Why You Need Goals Worthy of a 4:30AM Wakeup

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

Last week, I took my first coaching job.

I won’t be charting watts or checking TrainingPeaks. The workouts will be measured in yards, not hours or miles – I am now officially the new assistant coach of Buffalo’s girls high school swim team.

Swimming was my first love in sport. It took winning an elite national title, racing on my first championships team and a strong awareness of the fast-approaching end of my collegiate career to force me out of the pool. That love has endured: even now, hopping in for a few leisurely laps is the most reliable mood-booster I know.

I can’t think of a better place to have spent the majority of my teenage, non-school waking hours than on the pool deck, so it’s thrilling to return to that world and share that experience with another generation.

(As a side note, today at practice they put on a mix of early ‘00s music that included Fountains of Wayne’s hit, “Stacy’s Mom.” They did this because, “The music today just isn’t any good.” So, you heard it here first: “Stacy’s Mom” is a high-quality classic.)

In the same way that many of us emulate our parents as we age, I appear equally prone to echoing my sports mentors of yesteryear. It is astonishing and entertaining to see just how many of the hard-impressed pearls of wisdom from my high school swim coach, Grant Holicky, come spilling out of my mouth.

Excellence is a habit

Swimming, particularly as I was trained to do it, is a technique-oriented sport. That means there are simultaneously a lot of opportunities to excel and a lot of opportunities to cut corners. Grant committed to teaching us about the accumulated value of putting in scrupulously conscientious work. Skipping that little 200-yard warmdown at the end of every practice adds up to miles skipped over the course of the season. Similarly, showing up five minutes late every day eventually turns into hours of workouts lost. Those who do lazy turns in practice shouldn’t be surprised to see them turn up on race day.

The ethic of excellence was a more common worldview in the elite peloton, but Grant was the first to teach me to honor the work I put in. Because my swimming talent is best described as lackluster, I learned early how important it was to strive to be my personal best, long before I ever thought of lining up with the top athletes in the world, or getting paid for performance.

Whatever an athlete’s level, Grant offered them an equal opportunity to reach their own potential, a measure of respect I want to be sure I extend to all of my own swimmers today. To meet that level when I was the one wearing goggles, I had to learn a healthy dose of self-awareness and accountability. They weren’t always natural traits as a 14-year-old, but continually being reminded to practice them was integral to the athlete I would become.

Take every opportunity

Swimming is also a sport of repetition. With every stroke and on every length, a swimmer has a quantifiable, replicable, and visible opportunity to practice toward perfection.

“Why,” Grant frequently asked us, “would you ever want to do something in practice that you wouldn’t want to do in a meet?” When we are tired or nervous, we are more vulnerable to mistakes, he explained, so it is critical to develop good habits in training.

Each workout is a chance to improve, but so are the little things that make up a workout: each interval, each pedal stroke, each readjustment of head position on your time-trial bike. From a young age, Grant taught me to look, in training and in life, for opportunities to improve, rather than obligations to execute.

Long-term success in sport demands resilience. I’ve found it is much easier to rebound when I remember that each successive moment offers the chance to improve on my past performances, and even my ten-minutes-ago self.

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Follow your own goals

There is no way that any group of thirty high-school girls will ever have a uniform set of goals. One athlete might be aiming toward a college scholarship or an Olympic Trials cut, while another might be in it to stay fit and have fun competing with her friends. Both desires are equally valid, and I believe it is my job as a coach to understand what each of my athletes is shooting for.

At the beginning of each season, Grant made us sit down with him for a goal talk. It didn’t matter what he thought of our physical potential or what our teammates told him they wanted to accomplish. Our job, he explained over and over again, was to tell him what we wanted to become. His job was to hold us accountable to that stated desire and to give us the tools to succeed.

Whatever you are working toward, always make sure that the goal is authentically yours. You will never be properly motivated working toward a dream that belongs to someone else. Even if you get there, it won’t really matter when you arrive.

You don’t realize how lucky you are

There is a single morning practice that stands out among all my memories growing up. It was sometime in the 5 a.m. hour, before school, still dark. I was in lane five, the wall lane, and I was standing toward the pool edge, in front of the ladder.

I don’t remember exactly what we had done to spark that particular lecture, but we had launched Grant into one of his infamous speeches – tough to listen to because 1) it was cold, and 2) he was usually right.

“You don’t know how lucky you are to have something in your lives that you are willing to get up for at 4:30 in the morning,” he shouted, striding the anti-slip-mat deck in a full-length black, white and grey swim parka. “Not everyone in the world has that.”

I had grown up with a passion for sport and an outlet for excellence. Caring deeply about the quality of every stroke I took was my own very bizarre, unspeakably fortunate, normal. As I have grown older, met more people, and suffered through less-than-inspired phases of my own existence, I have started to use his words as a life-quality litmus test.

I always want there to be a goal worthy of 4:30 a.m. And if there’s not? Then it’s time to sit down for a goal talk with myself and figure out where I can find it.

My greatest hope now is that in rising early and returning to the pool I can pass that passion on to a few young swimmers myself.

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Comments 13

  1. Love your voice , this article and your take on life, training and goals.
    ‘Thanks so much for sharing.
    ‘Those girls are lucky to have you on the deck coaching them.

  2. Mara, I read an article about you in a mag where you covered aspects of the good, bad and the ugly of your life as a pro. While that was informative and educational, what really struck me was your personal challenges and your willingness and openness to share your very personal journey/decisions. I recall thinking to myself, “This woman has a very unique voice and is figuring out what’s next and why IT’S next”. It was honest and unscripted, I believed you. The next time I heard about you was watching the Olympics and that breakaway where you gutted yourself but in the end was caught and passed meaning no Gold medal. So it was a joy to read about you again and great to see you have a new challenge. Please continue to write, it’s another gift I think you have and I feel many will benefit from hearing what you have to say.

  3. Fantastic and timely article. I contemplated sleep when my alarm sounded at 4:30am today. Took some self-convincing to put my foot in the floor and venture outside for a cycling interval workout. Great reading others’ comments to know I am not “alone”. Thanks again.

  4. I love this article and the insightful comments offered by others. Each of us and I mean each of us has potential in life, business, and sport. We need to slow down and think hard about what our personal “why” is, what our personal “goal” is and hang on tight. Life does get messy and you can lose things so I like the focus Mara & Grant have on the details and finding a goal that is authentically yours. I’m saving this article:)

  5. I’ve been getting up at 3AM and starting workouts at 4AM for years. This was necessary to get to work by 7AM. Even not working out early, I have no energy to do anything at the end of a work day but go lay down on the couch and watch TV, so this was the best option for me.

    There are a couple of advantages … no crowds (maybe a few critters), and less heat if you’re in a warmer climate.

  6. Thank you, I found your thoughts extremely relevant as I am building my (2yr) training plan for my 10th and 11th Ironman. I call it my “why”. Why do I do it? I have over the years lost my “Why” on occasion which has led to DNF’s and poor finishes. This was a good reminder of my “why”. Hawaii and my true love of sunrises on the bike.

    1. Well timed article. Much to my chagrin, I had to get up at 4:30 this morning to meet my goals for today, given schedule conflicts. Thanks for reminding me why I did.

  7. Wow! This could be one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. A goal worthy of 4:30am wake up!?!? My current goal falls short of that, but my next one won’t!

  8. Fantastic post, Mara! It resonates so much with my life as a cycling coach, cyclist, and mom of 2 competitive swimmers. I’ll be sharing this with them. Thank you!

  9. Thanks I needed to read this today!

    This part from Grant “You don’t know how lucky you are to have something in your lives that you are willing to get up for at 4:30 in the morning,” “Not everyone in the world has that.” , This really rings true and its often easy to forget that not everyone has “that” thing in their lives to focus on. For me, cycling is “that thing” and I need to remember that.

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