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Coaches Blog

Don't Get Attached To The Goals. Get Attached To The Process.

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

Starting in March, most of us have endured a steady stream of canceled and deferred races--a torturous "drip drip" of bad news across all endurance sports.

We aren't the only ones dealing with canceled and deferred dreams and goals. Olympic athletes around the world saw their life goal moved an entire year! That's a lifetime for many athletes who have a small window to compete at the elite level.

We amateur athletes can learn a lot from the elite competitors about how to set big goals in a way that won't backfire on us if things change, move, or get canceled. The key: they break down their goals into smaller pieces and focus on the process, not the goal itself.

If you hang around elite athletes, you'll probably notice one thing that sets a few apart. The athletes who learn to let go of one bad performance or setback and get back to work are the ones who tend to enjoy greater long-term success.

Take US Track and Field athlete, Brenda Martinez, for example. In 2016 she competed at the Olympic Team Trials to go to the Rio Olympics. Her best event was the 800-meter run. With just 100-meters to go in the race, another athlete tripped and fell, bumping Martinez off her stride. Poor Martinez was literally bumped out of an Olympic spot!

In an interview after the race, Martinez told reporters that she would shift focus to her next event, the 1500-meter race. Less than a week later, Martinez secured her first Olympic bid by just three one-hundredths of a second.

Brenda Martinez explained later that her journey to the Olympics was riddled with setbacks, obstacles, and close calls, but her attitude and mindset got her through. "I let go of what happened and get back to my routine, focusing on the little things I can do that will give me the best chance of running well in the next race," Martinez explained.

Don't Get Attached To Goals. Get Attached To The Process.

This statement probably goes against every self-help book published. And, trust me, there's nothing inherently wrong with setting big goals. But, it's essential to have the right mindset about those goals.

When goals get dangerous

Focusing too much on your big goal can actually be detrimental to long-term performance and your overall health and wellbeing. One study from the Harvard Business School revealed that overemphasizing goals (especially ones with measurable outcomes, like finishing an IRONMAN in under 10 hours), can cause irrational risk-taking, lower motivation, and even unethical behaviors!

We've all probably seen it: someone gets fixated on achieving a goal and loses sight of why they set the goal in the first place. They become driven by the hopes of what accomplishing the goal will bring. When they finally reach their goal (or if their goal is snatched away), their entire life is empty. They set out to do that one thing at the expense of everything else--relationships, health, and overall wellbeing.

Even big, hairy, audacious goals can be detrimental.

Even setting what some people call "big, hairy, audacious goals" can be detrimental if they’re not framed appropriately. For example, you might set out to complete your first IRONMAN triathlon (an excellent objective) and be overwhelmed at first by how much training and preparation is required. But, if you ONLY focus on finishing the race, once you cross the finish line, what's next?

Marathoners and IRONMAN athletes often talk about "post-race blues" because they experience a void in their life when they complete their big, hairy, audacious goal. Other athletes drop all the great habits and skills they developed to get to the finish line! Both of these outcomes are related to focusing too much on the goal and not enough on the process and mindset.

There Is A Better Way

Goal setting can be an effective way to structure and orient your life--a north star, so to speak. The better, healthier way to approach goals is to set them, then shift your focus to the process and the small steps needed to get there.

Focusing on the process and the mindset along the way can actually make the big, hairy, audacious goal MORE rewarding when you finally accomplish it (and you learn a lot more). Along the way, it's critical to judge yourself on how well you follow the process, not how well you accomplish the goal.

Focus on the parts, not the whole

Shifting the focus to the process means understanding all the small steps you'll need to take in the coming weeks, months, or years. This mindset will help you stay centered on the right things... even when your goal gets moved a year by a nasty pandemic.

Martinez didn't focus on her rubbish luck in the 800-meter run. She remained fixated on nutrition, sleep, and workouts that would give her the best chance at performing well in the 1500-meter race. She didn't focus on making the Olympic team, she focused on the process of being the best runner she could be--which led her to her Olympic dream.

How to shift focus

This mindset shift applies to almost every area of life. Whether you want to finish your first IRONMAN, get that promotion at work, or improve your relationship with a significant other!

First, set your goal. Then, identify the steps you'll need to take to achieve that goal. Will you need to learn new skills? Get a coach? Change a habit or mindset? Create a plan, then mostly forget about your big goal and focus on the process!

Enjoy harmonious passion

Focusing on the process creates daily (sometimes hourly) opportunities for small victories! This helps us stay motivated and committed to long-term dreams, even through setbacks.

Focusing on the process nurtures what psychology professor Robert. J. Vallerand calls "harmonious passion." Basically, harmonious passion leads to a deep, intrinsic motivation and a love for doing the work required to accomplish the goal. Harmonious passion helps us enjoy the process of getting better.

Knowing you put in the right work and gave it your best effort gives you a particular self-confidence, fulfillment, and contentment, regardless of the outcome.

So, where do we go from here? Most of us are mourning "goals deferred" this season--including all the Olympic hopefuls! It's a perfect time to practice setting goals and focusing on the process instead of the goal itself. After all, it's doing all the little things the right way that makes the big things possible.

At Team MPI, we believe in the power of setting goals and focusing on the daily process because we believe this empowers athletes to become smarter, stronger, and faster in every area of life. The 2020 season is the perfect opportunity for all of us to practice this essential life skill! It's an ideal opportunity to create the right rhythms, patterns, and steps needed to reach our big, hairy, audacious goals in a healthy, holistic way.


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