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With races and events canceled or postponed indefinitely due to the spread of Covid-19, many athletes are experiencing frustration, a lack of motivation to train, and a sense of helplessness.
Traditionally, so much emphasis has been placed on the outcome—a big win, a personal best, or beating a world record. Since the concept of goal-setting first emerged in the mid-1930s, outlining and striving for a desired target has become commonplace everywhere from the workplace to the running track.
There are three prevailing types of goals: process, performance, and outcome. Process goals involve the execution of plans, like frequenting the gym; repeating the same action every day hoping it ultimately leads to a habit and achievement. Performance goals also track progress, while outcome goals are the literal and figurative finish line.
When it comes to race-focused athletes, three leading sports psychologists agree that setting process- and performance-oriented goals is far more beneficial and sustainable than getting hung up on outcome-oriented goals.
Dr. Leah Lagos, a New York-based licensed psychologist specializing in sport psychology, noted that we have more control over achieving a process-oriented goal.
“I encourage athletes to let go of the outcome and embrace the process,” Dr. Lagos said. “Setting process goals is a great way for allowing the outcome goals to get achieved as you have more control over achieving the former.”
Dr. Lagos added that focusing solely on the outcome can be physically restrictive.
“Trying to get first place or achieve a certain time: there’s a lot of factors there that are out of your control. If it feels physiologically like a restriction in the body, people lock up as opposed to gaining momentum.”
Concentrating predominantly on the result can lead to intense emotion. As Dr. Lagos referenced: think of scenes of golfers throwing clubs on the course or runners stopping mid-race. Instead of motivation, fear, anger, and disappointment have set into the extent that it’s destructive.
Dr. Jarrod Spencer, author of Mind of the Athlete: Clearer Mind, Better Performance, also pointed to how former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman thought to himself after winning the Superbowl, “Is this it? I thought there’d be more to it than this.”
“The benefit of setting process-oriented goals is about longevity and lifestyle,” Dr. Spencer said. “Process is about intrinsic gratification and the feeling. The concept of ‘the way of being’ is more important than training for something.”
“It’s got to be about the journey and the process. The outcome is so short-lived. If you don’t like the journey and all you want is that feeling at the end, it’s such a big exchange of time and emotional energy,” he added.
It’s not just about the athlete, either. Dr. Spencer said when it becomes all about the outcome, a person’s emotional temperament can ebb and flow with their results.
“That person becomes difficult to live with at times. When they win; they’re great. But when they lose or don’t perform well; they’re not so happy and that can make it a very lonely existence.”
He pointed to the psychology of the injured athlete: “So many athletes are [taught] to shoot for some great goal. When they can’t get the dopamine, the serotonin, and the endorphins from training and competing, then they could sink into a funk [and experience] mild depression and anxiety.”
He added, “There’s only one person that’s going to walk away with the title. I heard once, ‘A life of perfection is a life of misery as you can never achieve perfection, but a life of excellence is a life of bliss.’ You can always have excellent training or an excellent triathlon, even though it may not be the outcome you wanted.’”
Life coach and sports psychologist Dr. Brett Denkin recommended using the downtime to train your mind.
“My philosophy is that if you’re at a pretty harmonious place, you’re more likely to be in the zone,” Dr. Denkin said. “If you’re run by your mind, you’ll be miserable and you’re not going to be able to perform at the highest level.”
Dr. Denkin recommends that athletes now concentrate on mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, positive self-thought—as well as their relationships and communication.
“Do a personal growth journey with a psychologist,” he advised. “Practice mindfulness for 20-30 minutes a day. This is a great time to work on your relationships. If you’re in a good place, you’re happy and feel like life is going well, it’s easier to perform [as there are] less distractions.”
Dr. Spencer corroborated this sentiment and agreed that pausing your normal schedule can bring new awareness.
“One way we can enjoy the journey more is to be here in the present moment. The biggest thing that I see athletes struggle with is the lack of rest and recovery necessary for long-term results. Nobody wants sports to be canceled, but you’re on a mandated sabbatical now. Rather than fight it, go with it! I know it’s important to train and sweat, but maybe it’s time to let the body heal.”
He continued, “When athletes get long rest periods, they come back better than ever. They’re feeling mentally and emotionally healthier and fresher, more grateful and more excited, so they perform better. Take the time to focus on your family and key relationships around you. Use this time to get an extra hour of sleep, for flexibility, towards psychology work or studying videos [Dr. Spencer has over 500 videos on YouTube] or reading. Work on the mental, psychological part of your game so you don’t feel you’re falling behind because you’re not competing. Anyway, you’re not, because nobody else is training or competing!”
And if it’s the camaraderie you’re missing, Dr. Lagos pointed to two great resources.
“I have triathletes who use Peloton at home, or other free instruction videos online. If you train with a group, there are still ways to maintain that connection. Talk with each other through Microsoft Team [or Zoom] so you’re still in touch about how you’re staying fit.”
“Use this time to thrive instead of just survive,” she concluded.