These Resolutions Will Actually Improve Athletic Performance
A staggering number of highly inspired people will choose to set lofty – maybe even unrealistic – goals in just over a week, largely because they’ve been advised (by the media, the fitness industry, coworkers or family) that January 1st is a good time to do so. How convenient if our natural willingness to make health changes fell on this date, but that’s rarely the case. Because the setting of goals for many of us is due to society’s influence rather than personal readiness, it may be hard to sustain whatever goals are being set throughout the entirety of a calendar year. We’re at a disadvantage when goals are created purely because of external, rather than internal, reasons.
Sticking with our resolutions is hard enough as it is, even when we’re setting them the “right” reasons. We need all the help we can get, and so the type of resolution we choose to set becomes important. You can imagine “lose 45 pounds by Valentine’s Day” is a goal less likely striven for with persistent excitement and enthusiasm than, say, “finish my 1st 5K by Valentine’s Day.” But why? Why does the way we frame our goals, or the language we use when setting them, matter? Let’s consider the criteria that should be met in order to set the right goals, which can lead to real athletic and personal growth.
- Process, not outcome.
Rather than focusing on the end result, try setting your sights on the process that needs to be followed in order to reach that result. “Win more games” is an outcome goal; “Spend 20 extra minutes a day shooting contested jump shots after practice” is a process goal, as doing so may help lead to better play and more wins. “Lose weight” is an outcome goal; “Cut my dinner portions in half and walk briskly every day during my break at the office” is a process goal, and adhering to these will likely help you lose weight. Process goals give you a sense of control and power in the present moment. Outcome goals are, largely, beyond the power of our full control – can we really control winning or losing a precise amount of weight? – and are so future-oriented that they don’t always seem real, or achievable.
- Short-term AND long-term, not just long-term.
Setting a combination of resolutions – those that focus on a shorter period of time, like a week, and those that focus on a longer period, like a full year – is typically more performance-enhancing than just relying on one type of goal. Resolving to run your first marathon in November or complete your first triathlon by the summer is splendid; just supplement this long-term goal with smaller objectives, or stepping stones, to the big one, like signing up for a certain number of 10Ks each month. Or, use each approaching month to take care of another part of the race preparation (find an ideal training partner by February, start new eating program by March, pick out race-day gear & research shoe brands by April, research / experiment with different energy gels & chews by May, etc.). When we feel like we’ve left no stone unturned as far as how we’ve prepared, we enter the event with confidence. Breaking this preparation into short-term segments may be helpful.
- Intrinsic, not (only) extrinsic motivators.
Your motivation is intrinsic when you begin exercising for the inherent pleasure of doing so, or because of the positive feelings & heightened energy brought on by the workout. We’re performing a task for ourselves and our own consumption, which makes the decision and our actions self-determined.
Those who are only motivated extrinsically – driven to exercise by a desire to gain attention from a co-worker, receive material rewards or incentives, or because someone told me to – engage in the activity as a means to an end, often to obtain something they want or to avoid realizing something they don’t desire. “I’d like to turn my health around” is an intrinsically-oriented statement. “I’d like to turn some heads” is not. Research suggests those who adopt intrinsic motivators better maintain and adhere to exercise regimens.
- Specific, not broad.
Stray from setting a goal simply because it sounds good. “I finally want to get in good shape this year” sounds positive – and is surely set with the best intentions – but contains no guidance, no direction. “ I want to finally be able to do 20 pushups continuously, 5 pull ups in a row, and run the 3-mile loop around the lake without having to pause” gives us more clarity and focus. Consider specific goals like a shopping list: ‘Pretzels, granola bars, chicken breast, and flank steak’ gives us more direction in the grocery store than a list that reads ‘snacks and meat’. We’re more time-efficient and confident in our movements down each aisle when the list tells us precisely what to buy. Specific goals provide a path, narrowing our focus to only the most important things.
- Measurable, not abstract.
Without the ability to measure your goals, how can you track your progress? How do you know whether you’re improving unless the goals you set can be clearly quantified? “Get stronger” is a goal often set on January 1st – but how will this be measured by next month, or June, or right before Christmas? There are lots of ways to measure improvements in strength – by tracking weight lifted, repetitions completed, or changes in sprinting time– so be clear how you’ll choose to gauge progress with your own goals.
- Realistic, not impossible.
Start with an attainable, realistic goal. No need to impatiently expect getting into elite Ironman shape by next month if you haven’t ever before swam more than a pool’s length. Achieving a smaller goal will motivate you to set a higher, more challenging one. Give yourself the opportunity to feel accomplished at the start of your process. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t push ourselves, occasionally to the point of discomfort. Athletes with the most impressive mental fortitude will regularly embrace challenges: they actively seek out challenging, arduous tasks – like difficult fitness regimens, tough drill stations, intimidating opponents – as a means of growth and learning. They know that tough goals force us to stretch, to reach, to put forth more effort, and to display determination, all of which ultimately leads to improved performance.
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP