Whether it be an aggressive target like a Boston Qualifier (BQ), Olympic Trials Qualifier (OTQ), a new personal best (PB) at any given distance or just improving our overall health and wellness, we all have goals that drive us. And goals are a great thing—they are a crucial component in making improvements and pushing ourselves to achieve incredible things. They allow us to set a standard, develop and carry out a plan of attack, and then compare the outcome to what we initially set out to accomplish, then rinse and repeat. And this is how we grow and make progress. But is it also possible that our goal-driven efforts can prove to be one of the more significant obstacles we have to learn to overcome? And if so, how can we balance setting goals that drive growth without getting in our own way? Understanding how goals can become a roadblock and then knowing how to examine and address those goals in such a way that allows us to still consistently perform at a high level is an incredibly important part of our development as runners and as athletes overall.
Recently I was reminded of how goals can become an obstacle when I was reading Matt Fitzgerald’s How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle (if you haven’t already read it, definitely put it on your reading list!) as he discussed the “art of letting go”. Fitzgerald recounts the story of the remarkably decorated World Champion triathlete Siri Lindley’s efforts to prepare for and secure a spot on the US Olympic team for the debut of the triathlon at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. So intense was Lindley’s drive to achieve her goal of making the US Olympic team, she put relationships with friends and family on hold and moved to Sydney as a means of dedicating herself completely to her training and preparation to earn a spot on the team. While Lindley’s fitness certainly benefited from this single-minded focus in preparing for the Olympics, Siri failed to realize the impact this approach had on taking the joy away from what she was doing. Furthermore—and perhaps more importantly—the greater level of dedication and sacrifice she made in her attempt to reach this goal only added to the pressure she placed on herself, pressure that would eventually result in Siri choking and falling short of her goal to make the US Olympic team for the Sydney games in a heartbreaking fashion. According to Fitzgerald, once Siri Lindley learned to “let go” of the pressure that she put on herself to achieve her ambitious goals, she was then able to start realizing her potential as an athlete and accomplished much of what she had set out to do initially. Her subsequent storied career and place in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Hall of Fame both attest to that.
We are surrounded by goals everywhere we go. From weekend to-do lists to metrics and targets in the workplace, it isn’t difficult to find an aspect of life that involves some sort of goal. It’s probably safe to say that in many ways, goal setting is how we get things done. But as Siri Lindley’s story illustrates, they can also be the source of building pressure that results in choking. So at what point do goals turn into something that adds that kind of pressure and negatively affect our performance? I believe the key to answering this question comes down to what is behind those goals and why we hope to achieve them. To illustrate this, think of the last time you set simple goals in the form of a weekend or workday to-do list. Now compare that to the next lofty race goal you’ve set. What is your reason for wanting to achieve each of those goals? I’d be willing to bet that there’s a huge difference.
While some goals may be task-oriented in nature and do not consist of much more than simply checking off boxes to get things done, other larger goals can quickly become tied to our identity or even become a means of validation if we aren’t careful to examine and become aware of our reasons behind them. Another aspect to consider is the level of investment we have in our goals. For example, failing to complete a goal of getting the garage cleaned up over the weekend won’t have near the impact on my sense of self that failing to reach that monumental race milestone, such as a BQ or an OTQ, which can involve months, if not years of preparation and training.
It’s easy for goals to running goals to become associated with our sense of self as we start to experience the growth and the feelings of accomplishment that comes as we begin to experience significant progress as runners and as athletes—our confidence grows from seeing what we’re capable of accomplishing and subsequent results soon become tied to what we believe we can accomplish going forward. When this happens, and the reasons behind our goals become tied to our self-image or a need for validation (whether internally or externally), the chances are greater that we’ll begin to place more and more pressure on ourselves to achieve those goals—and this is exactly the kind of pressure that can cause us to crack under pressure and choke.
The best way to prevent this process from happening is to make an honest assessment of why we are setting out in pursuit of the lofty goals we set. Is there something that we are trying to prove to ourselves or to someone else? If we can identify the reasons behind our goals and revisit those reasons regularly, we stand a much better chance of preventing our goals become intertwined with some aspect of our self-concept or image.
Once we’ve identified the reasons behind our goals, what comes next? First, dig a little deeper. For example, if your answer is something like because I want to test my limits and see what I’m capable of, ask yourself why you want to do that. Then ask yourself why again. And again. Keep digging until you’ve reached that ground level reason that is the root of your motivation. Third, ask yourself what will happen if you don’t achieve that goal. Will you be okay with that? Why or why not?
The value in this exercise is that it allows us get to the point of being able to let go of the pressure that we place upon on ourselves to reach those lofty goals. And once we’re able to let go of that pressure, amazing things start to happen—we’re able to enjoy the process of training even more and experience greater joy in our running. But perhaps more importantly, we start to achieve incredible results along the way and in many cases, surpass the very goals we set to begin with. It’s incredible to think that in many cases, the best way to achieve our ambitious goals might actually be finding a way to let go of them—or at least letting go of the reasons we might have started with for wanting to achieve them.
In my own experience as a marathon runner, I’ve seen this process unfold in this exact way. Early on as I experienced a significant amount of improvement from one marathon to the next, I began to realize that getting a BQ was becoming more and more of a realistic possibility. Accordingly, I set my sights on it, chose a race and started training in anticipation of getting that first BQ. By the time the race day arrived, I had trained hard, I was fit and I thought that I was ready to go. Except that I wasn’t. Somewhere along the way I had allowed myself to think that I had something to prove; that I wouldn’t be a real marathoner until I had a BQ to show for it. I crumbled under the pressure that day and left devastated after an epic collapse, coming in well over 10 minutes slower than my goal time.
As painful as that race experience was for me, something great came as a result. While I had clearly learned a lot about how I had approached my training leading up to the race along with what I would need to improve in order to reach my goal, the greater lesson for me came in the form of the power of letting go. In the days after my failed BQ attempt, I came to the realization that even if my window of opportunity to qualify for Boston had come and gone, I would be perfectly fine with all that I had accomplished and gained from running to that point. I still believed there was plenty more to be gained, but I felt a peace about what I had accomplished to that point on my running journey. I started to formulate a plan that included at least two BQ attempts the following year; with time for a third attempt should I need it. I resumed training and showed up ready to race four months later knowing that I was in better shape, but also knowing that if the day didn’t go my way it would be alright—I’d get what I needed for Boston down the road.
I got what I needed for Boston that day, and then some. I learned that there is power in letting go of the pressure and the expectations that we place upon ourselves. I learned that ironically, perhaps our best results come when we take the time to honestly assess what is behind our lofty running goals, dig a little deeper, then let go and enjoy the process.
What has your experience been with setting lofty running goals? What are the reasons behind those goals? And more importantly, are you ready to let go?