goal setting

Goal Setting: Who to Keep or Kick Out of Your Support System

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

The pre-tour pundits took note of Simon Yates at this year’s first Giro d’Italia press conference, after the Michelton-Scott rider gave a one-syllable answer when asked who was the number-one favorite at this year’s race: “Me.” Fans immediately lined up, as fans will do, to categorize Yates’ analysis (and several, more colorful, responses to additional questions) as either cocky or refreshing. I don’t know Yates personally, but I suspect most athletes at his level are shooting for a Giro win before universal fan acclaim. The question is, will his early bluster hurt or help him toward that goal?

We often hear that going public with our goals will help create the public accountability that we need to achieve them, but there is actually a robust school of psychologists who would claim that exactly the opposite is true. Many academic studies, some dating back to the 1920s, document that announcing a goal — and enjoying a few of the pats on the back that often come with aspirational announcements — can actually make people less likely to succeed. Apparently, a well-received goal reveal can provide a strong enough internal feeling of accomplishment and completion that it may decrease the motivation that will be necessary to do the actual work.

Fortunately for Yates, one 2016 study from the University of Pennsylvania revealed a sports caveat. Students were assigned to participate in a variety of exercise programs, and researchers found that an atmosphere of competition can help generate motivation if the participants were working toward physical goals. In contrast, for some pursusing more mental objectives, that competitive atmosphere was found to provoke a professional paralysis. You may not be psyching yourself up to vie for a pink jersey like Yates, but here are some things you can do to leverage the people around you in your pursuit of your own next, big goal.

Create your own tribe

Yates now has the entire cycling world to hold him accountable. Thanks to the power of social media, it’s possible for anyone to announce a new goal in a very public forum — but that doesn’t mean that everyone should. Be selective as you build your own support team, and choose allies who understand the importance of your goal and the challenges that will come along the way.

“Beware of both the unconditional cheerleaders and the unconditional critics.”

Your coach should always be included in a list of people you share your dreams with, as it will be quite difficult for him or her to prepare you to reach your potential if you aren’t clear about where you want to go. Beyond that, be thoughtful about the team you build around yourself, and beware of both the unconditional cheerleaders and the unconditional critics. As much as I appreciate the constant support of my parents, “We think you’re great already, do you really want to put yourself through that?” is not always the first thing I want to hear when starting out on a project I am passionate about. Seek out those who understand your standards and will keep you honest, if not always elated.

Show, don’t tell

You don’t always have to speak up ahead of time to find personal supporters. Shortly after my overdramatic near miss on the medals at the Rio Olympics, I had the opportunity to give a TedX talk about my experience. The speech centered around the idea that in order reach our greatest potential we must be willing to risk the sort of failure that comes from hitting a limit and coming up short.

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“The things we do often reveal the importance of our goals more clearly as the things we say.”

A solo attack for the line revealed exactly what I was shooting for, and exactly what I thought about my potential. The things we do often reveal the importance of our goals more clearly as the things we say. It may be more effective to commit to the habits that will help you improve, and see who in your life takes notice. It’s possible to create social accountability through consistent day-in, day-out work, whether you are aiming for health, a race, a promotion, a degree, or even a better relationship. If you make your priorities clear, your supporters will find you — and those who don’t, didn’t belong on this particular team anyhow.

Be strategic

Regardless of the level we aspire to, big personal goals are always worthy of respect and care. If you do choose to invite others on your journey, give them the opportunity to be most effective in a support role by letting them know what you need. Would it be helpful for a training partner to remind you to take it easy on recovery days? Are you looking for a friend who will sign up to ask for progress reports at regular intervals? Do you need a trusted advisor who will offer perspective, even when it’s not easy?

As a mentor early in my cycling career told me, “Chose a few people you trust, and ignore the rest.” It’s advice that has served me well as I try to reach my own potential, both on and off the bike. If a goal matters to you, it is worth pursuing, and although most of us won’t be working toward a pink jersey this month, we all have the opportunity to set ourselves up for success.

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Comments 2

  1. Pingback: Good Readings (KW20-2019) - Patrick 'Patze' Harms

  2. Excellent article. Your research and experiences confirm what I have found. I am nearing my 70th Birthday. Thanks

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