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Coaches Blog

Goal Setting to Set You (and Your Life!!) Up for Success (Part 1 of 3)

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

by Kelly Ryan

With the excitement of Kona this past Saturday, we’ve marked the official beginning of the off-season and, as I like to refer to it, the “dreaming season.” Now is the absolute best time, before the excitement wears off and the holidays set in, to really lay pen to paper and not just decide on your “A” races for next year, but also look at how those races fit into, and compliment, your larger goals for life. We, as athletes, need to do our best to plan so that our racing doesn’t end up inadvertently interfering with our families, friends, work, and other commitments. This article is the first in what will be a three-part series on setting goals from the macro level, all the way down to the annual training plan.

Today is at the macro-level, with an exercise that I recently worked through with the help of my own Team MPI mentor, Mark Turner, as well as my mentor throughout my career in the Navy, Sean Heritage.

First, a bit of background. This year was a bit different for me, personally. As many of you know, I’m coming back from two fairly serious, consecutive injuries that have had me sidelined since mid-2017, which are not only changing my triathlon career and goals, but also my professional career in the military, which means big life transitions as well. This has forced me to really look at my triathlon goals simultaneously in terms of my “real” life goals (I’m going to stop using quotes there because, if you’ve read this far, chances are, you see triathlon as part of your real life, just like I do!).

In years past, it’s been – dare I say – easy?! In the past, I knew that the next year, I wanted to do better than the last. I wanted to qualify for Kona again by going faster in my qualifying race, and I wanted to win the Military Division in Kona. That was it. From a work perspective, I wanted to protect my people and America, and at the personal level, I wanted to make the next rank. To do that, I had to show up, and do my job well. That was not an easy feat – but I usually knew how to do it and I had a pretty outstanding team of sailors and other officers. We had each other’s backs every step of the way and that made it…well…easy.

This year, my health is finally starting to come back around, and I do still want to get back to the start line in the waters of Dig Me Beach one day (Kona), but it’s not going to realistically happen in 2020, or even in 2021. It's been several years off, big injuries, and even bigger life transitions. Also, to be honest, I was having an extremely hard time trying to decide what I actually wanted to be “when I grow up” (aka retire from the Navy), that I just couldn’t even figure out where I was even going to be living!

The approach.

Because of all of these big changes, I used a very different approach for my goal setting from years past (which was really more something like: “go faster, keep going” than really setting any goals). It’s a bit of a hybrid between Simon Sinek’s idea of “Start[ing] with Why” (he gives a TED Talk on the subject here); a method that Coach MarkT gave us a brief on at USAT’s Paratriathlete Development Camp at the Olympic Training Center in August; and the S.M.A.R.T. goal setting I’ve always been taught in the Navy (goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Tangible).

It started with looking at where I wanted to be in life, not just triathlon, in 10 years.

Sure, you say, I’ve been taught all these things before, starting with my 7th-grade homeroom teacher. But now that you’re a full-fledged adult, have you actually done this lately? Taking this one step further, have you actually meshed all of them together to see how you can make sure that all the goals you’re setting in all the different aspects of your life are compatible with one another in the time frame in which you want to achieve them all?

Here’s an illustration of how I went through setting a plan to get where I want to be in triathlon and in the other parts of my life over the next ten years. This process took me several weeks of dedicated effort and lots of research as well. It is also very much a working document that will change over the weeks, months and years. It is not set in stone. However, the process of building this has has helped me immensely in making some very difficult life decisions and that, for the first time in a very long time, I feel at peace with.

No matter if your current situation is fairly stable and you’re just looking to plan out the next year or two of your training and racing, or looking to do something more long term, like what I did here, I hope that this process will help you as much as it helped me. I also know that if you start planning from a macro level view like this, before we drill down into the micro-level view over the coming weeks in my next two articles, you’ll be starting from very solid ground, for reaching all of your goals in 2020, and beyond.

The process isn’t as scary as it seems at first glance, but I am not going to lie, it can be at times! But this was, by far, the best thing that I have done for myself in years, so I encourage you to be brave and give it a shot too. If you get stuck, move onto another block or walk away for a while and come back later. It will be a project that you won’t finish in one sitting.

Today, we are only going to go over the first three of five steps for the macro level of planning:

1. Find your “Why”.

This is a concept introduced by the author Simon Sinek in his 2009 book, "Start with Why." Sinek points out that individuals are motivated by a sense of purpose. If we don’t know why we are doing something, it is pretty difficult to get ourselves to do it, and that includes getting out of bed on a cold, dark morning to go for a run. It’s not just about that marathon. Why is that marathon important to you?

From a training perspective, when Coach MarkT asked me to go through this exercise, I grappled with it for DAYS and I’m still not sure I fully understand why I love this crazy sport so much! This is something that no one can answer for you and it might be something that is even hard to admit to yourself. There are always heroic answers like “I just want to run for those who can’t” and the beautifully inspiring stories of para-athletes who have overcome incredibly difficult circumstances and have shown us what true determination really is.

The truth is, your “why” might be something like “because my mom always said I couldn’t”. Or maybe it’s yourself you need to prove wrong. That is ok!! Your “why” may be something that you may not even want to put down on a piece of paper because you are not yet ready to deal with it staring you in your face. And that is ok too!! But it is important that you really try to figure out what your “why” is because you’re going to need it on those hard training days and beyond mile 20 of the marathon. If it is the case that it’s something so painful that you can’t even look at it written down or “run away” from it when it pops into your head, I will encourage you to, when the time is right for you, seek help from a qualified professional who can help you deal with those emotions.

2. Outline all of your “Outcome” goals. Here's a worksheet showing a sample approach to Long Term Goal Setting. It doesn’t matter if you move left/right or top/bottom, but do try to do all “outcome” goals first. (If you'd like a blank Excel version of this document, email me at and I'll send it your way!)

Outcome goals are what you want to happen, but you have very little control over, like winning your AG in Kona or wanting to “have your health under control”, like in my case. These are your “A” races, whether they’re “A” races or “A” races of life. I’ve listed what mine are in the 10yr column to help you get started.

If you’re able to work through all of the blocks, you’re starting to see a vision for where you want to be and get an idea of how you’re going to get there. Steps four and five will hash that out in greater detail, but first, let’s finish up this section with step three.

3. Step three is a bit optional, but try to also define a subordinate “why” for each of these Outcome goals. If that objective is the same as your overall why that’s fine too. But it might not be, and that’s important to at least know for yourself.

Give it a try! And stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!

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