When I first spoke about this article with USA Triathlon, it was early winter, before we enjoyed the holidays and New Year. The world, well, it was very different then.
I hope folks reading this are doing a great job executing physical distancing, and that you are all healthy and well. Keep doing your best on both fronts!
Every year, athletes I work with generate, evaluate and update goals. This process happens to varying degrees based on each athlete’s needs. Interestingly, this does not just include busy age groupers. Pros and newbies alike end up consistently seeking out ways to tweak goals to fit their ever evolving life situation.
I start with that key point, because goals have proximal and distal focus points — both of which must evolve as your life situation changes. The distal points are the bigger goals, the dreams, the targets we aspire to.
As Dr Albert Bandura (arguably the father of goal setting) notes, goals are a symbolic representation of what you want to move toward (1).
So, as you ponder the goals you have set for this year, consider, that the bigger goals which excite you, really, are symbols which serve to catalyze actions. It’s those actions, those smaller, more proximal tasks, which develop your behavior/mindset yeilding positive changes in performance and better, your behavior patterns.
How is it that little things create growth directly, while that big cool goal you have generated is really just a north star which guides your experience?
Let’s take a look at that.
Remember Dr Bandura’s point — big goals are symbolic representations. They provide a north star a sense of direction and they orient our purpose in pursuit.
By this nature, they are aspirational and not action based. Conversely, task-oriented goals, proximally spaced, drive us.
Consider the following goal: “I want to finish an Olympic-distance race in under two and a half hours at the Harvest Triathlon this summer.”
That’s a great symbol.
It likely occurs because you want to make a variety of gains in performance which could range from better body composition to better swim skills or running fitness or sustainable power on the bike. Those are all good, but none are directly noted in that big goal.
That big goal may bring these general points into mind, but it tells you nothing about how to consistently progress and build. And THAT, is where we grow! By creating an approach to goals based on striving towards them.
The following is an approach to goal striving I have found very useful for athletes. This is based on the work of sports psychologists Wanja Wolff, Maik Bieleke and Julia Schuler (2).
Use this strategy to help strive toward your goals (symbolic representations of what you hope to grow towards or achieve). Start out with your largest goals and repeat the process as you drill down and establish what tasks you must focus on as you strive forward. Long term success is about the striving towards, NOT simply imagining what you hope to achieve.
1.) What is your goal? Pick a goal that is desirable (I really want it!) and feasible (I can do it)
b. Example: “I want to finish an Olympic-distance Tri in under 2:40.”
2.) What might be a situation that is critical for attaining your goal? Think of an opportunity to act or an obstacle to overcome.
b. Example: “Being able to ride 40K over 20MPH.”
3.) How could you best respond in the critical situation to attain your goal? Think of a specific action or thought that could be helpful.
b. Action: “Calm down and stick to my your own pacing strategy.”
4.) Make your “if then” plan!
a. If _______________________ (Situation from #2 above)
b. Then_______________________ (Response from #3 above)
(Only slightly modified from Wolff, Bieleke & Schuster)
It’s OK to have more than one goal. Again, goals are symbolic representations of things which help us move and grow in the direction we want to. The aim then, is to strive towards the goal. Meaning that to grow and improve, it’s your ability to execute that “if then” plan that really creates the greatest ability to both continue working towards what you want when it’s challenging, AND puts you in the best position to perform as well.
This process should be viewed not as a singular approach to be used on a major goal, but as an approach to all situations in which you hope to strive towards something.
Give this approach a shot as you reformat and adjust your coming season. It will certainly help you with that process, but also, will help you develop a better goal striving strategy for the future.
Keep well, and enjoy your workouts while creating big goals, but focusing on the tasks they require!
Will Kirousis has presented and written for national and international organizations on endurance training and has been coaching triathletes and other endurance athletes for over 20 years. He’s been fortunate to help athletes achieve a range of goals, from finishing their first triathlon, to winning age group national and world championships as well as professional national championships. You can learn more about Will at www.tri-hard.com or by following him on twitter @willkirousis.
1.) Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American Psychologist, 44(9), 1175–1184.
2.) Wolff, W., Bieleke, M. & Schuler, J. (2019). Goal Striving and Endurance Performance. In Meijen, C. Editor, Endurance Performance in Sport: Psychological Theory and Interventions. (125-137). Reutledge, London, UK.