Why setting goals could be holding us back

In the first of a series of articles, coach Joel Enoch considers how your goal-setting process might be holding you back, and suggests that by shifting the focus to 'play' rather than 'train' it might unleash better performance and more enjoyment from your sport

Triathlon training outdoors on highway. Professional woman athlete on bicycle. Road in beautiful mountain valley. Powerful training on bicycle. Female cyclist, mature woman in sport.

At the start of race season, one of the first things we all tend to do is sit down and plan what we’re aiming for – we make a goal.


However, even at this early stage of the planning process, you might already be heading down a route that’s unhelpful not just to you as an athlete, but also one that could stop you flourishing as a person. But why?

Much as been written about the ‘SMART’ principle of goal setting, defining Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (or ‘realistic’ in some models) and Time-based targets. However, as we think about how helpful setting goals might be generally, we need to start with why we pick certain goals in the first place.

Why do we pick certain race goals?

Think of the goal you have for this season, or perhaps one you’ve had in the past and ask yourself, ‘Do I want to do it, or do I feel I should do it?’ Befor, discussing how best to pursue an aim or objective, it’s first important to consider why we are choosing it.

Scottish Philosopher David Hume observed that we often make assumptions about what should be (or what we should choose) by looking at what is or has been. In a triathlon, goal-setting context an example might be when someone feels that because they swim, bike and run they must enter a triathlon.

Or that because they’ve had some success that they should strive for a result in every event, or that they ought to do a distance longer than previous. Why?

Hume’s suggestion is that this need is a story that we’ve made up and there is, in reality, no reason for us to conform to this way of thinking. The danger is that by being ruled by the ‘should’ we may pick goals that aren’t in line with who we are or what we want. So how can we choose better goals?

How can we choose better goals? 

Four questions might help:

  1. Which of my sporting experiences have been the most fulfilling in the past?
  2. What new sporting experiences do I want?
  3. What are my values as a person and how do the events I choose align with who am I am?
  4. How does having a goal make me feel/How would I feel if someone took my goal away?

Picking aims in this way helps to lead us towards life experiences that are appealing and rewarding in equal measure and will therefore be more engaging, enjoyable (notice ‘goal’ reframed as ‘experience’).

That said, such questions might leave you with a sense that choosing sporting events, a particular performance or result might be unhelpful for you. You’re not alone. Author Jeff Bethke notes that “the term goals was virtually non-existent before 1920”.

Mozart most likely didn’t intend to (or set the goal to) become one of the greatest classical composers in history, instead, he aimed to compose music to the best of his ability. He explored, created, failed, accepted failure as an opportunity to learn, learned and failed again.

All the time, moving himself forward, experiencing life and enjoying breakthroughs while not being rocked by the less successful moments.

This is very different to the experience of picking a sporting goal and being defined by it and how well you prepare for it. Such a choice can hold us hostage, make us feel overwhelmed and frustrated at the constant 10% we fall short, while increasing psycho-physiological stress (which decreases performance). Yet this is the path many of us choose.

Goals do not define us

As a coach, I’ve seen joy leached from athletes enslaved to their goals and experienced the paradox that whether you achieve your goal or not, the positive or negative feelings that come are ultimately empty. Moreover, neither define you as a person.

Validation by achieving goals is dangerous, while self-discovery through process may be a rich playground for sportspeople to enjoy. ‘Don’t aim to run a marathon’ says Bethke, ‘be a runner’.

For others, you may well still consider the environment of competition or a particular performance a life-affirming experience that you want to pursue, and it’s quite possible to have a goal while being fully invested in process.

Play, don’t train

However, it is key to be more invested in a day-to-day discovery through sport than the aim itself.

In this way, the best training may be quite like how children play, with the aim always secondary to the moment. How would your relationship with sport be if you ‘played’, rather than ‘trained’?

To those who have listened to the High Performance Podcast Episode with Jonny Wilkinson, this notion will not be new.

Here the World Cup Winner considers how to be free from the need to perform a certain way, exchanging this for a sense of discovery and play.

Poor goals can become expectations, and these can quickly derail us, so as triathletes how can we make sure we get the work done, while not being enslaved to it?

These questions might help:

  1. (looking forward) What would be a successful outcome to this season? This question raises an athlete above a particular moment, event or performance.
  2. (looking back) What did I learn that I can take forward? This question creates space to take value from whatever has happened; positive or negative.
  3. What is the key play (‘training’) that I need to invest in to be successful? This ensures that we play in the right way and select the right tools.
  4. How can I make each element of play as engaging as possible? This will make our experience as enjoyable as possible.
  5. What habits to I need to form to play effectively? This will help expose what you need to do to make the play possible.
  6. When I feel I am not progressing in the way I want, how can I be kinder to myself/what would I say to a friend in my position? This question will help us to keep perspective (also see Q2)

Releasing yourself from goals altogether, or reprioritising process over outcome, still goes against the flow and you may have to actively fight a system that tells you that objective goals are non-negotiable.

However, releasing yourself from outcome and instead creatively discovering your best in each moment, without judgement, can lead to a more satisfied, sustainable, developing, you.


Top image: Getty Images