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Mental Fitness Part III: Goal Setting

By Jesse Kropelnicki

Part I  |  Part II

goal settingGoals are one of the hottest topics discussed in training circles and online forums throughout the triathlon community, but who really knows what they are? There are variety of opinions on what they are and what they mean. A common understanding is that a goal represents the purpose, or objective, towards which an endeavor is directed. The intended destination of a journey, if you will. The achievement of a set goal can be one of the most rewarding accomplishments that an athlete (or any person, for that matter) will ever realize.

Falling short of a set goal can have just the opposite effect. For that reason it is vitally important that the goal-setting process be regarded in a manner that ensures realistic and achievable results. At QT2 Systems we use a very structured approach to the goal-setting process that addresses and drives both short- and long-term progress. This helps to supplement an athlete’s mental fitness toolbox. Like training itself, appropriate goal setting can help to keep an athlete motivated. Inappropriate goal setting can leave an athlete feeling lethargic at best, and at worst like a failure.

The Framework
The goals we conjure up for ourselves as athletes can be placed into one of three categories:

Objectives — Things over which we have nearly 100 percent control, such as “I am going to be tough”, “I am not going to give up, no matter how hard things get”, “I am going to follow my pacing plan”, “I am going to follow my fueling plan.”

Targets — Things over which we have a bit less control, but are directly related to our training, and can therefore be pretty closely predicted. Examples: “I am going to average 250 watts on the bike,” “I am going to produce a very even power profile,” “I am going to run a 7:45 pace.”

Outcomes — Things over which we have the least amount of control, such as age group or overall placing, race time, Kona slot qualification, etc.

Goal setting should always take a top-to-bottom approach, where we place the greatest emphasis on that which we have the greatest amount of control, and reduce the focus as we must relinquish more and more control. Athletes should consider the framework of their goals to exist in a series, where objectives receive the greatest amount of attention, targets the next, and lastly the outcomes.

Unfortunately, many athletes invert this process, asking the question “What must I do to achieve my desired outcome?” This most typically takes the form of Kona qualification. They set the goal to qualify for the World Championship, calculating where they will have to place within their age group to be able to punch their ticket. The next logical step is to determine the targets (wattages/paces/speeds/etc.) that will be necessary to do so. Objectives are often lost in the shuffle, and can become very dependent upon whether or not the athlete is hitting his or her targets from day to day.

When this inversion takes place a great deal of mental capital ends up being paid to meaningless outcomes: “I didn’t outride Mary Sue!” or “Bobby Joe dropped me late into the run!” We have no control over how Mary Sue and Bobby Joe train and race. Therefore, the comparison is invalid, unfair, and sets up an unhealthy mental pattern.

Athletes tend to be most upset by not meeting their desired outcomes, though the far greater transgression is in not meeting their objectives. Outcomes are very much dependent upon the actions of others, while objectives exist wholly within the individual athlete. When focus is concentrated on appropriate objectives and targets, the desired outcomes will typically be met.

To this end, objectives should slowly incorporate suitable targets, depending upon the athlete’s mental fitness. Athletes who are motivated by the achievement of potential success will often be more receptive to trying to transform their objectives into more concrete targets, because they view their targets as a challenge. The athlete who is motivated by potential failure, however, may view their targets as just another opportunity to fall short of their goals. For this reason, it’s often necessary to spend more time and focus on the outlined objectives, keeping their targets more subjective in nature.

Prior to setting the outcome goal of wanting to qualify for Kona, for example, athletes must ask whether that’s even a possibility. Do you posses both the mental and physical toughness to endure the training? Have you been able to execute a race plan time and time again? Do your performance indicators and durability put you in a plausible Kona-qualifying position? These are the most important aspects of successful training and racing, and cannot be ignored when considering the focus of an upcoming season.

Applying it All to Race Day
While we have already discussed the structure of goal setting from the overall training perspective, the very same structure can be applied to race day itself.

It’s not uncommon to see the Queen K highway littered with marathon walkers late into the run portion of the World Championship. This is typically indicative of over-pacing the early portion of the race, which then exposes the athlete to a strong potential for difficulty in handling their race day nutrition. This dovetailing of completely controllable factors will leave athletes cooked, physiologically speaking, and able to muster little more than the infamous Ironman shuffle. Why? Unfortunately, when the cannon sounds on race day most athletes do not know what kind of a performance that they are truly capable of. They set out on the day guided by what they would like their race outcome to be, as opposed to an execution strategy that is built around their training and capabilities.

Stay away from negative mental patterns on race day. These will typically come as a result of focusing on outcomes, which reside at the bottom of the goal list. If you find yourself focusing on your position, relative to Mary Sue or Bobby Joe, wondering why you are fifth in your age group when you would like to be in third, then a quick redirection of your mindset is essential to success.

Objectives are right there at the top of the goal-setting list. Remember, these are things that we have the greatest amount of control over. “I am racing tough.” “I am executing my pacing plan.” “I am following my fueling plan.” Once you have shifted your mindset to this more positive approach and are successfully implementing it, it’s then time to move into your race day targets: “How is my wattage compared to what my training indicates?” Not wattages that you would like to push, or paces that you would like to run, but wattages and paces that are clearly defined by your training results.

Only athletes who are competing at the elite level or those who are in the closing miles of an event should consider the race’s outcomes. Most of the time it’s only worth considering these outcomes once you have crossed the finish line. But, in the final 5-10k of the run, when mano-a-mano with a fellow age group competitor, it may be necessary to put your targets by the wayside and just race. Having said that, when all is said and done if an athlete has stuck to their objectives and hit their targets, then it’s very likely that realistic outcomes will have taken care of themselves.

Even so, an athlete can have the race of his or her life, and still not realize the desired outcomes. Why? Because placement in the age group or overall time are affected by so much more than only the athlete. There are always factors that can’t be accounted for, such as heat, humidity, and wind. Barring all of that, you simply cannot control who shows up on race day. To determine that you would like to place in the top-five of your age group at an Ironman event, is quite arbitrary. What if that particular race becomes your age group’s championship showdown, with a Who’s Who of competitors? Is that desired top-five placement still appropriate? What if nobody shows up? Is that desired top-five still worth its weight?

This ambiguity is exactly why it’s necessary to give race day outcomes the least amount of weight when assessing race day success. There are certainly no shortage of athletes who have missed out on Kona slots despite having the races of their lives. That doesn’t make their race any less successful. Though significantly fewer, there are also no shortage of athletes who have earned a Kona spot despite terrible management of their objectives and targets. This doesn’t make their race any more successful. In the end, Kona typically has the final say in determining that, and rewards those who race according to their objectives and appropriate targets. Those who fuel their day with thoughts of outcomes are often left wilted beneath the starry skies of the Big Island.

With a season of great racing just around the corner, those toeing the line may want to carefully consider, or perhaps reconsider, the genesis of their particular goals. Approaching this race with a clear set of objectives and targets can really help to maintain a positive frame of mind throughout the day. Let the outcomes fall where they may. When you're out on the race course, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of instantly comparing yourself to others, be it appropriate or not. It’s not uncommon to see athletes whizzing by, within the first segment of the bike, and start to feel a bit despondent. But, you don’t know what kind of training they have done. You have no idea if they are pacing themselves properly, or are racing according to desired outcomes. Fear not! Those who have put in the work, and pace themselves according to what they know they can do will truly enjoy the experience and finish strong. Those who race according to how they want to place run the extreme risk of getting their money’s worth out on that run course.

After making so many life sacrifices during your training, it doesn’t make sense to set yourself up for a disappointing day. Mental fitness requires that you take a very holistic approach to your training and racing. A mindset that builds from objectives into targets, and lastly into outcomes, is one that is certain to put you in the perfect position to succeed. After all, mental fitness is nothing without success.

Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC, a leading provider of personal triathlon coaching; TheCoreDiet.com, a leading provider of sports nutrition; and Your 26.2 a marathon training company. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Ethan Brown, Jacqui Gordon, and Pedro Gomes, among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.

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