Paula Radcliffe. Marathon world record holder. Greatest British athlete of all time. Failure?
This year was the second time Paula Radcliffe failed to complete the Olympic Marathon. In Athens she stopped at the 36km mark in floods of tears. This time she failed to even make it to the start of her home Olympics in London. But does this make her a failure? I think we would all agree that Paula Radcliffe could never be called this!
Radcliffe had goals and dreams. As she stated to the press following the announcement of her withdrawal from the London Olympic competition,
"No one tells us in advance where the limits of our own bodies lie and pushing these limits is the only way we can ever achieve our highest goals and dreams."
There appears to be this inherent link between running and goals. In fact, it is hard not to start a conversation with a runner without finding yourself asking what their next goal is. It is almost the first step in the running lifestyle, the New Year resolution of the runner, and the way of interpreting ourselves as an athlete. Like Radcliffe does, we set goals, strive hard towards them, and then depending on the outcome we either tick or cross them off. In Radcliffe’s situation, there was one almighty cross that made it to the news headlines on the far corners of the globe.
There is an increasing body of literature and research about the validity of goal setting. Radcliffe’s situation is one of many in a diverse range of fields. Every day, individuals and organisations set goals but for one reason or another, fail. Australian athletes who didn’t quite make the cut-offs for London, individuals trawling the weight loss industry, industries such as General Motors that set business goals and yet end up requiring government bailouts to survive… None are failures and yet all failed to achieve their goals.
While conventional wisdom has it that goal setting is critical to performance outcomes, there is amounting evidence to suggest the contrary. Recent research in the field of neuroscience suggests that the brain protects us by resisting change. Why do we dislike getting up 30 minutes earlier than normal to head outside for a run? Because we naturally avoid pain and seek immediate rewards by staying in bed to sleep. Part of the problem with goal setting is that it requires substantial behavioural or thinking changes that will be inherently associated with a fear of discomfort… failure. I am sure we can all associate with that feeling of initial excitement when choosing our next big race and then soon after that feeling of impending dread of the hard work and lifestyle changes that now have to be carried out whilst fear lurks in the background.
As Ray Williams of Psychology Today writes, ‘When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.’ Aubrey Daniels, in his book Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money, argues that continually setting large goals is an ineffective practice as research shows that when individuals repeatedly fall short their performance declines. A report written by Adam Galinsky at the Harvard Business School argues that goal setting can focus too much attention on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviours to achieve their goals.
This leads us back to Paula Radcliffe. As she herself admits, she pushed the limits with her body and sometimes stepped that bit too far. Stress fractures. Bone grafts on 18 year-old injuries. Osteoarthritis. Hospitalizing stomach injuries. London. One-step too far? Another problem with goal setting is that goals are hard to measure objectively. They come with a pass or fail connotation – ‘I either achieved it or I didn’t’. We never hear of athletes saying, ‘I was only two seconds off qualifying and so I achieved 96% of my goal’.
As a life and performance coach, I look for a focus not a goal. Identifying a focus requires recognizing the endeavours that you have naturally carried and that will only slightly implicate the self when they start to emerge. That is, one must find a focus that has sat inside you like a seed waiting to germinate. For example, I recently had a client who recognized their love of running but who wants to experience the art of trail running. This is their focus, their over-arching support. From this we set a series of targets that would provide a range of flexible and creative approaches that would lead to trail running experiences whilst cultivating their intrinsic motivation for the sport of running. We schemed events, training sessions, physical development objectives, lifestyle adjustments… all of which were planned but had no connotation of failure associated with them. My client experienced trail running at an elite level and didn’t have to live in fear of failure. It became a win-win situation.
If you have some goals already set and are working hard towards them, take a moment to step back and identify what is your overall focus. Why do you want to achieve this goal? What is it about this goal that makes you tingle? This will likely be your focus. For example, you may want to see what your body is capable of, feel fitter and more confident, or want to show your children the importance of physical activity. What you will find is that although your goal still holds relevance, it takes the stress of its accomplishment. It becomes a target in a bigger picture that has a greater meaning. Identifying your focus will foster greater intrinsic motivation that will assist you to become less reliant on extrinsic motivations to keep you on track and still running when you are ninety.
In summary, there are psychological implications of not achieving goals that can be more detrimental than not having goals at all. When Paula Radcliffe retired from racing the London Marathon, she admitted to crying more tears of pain than ever. The narrow emphasis and pass or fail outcomes make goals hard to measure objectively. Identifying the greater focus behind your goals will provide a supporting structure for your daily lifestyles and training that will help you to feel intrinsically motivated and positive about your running. Identifying your focus may not be easy and may require you to dig deep beneath your layers. Persist and it will be worth it.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!