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Are Your Goals Setting You Back?

Are Your Goals Setting You Back?

By Tere Zacher

We think we are doing it right. We set goals. We write them on paper. We train thinking of them. We approach our big event and sometimes instead of having our goals giving us confidence or feeling motivated, we get nervous, we second guess ourselves and we end up getting frustrated and with a lower self confidence than when we started. Or we have our goals and we get so obsessed with them (the end result) that instead of having our goals motivating us they control us. Sounds familiar?

The problem lies not in setting goals but in how we set them and in getting too focused on outcome goals that we forget about the process and performance goals. Let me explain: Outcome goals are the goals that rely on a result (time or place). These goals help you to know how far you want to go (everything good here), the problem is they are not under your control. You may be super well trained and aiming for a PR only to find out race day is too warm or too cold. You can't control that, right? Or, let's say you are a swimmer and your best time in the 100 free is 55 seconds. You want to win the meet, that's your goal, to get in the podium. You go a 54. Great, right? but you find out three other swimmers swam faster than you. Totally out of your control. Are you going to get upset because you didn't place? 

Goals should guide us, but they should never control us. That’s one potential problem with not setting goals the right way. It is possible to go from goal-oriented to goal-obsessed. Rather than controlling our goals, our goals control us. When we become fixated, we risk paying too much to achieve a goal, or even lose sight of the reason behind the goal. That's where process goals and performance goals come handy.


These are goals that are entirely under your control. They focus (as the name says it) on the process. The best way to start is by thinking on the outcome goal you want to achieve (in my case I want to run my next marathon under 2 hours and 40 minutes). Then you have to write down all the things you need to improve physically, technically, tactically and mentally. What do I mean?:

-Physically: nutrition, endurance, strength, aerobic base, sleep, water intake, speed, reaction time, core... 

-Technically: placement of foot, arm (if you are a swimmer), lifting your knee, engaging your core, etc

-Tactically: How you race (specific race strategy)

-Mentally: confidence, relaxation, positive thinking, focus, visualization....

For these to be good you have to be VERY specific. I have a swimmer who comes to see me for mental training. His goal is to be top 10 in the country this season (outcome goal). When he did this exercise he determined he needs to improve flexibility in his arms, improve his reaction time at the start, do 7 dolphin kicks in each wall all of them in a certain time, keep his head down on his streamlines, cut down on his sugar, being able to keep his focus on himself during the meet/race, and get more strength in his legs. As you can imagine, these are lot of things to think about (he actually has more and I encourage my athletes to come up with as many little things they think they can improve as possible and to be as specific as possible. "Doing better streamlines" is not specific. "Doing 7 dolphin kicks, three wide, 4 fast under 5 seconds getting to the 15 yard mark" is specific). The more specific the better since you will know exactly what you need to do to improve. 

The next step is to determine the priority of the things you need to work on. And choose only one or two to work on at a time. These couple of things will become your weekly goals. You will be working on them in every workout until they become a habit. This gives purpose to your daily workouts and keeps you focused on what you are doing that needs improvement. I also suggest to my athletes to write these two things they are focusing on on their water bottle so every time they drink water during practice they get a reminder on what they are focusing and working on.

Setting goals the right way will help to increase your motivation and to feel confident when you start improving in the little things that will ultimately lead you to achieve your big goal. Try to have everything written down and rate (could be on a escale from 1-10, 10 being "I do it all the time") where you start. After a couple of weeks working on a particular skill you can rate yourself again and see how much improvement you have achieved.

Another important guideline to setting goals is to do it i n positive statements. When I was coaching one of my high school runners I asked her what was she going to be working on during this practice, what was her goal. Her answer was "I don't want to die at the end of each set, that's my goal". I asked what was the problem with this goal and after deliberating I told her it was set in a negative way. In a very cute way she said "but it's positive, I don't want to die because I want to do well". So, after some explaining she understood that ""don't want to die/fade at the end of each set" is better understood by the brain if you say "I want to finish strong/faster each one of my sets in comparison to how I start them".

Hope this helps in your way to your goal. As I mentioned, I want to run under 2h40m my next marathon (in October), I want to place top 10 in the 25K National championships (in May) and I want to run a PR in a 10k I have in April. But, in order for all of this to happen I have to start by correcting my stride this week (engaging more my left hamstring), by going to bed early this week (I have been really bad about it all last week) and by keeping my focus on the last part of my long run. Those are my goals for this week, Do you have yours?

Follow me on twitter (@terezacher) Instagram (@insightfulrunner) and at for other mental tune ups.