Success Strategies for Non Goal-Oriented Athletes


By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Pro Coach

Here’s my unpopular response to the “New Year, New You” voices: It’s okay to not be a goal-setter.

If you have been living under a boulder, then maybe you’re unaware we’re expected to have goals for the New Year. And not just for athletic objectives, but also relationships, career, financial and personal growth. And of course, they should be challenging, measurable, and have deadlines. But why? Is this the only formula for success? I’ll defiantly make the argument that no, this is not the only way to grow as a human and an athlete.

What’s wrong with having goals?

For those that thrive by creating annual goal lists and establishing a precise trajectory for every aspect of your life, that’s terrific. I mean that sincerely. However, not everyone flourishes by establishing a thorough road map to begin each day, week, month and year. If you are reluctant to establish strict objectives, for whatever reason, and you’ve found success in life and sport in the absence of resolute decrees, that’s equally okay! Society tends to reward those who publicly set goals and announce their accomplishments (loudly). And meaningful achievements are worth acknowledging and celebrating. But this isn’t the only system in which people and athletes can grow and realize major triumphs.

Plenty of people are highly internally driven and curious. Listing specific goals may not be necessary for some personalities and could even be detrimental in some situations. Growth happens naturally, and if intentions are not put to writing or made verbal, incredible forward progress can still occur. Admittedly, the scaffolding of goal setting can be flexible. I’m not arguing to create a dichotomy in which we can only be goal setters or non-goal setters. Ultimately what I’m trying to convey is that if you don’t set finite goals or you do it in a less structured manner, that’s okay. Your way is just as valid and valuable as any other. Similarly, your outcomes can be just as big and rewarding when you approach progress in unconventional ways.

No-Goal Opportunities

Many athletes my colleagues and I coach are goal oriented, but not all. And although conventional wisdom says highly structured, well-defined goals are necessary for an athlete to benefit from coaching, that’s not true. As coaches, we guide athletes along their journey of self-discovery. Traditional sporting goals (i.e., personal bests, podium performances, race finishes) can be part of that, but aren’t necessary. So, what opportunities do athletes pursue if they aren’t pursuing conventional victories?


Not having a set of fixed goals allows for more flexibility and keeps the door open to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. While goals and flexibility are not mutually exclusive, strict goals can make it more difficult to be opportunistic. Having greater elasticity can also be helpful when completely unforeseen circumstances emerge. It may be easier to pivot and grow in a new way if you are not hyper-focused on a very specific outcome or event.

Sometimes athletes move toward flexible goals when they know this season of life will be unpredictable. New parents, adult students going back to school, or people making big career moves may set general and flexible goals to set themselves up for some level of success in an unpredictable scenario. Others approach the same circumstances by setting very rigid goals, with the idea they’ll use the structure of training as a point of control they can scaffold the rest of their schedule around.

Lifelong learning

Plenty of us are curious. We possess an inherent eagerness to learn new skills and improve techniques. The search for knowledge is an innate characteristic. These people may feel suffocated by highly structured goals. In their absence, some athletes feel a place for lifelong learning emerge. An approach that is organic and allows natural curiosity to drive growth and learning may be more desirable.

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Seeking opportunities to increase knowledge without being forced is not diametrically opposed to having goals. Some athletes may feel stifled by deciding on the front end how they will narrow their objectives for a full year. And, what if you achieve those sooner than anticipated? Do you just stop after you’ve checked the box? Sometimes goals can limit growth. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of and by creating a finish line, we could be artificially curtailing potential.

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Goals or No Goals? Look at past accomplishments

Which approach is best for you? Inventory your past accomplishments. Are you satisfied with the progress you made in different categories of life? Has strict organizational planning – in advance – been helpful? Or, did you benefit from a more naturally evolving process ? While it’s probably not the healthiest approach to constantly look in the rear-view mirror, if we forget where we began, it can be easy to feel like we haven’t increased our abilities and knowledge base.

That said, even if you’re not a goal setter it can be a good idea to keep a running tally of what you have done. Keep that list of books you’ve read up to date. File your professional certifications and advancements and maintain an accurate training log. Taking a free-spirited approach to growth doesn’t mean there is no structure. Looking back can be helpful in determining if you’re making the progress you would like. If you’re not content with your evolution, the next step is to ask whether having goals would be helpful or could it hinder that progress?

There is no single correct way to approach life and athlete pursuits. Some people thrive in highly goal-oriented lives. Others reach their potential by not being slaves to well-defined objectives. There are many hybrid approaches that can be an effective solution toward inching forward on the progress scale as well. Perhaps your approach ebbs and flows from one year to the next and from one stage of life to another. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not as enthusiastic as your peers about creating goals. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. If you have a different operating system and you’re pleased with the manner in which you progress, celebrate and embrace the process that works for you, guilt-free!

Comments 1

  1. I just sign up for a bunch of events and randomly run or cycle loneger distances leading up to it. I might have to be a little more focused if I sign up for a full marathon but if I make it too rigid or seriouse it stops being fun and sustainable.

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