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Keep Your Eye On the Process

With so many races delayed or canceled, many triathletes are left to reset the way they frame a successful season. But is that the worst thing? Experts explain why permanently changing how you view achievements can pay dividends in the long run—whether you race or not.

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Epictetus, the Greek stoic, wrote that, “Some things are within our power, while others are not.” As the world collectively navigates the fallout from the global pandemic, this statement has never been more relevant.

Centuries later, psychologist William Glasser developed the equally important concept of choice theory in 1996. Glasser maintained that humans have direct control over the acting and thinking components of their behavior, and that controlling how you act and think indirectly influences your feelings and physiology.

Now, as sporting organizations around the world grapple with how to handle a calendar of canceled or postponed events, athletes are having to navigate both these philosophies. They’re realizing some or all of their anticipated races may not happen in the near future. Disappointment and frustration are inevitable—but wallowing in helplessness and hopelessness isn’t even remotely productive. In fact, it can produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Photo: Oliver Baker

Find Your “Why”

With so many question marks around the “when,” Chevy Rough, a London-based well-being specialist and performance coach, said the key thing an athlete can focus on right now is the “why.”

“You can’t avoid being disheartened, and that’s OK; it’s a normal emotion to move through,” Rough said. “The next step is to remind yourself of why you ran, swam, or jumped on a bike in the first place.” Rough urges people to remember that when they originally turned to tri in the first place, it likely had nothing to do with earning medals or achieving personal bests.

“It was to simply feel better about yourself at some stage in your life, but then you aligned that positive feeling to the outcome of races, and now you’re lost,” Rough said. “Take a step back, go and find that ‘day-one feeling’—when the success of getting out of the house was good enough.”

Photo: Oliver Baker

When Goals are Good, and When They’re Not

Though setting goals might seem futile amid such uncertainty, they can still serve to assist us in feeling productive and motivated, said Philadelphia-based sports psychologist Dr. Megan Cannon.

“Without races and other events where we may display our progress, goals can provide a way for us to track and see it,” Dr. Cannon said. “Additionally, when we achieve a goal, our body’s reward system is triggered. It gives us a nice feel-good boost—which we can all use right now—and can heighten motivation to train going forward.”

However, Rough also wants athletes to be cognizant of how goal setting can prove detrimental, depending on what else is going on in their lives during this public health crisis.

“For some people, having a specific goal will give them a distraction and destination to head for,” he explained. “For others, their optimism may set them up to fail. It all comes down to how much energy you have to give and how stable your world is. If you are uncertain of the stress and energy demands that lie ahead, then focus on the goal of learning and listening to your body on a daily basis.” To do so, Rough recommends athletes see each day as an experiment, instead of always fantasizing about a finish line in the future.

He offered: “No energy to train? Not motivated? OK, well that means there’s something to learn about the past 72 hours: What could have influenced you to maintain that energy or motivation? Work on the systems now that will help you achieve your goals in the future.”

Photo: Oliver Baker

Flip the Switch from Outcome to Process

It’s important to remember that there are different types of goals, and Dr. Cannon points to how helpful process-oriented goals are in this unique situation. While outcome goals are centered on the finish line and tangible stats, process-oriented goals involve the execution of plans and repeating the same action—hoping it leads to an achievement and habit.

Even in the best of times, we have no control over the outcome, as external factors like other racers, weather, equipment, injuries, and the course all come into play—let alone an unprecedented pandemic that is causing race cancellations across the globe. When an outcome-oriented goal isn’t achieved, it can lead to intense, destructive emotion, which in turn can become physically restrictive as the build-up becomes too much.

“When we’re results-oriented, we give away a lot of control,” Dr. Cannon said. “Then if the results don’t happen, it’s easy to view your season or training as a failure.” Process-oriented goals are more sustainable and beneficial in the long run; mainly because we have control over how we embrace the journey. Referring back to Glasser’s choice theory, there’s a popular saying among behaviorists: “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living; you live your way into a new kind of thinking.”

To apply Glasser’s concept, it’s as simple as making measured choices or behavioral changes, no matter how small, that bring us one step closer to accomplishing our ultimate goals. Doing so also leads to positive thinking and, in turn, better emotional and physical health.

Dr. Cannon agreed: “Process-oriented goals focus on the actions you take during a triathlon to perform well. They are the smaller pieces of the puzzle, that if done well and improved upon over time, put together nice races. Ultimately, it brings you closer to achieving the results you want since you’re improving the components that get you from start to finish. And, you have 100% control over whether you are doing them or not.”

Dr. Cannon recommended taking this time to identify pieces of your race that can be improved, like kicking tempo in the water, quick feet on the run, holding a certain position on the bike, or staying hydrated.

“Develop your process-oriented goal from where you are at now, and use your workouts to intentionally focus on making progress toward something,” Dr. Cannon said. “Write them down in a place you can see them daily and easily to remind you of the focus.”

But for those who have always been driven by the outcome and now need to learn how to enjoy the process, is it easy to simply shift from one thought process to the other?

Fortunately, Rough thinks so:

“Mindset shifts can happen in a flick switch; it's just down to the individual to step over their internal noise and start thinking like a wise athlete.”

He continued: “Ask yourself what your competition is doing right now. Or think about someone you look up to in your sport. What do you think number one is up to today? Do you think they’re sitting there complaining about the Olympics moving to 2021 or do you think they’re taking this as an opportunity to tighten up their game, technique, and mindset?”

This is the time to strengthen your body in other ways that are usually neglected due to lack of time, Dr. Cannon said. “The answer for most is probably nothing athletically related.” What is typically in an athlete’s control right now are the systems that will ultimately feed into achieving the bigger picture. And luckily, there is no shortage of resources online to help unlock your potential for a lifetime of races.

“Start focusing on the systems that help you achieve goals: rest, sleep, energy management, technique, strength, conditioning, strategy, mobility, and nutrition,” Rough advised. “These all require systems to unlock the skill and energy to maintain consistency in training. Now’s the time to double down on trying new ways of doing things—what works and what doesn’t work. Identify your weaknesses and lead with the inquisitive nature of a child.”

Ultimately, it’s imperative to remember that this enforced downtime doesn’t have to be considered a waste. And even if none of the things listed above help you get a PR when races start, you’ll be healthier than ever at a time when health is essential.

“It’s important to not align the value of the outcome purely on the goal itself. People have been mentally challenged by races being canceled,” Rough said. “In their minds, the only picture of success was gold and when that was removed from the equation people felt disheartened, or worse, a failure.”

Athletes should take time to be down about the change in plans for 2020, Dr. Cannon acknowledged, but only briefly. To help process emotions in a healthy way, she also recommends speaking to family, friends, or a sports psychologist. Then, it’s time for a goal reset to keep your spirits high.

“Resetting goals and not having the opportunity to see through what you may have been training toward is disappointing. Allow yourself to mourn the loss and feel the things associated with it, but set a time limit for yourself to do so. Then, move forward from it and shift the focus. This allows you to process what you need to, but challenges you to not get stuck in it and see beyond the current situation.”