A goal without a plan is just a wish.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
by Laura Henry
As the race season starts to heat up for athletes in the Northern Hemisphere, I have more and more conversations with athletes about their goals, what they want to accomplish over the course of a season or in a given race, and ho w we will work together to help the athlete reach those.
I’ve written in the past about how one of my biggest jobs as a coach is helping athletes to slow down and recover better so that they can maximize their gains. Most athletes who seek me out as a coach are fairly driven and already know how to work hard; if they didn’t have those skills, they likely wouldn’t be seeking a coach. In that same realm, one of my biggest jobs is to help athletes manage expectations, as this can be something very, very challenging for athletes to handle on their own.
My mentor and friend Coach Mark Turner says it best, “Uncertainty is the number one enemy of athletes on race day.” While I certainly do agree with Coach MarkT about this, I extend this line of thinking to be the following, “Uncertainty is the number one enemy of athletes in training and racing.”
When planning a series of workouts for an athlete, I always bear the following in mind: where the athlete currently is and where the athlete wants to get to. Having a very clear and honest understanding of both of these things is critical to outlining a solid training plan and to help the athlete develop their fitness and skills so that they can reach their goals.
A goal starts out as an idea, and then it starts to grow. Many, many athletes have come to me saying, “My goal is XXXX.” These goals come in all shapes and sizes: it might be to gain more understanding of their bike and to become a stronger cyclist, it might be to run for 30 seconds consecutively, it might be to get a new personal best time at the 5K distance, it might be to qualify for the Boston Marathon, or it might be to finish an IRONMAN.
No matter what the goal is, there is one thing that holds true for all of them: A goal that an athlete doesn’t know how to accomplish will make them much more nervous than a goal that they know how to get to. It’s the uncertainty - the unknown - that drives their nerves.
The “in-between” phase between both of these things is usually where I come in. Many times, an athlete comes to me with a goal that they’ve decided they want to set, but they have no clue how to get there. My job is to help them learn what it is going to take to accomplish that goal. A big piece of this process is helping the athlete manage their expectations so that the shape of their goal is something that they feel confident that they can attain.
So, when I plan out their workouts, I’m always seeking to teach them skills that will help them when it comes time to reach for the goal. It happens slowly - sometimes, it happens so slowly that the athlete doesn’t even notice the change until they look back a few months down the road and say to themselves, “Oh wow! I couldn’t do that before, but I can now.” This is the absolute best moment for me as a coach - when I see an athlete’s confidence building and I see them begin to have pride in themselves and their accomplishments.
For athletes whose goals are centered around a race or a particular event, my planning for them involves very specific details that are unique to that event. So, for instance, for a long course triathlete, we prepare for the long event ahead in all capacities - fitness, nutrition, hydration, mental skills, and how to handle adversity (mechanicals and weather being just two common sources of adversity). For any goal, we talk about what that experience will be like, what the athlete is likely to feel like, and how they will manage those emotions. For athletes who have time goals in mind for their goal event, we talk about whether that time goal is a reasonable one given where the athlete is in their life/training. Generally, I always recommend that athletes set three goals for themselves in a race: an A Goal (the toughest goal to reach, but one that might be attainable if all things go well on the day), a B Goal (the goal that we feel is most likely to happen), and a C Goal (the goal that we expect to meet if things go wrong...usually the C Goal is “completion” without any strings attached).
Managing expectations isn’t limited to race day; it’s important in day-to-day training as well. All too often, an athlete will tell me that they felt that a workout didn’t go as they planned. More times than not, the reason they feel this way is because they set an expectation for themselves that they were not currently able to meet. This could be for a number of reasons - injury, past injuries, chronic conditions, weather, fatigue, the athlete thinking that they’re somewhere in their training that they really are not...the list goes on and on. When this happens, we have a conversation about how important it is to acknowledge exactly where the athlete is in their journey, and from there, we can build on up. Grounding ourselves in facts ultimately sets us up for success down the road.
The common thread throughout this entire conversation is that in order to progress toward a goal (much less reach it), an athlete must constantly manage expectations, be very honest with themselves (and their coach if they have one), and have a solid plan in place. Cinderella was right when she sang, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.” However, a wish is just that - a wish. In order for it to turn into something tangible and real, it needs to have a plan, and then it becomes a goal that we can progress toward. Manage expectations and form a solid plan right from the very beginning, and that wish will turn into a goal that you believe in and can accomplish!