Back of the net - some thoughts about goals.
Hello everyone, apologies to the keen fans out there for not keeping everyone updated recently. I wasn't able to escape this lockdown so it felt like I didn't have much to talk about. But the advantage of this is it has given me more time to think. I try not to do too much of this on a daily basis but here we are.
I have been contemplating goals recently and how it suits me to frame them in my head. It's been quite a journey - so strap in. You may have heard about SMART goals and they were probably drilled into you when they were in fashion. While aspects of them are important I don't really go into any of that here. Here I am going to delve into a more subtle difference between goals.
When I was coming up through the ranks in my early sailing days I was constantly told about the difference between 'process goals' and 'outcome goals' and the importance of both. Process goals were the smaller broken down goals to focus on that would help you achieve the outcome goal. The outcome goal was a more results focused goal - something like wanting to finish inside the top 10 at a major event. Or for something that might make sense to more of you, baking a cake. The outcome would be a delicious, aesthetically pleasing cake. The process goals for making a cake (the parts you actually have to focus on) are the recipe, the ingredients and doing it all in the right order. I may also refer to these as input goals and output goals. In some contexts, these make more sense to me.
It was always drilled into us that this approach was needed in each event. I needed an outcome goal which is a goal I would be happy to achieve, and a process goal, something to work on during that event.
A couple of years ago I completely lost faith in this philosophy. It seemed quite counterintuitive to have a process goal that you were focussing on improving but at the same time that goal could obstruct the overall outcome. For example, if at an event I wanted to get my starts better, it might mean that I would be starting in more difficult positions and trying to pull them off and taking as much learning from that as I could. This would not be the strategy I would use if I was focussed on getting a good result, as it would require a far more conservative approach on the start line. Focussing on the outcome might mean I didn't absolutely nail any starts, but it would more importantly mean I'm not out the back before the race has even started or worse still over the line early and then disqualified altogether.
This fresh understanding emerged in times where I would find myself really wanting to win certain events that I knew I had the capability of doing. What would happen in those events as you can imagine is I would choke - properly. I'd be so focused on trying to win that I'd make basic errors. I could feel myself getting extreme tunnel vision and just focussing on such small details rather than having this, what I call now, relaxed concentration - where I am completely focussed but also completely aware and relaxed. When you go into this tunnel vision approach you really start to miss things. I can't tell you how many times I have gotten to the first mark leading and just got my head in the boat so focussed on where I was going that I would end up going to the wrong mark only to realise far too late that the rest of the fleet was going the right way. On the flip side, there were a few times I'd find myself winning or doing well in events I didn't expect to do well in at all. This was most likely down to the fact I wasn't focused on the outcome, I was just going through the processes of racing - which I know how to do and have spent years doing.
This got me thinking that outcome goals just weren't for me. Instead, my new focus was to always be on the process. This is a lot easier said than done because the outcome is what everyone talks about - that's what everyone judges their own performance on and everyone else's. So it's very difficult to not be emotional about the result.
But maybe that's the way - you don't spend all your time thinking about getting the desired result in an exam. The time is much better spent focussing on those input goals. Revising, learning, breaking it down into smaller chunks that can become second nature and then building it up so you can grasp a whole topic. In an exam I don't spend the whole time focussing on what grade I want to get at the end. My focus - or what it should be, is on each specific question I am on at the time, not anything else. Nothing else matters at that exact moment - not the overall paper, not the whole unit mark, not how everyone else is handling this question, not what I had for breakfast, not on another exam I have or what intoxicating plans I have after the exam.
All that matters in that exact moment is that question. So why should it be different for sport? Why when it comes to an event where performing matters should I be thinking about the overall picture: how will this affect my results for the whole event? Will I make the squad with this result? What will happen to my world rankings now? Instead, I just focus on what I am doing at that exact moment and as soon as that is over, focus on the next bit. There's only so much bandwidth I've got - thinking about more than one thing at any moment really causes something else to switch off. It's like trying to listen to three people talking to you at once, you end up ignoring them all.
So this was the thought process until about 6 months ago and who knows maybe it's still to change. My current thinking is output goals are still important - you can't ignore them completely. They are what gives you direction and you need that direction to know if the input goals are pushing you down the right road. The trick is to have them right at the back of your mind and you should try to restrict yourself from thinking about them in the heat of the moment or on the daily when you are focussing on the input goals because they are just a blockage to learning.
Another important point which I will probably go into more depth with another post will be to focus on the gain of these input goals, comparing how well you have done to your previous performance rather than focussing on how far off where you want to be (the gap).
This change sort of naturally evolved rather than being a sudden realisation. Without this output goal, a fair few sessions during the winter would never have happened. When it's cold and wet and I'm going out at the crack of dawn by myself to practice a certain weakness - I could have stayed inside and focussed on something else but with that output goal, it made it clear that this input goal was the priority.
So to conclude, the outcome/output goal is your compass, you need it to know what direction you are heading in. But that's all it is, a compass, you don't spend the whole time looking at the compass when navigating, you check in with it every so often and look at where that's pointing you. This channels and helps prioritise your input goals. This is what your focus is on, it has to be as that is what you believe is the best way to improve.
I believe everyone has these sorts of goals in their life. They may not have articulated them but whether it be for work or your own fitness journey or whatever, you will have made these goals for yourself. The real crux of the problem is trying to allow the output goal and input goals to live in harmony. This is a lot easier said than done and I don't believe I will ever conquer this issue but understanding it more helps me focus on what matters.
These are just my thoughts at the moment, they may change but feel free to completely disagree with me and let me know about it. Any feedback is welcomed.