with the notion that not all athletes need to set goals. Some hurdlers, for instance, work well by just saying to themselves, “My goal is to have a great practice today, and to be a better hurdler by the time I leave the track than I was before I came to the track today.” This mindset is actually ideal, because, when you have a holistic love for the sport and enough self-motivation that you don’t need goals to keep you in the mode of using practice sessions to improve your skill level and to further your education about your event, then you don’t grow attached to numbers and places, and you’re better equipped with the psychological tools needed to focus in on the moment. Practice becomes a more enjoyable experience because you’re enjoying it for what it is, not for what it can give you, not for what it can help you to attain. You don’t get caught up in the “why did I bother to work so hard?” trap that many goal-oriented athletes tend to get caught up in when their dreams don’t come true. Still, I would emphasize that it takes a mature athlete (in terms of inner wisdom and in terms of athletic experience) to be able to stay motivated and focused without setting specific goals.

Whether or not you choose to set concrete goals for yourself, remember to keep in mind, when you line up for the big races, that any goals that may have motivated you through the daily grind of the long season have already served their purpose, and can now be mentally set aside. When the starter says “Runners take your mark,” all that matters is the moment. So live for the moment.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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