The Agony and Ecstasy of Goal Setting

I’m going to win the CrossFit Games. On an otherwise non-descript Wednesday about 5 years ago Kyle Fields (co-owner of Fortitude Strength Club) uttered these words to me.

Now keep in mind at that time CrossFit was not the enormous and extremely marketed fitness brand it is today. Reebok was not yet a sponsor. CrossFitters had just stopped wearing Five Finger shoes. There were only 3 CF gyms in New York City. Rich Froning still had his shirt on.

And while I had never done CrossFit (I don’t even think I’d been inside a CrossFit gym at that point) I knew enough about it and about the Games to know that this was a bold and borderline ludicrous statement coming out of my future business partner’s mouth. But, hell, I’m not one to shy away from a giant dose of hubris.

Kyle did the CrossFit Open that year and managed to finish in the top 10% of all entrants. A not-too-shabby finish that put him just about 5,000 spots away from winning the Games. To date, it is the closest that he has come.

I don’t bring up this story to call out Kyle. The guy is actually a freak athlete and to finish top 10% when you are up against plenty of other high-level competitors is no easy feat. I bring it up to illustrate this point: when most people set goals, particularly fitness goals, they have no idea what they are actually in for, the amount of time and effort it takes and, often, just why the heck they’re doing it in the first place.

The Three Problems With Goal Setting

The way that I see it, there are three main things people seem to struggle with when it comes to setting goals in the fitness arena. The first is really well illustrated by the story above. The goal is rather grandiose and you have no idea what it really takes to accomplish it. The majority of competitors in the CrossFit Games have already been competing at that level for multiple years. Many of them own or work in CrossFit gyms. Many of them don’t even work at all, dedicating all their time to training; very often with coaches with proven track records and training partners who are also fighting for coveted Games spots. On top of incredible strength, work capacity, gymnastic skills and weightlifting ability, they are extremely mentally tough. Do you have the ability and lifestyle to catch up to what they’ve already achieved?

But let’s say the goal is seemingly smaller than competing against the best of the best in a sport. Say you simply want a “dancer’s body”? I actually hear that one a lot. Well, dancers train for 4 to 10 hours a day, 6-7 days per week from the time they are children to look that way. Are you willing and able to do that? What if you already have a career or are in college? What if you already have two kids and are 40 years old? Can your lifestyle support the goal? Do you really even know what level of effort achieving the goal takes?

Problem number two is timeframe. Most people are simply obsessed with short-term goal setting. You see this often in fitness marketing as the 6 or 12 week “challenge”. Can you make some seemingly amazing progress in a relatively short amount of time? Sure can. We see dramatic before and after pictures all the time. But, quite honestly, goals that are reached in that time frame are often meaningless and fleeting. Please show me what those people look like in another 12 weeks. Or, even better, in 12 months. Where they able to sustain or hopefully even progress those results?

Malcolm Gladwell famously reported that expertise takes 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice. I have no idea if this is scientifically valid but I do know that real progress, progress that is meaningful, that sticks, takes longer than 3 months. And while setting a 12 week goal and circling that date on the calendar can be a helpful thing, it should be seen as the beginning of the road, not the end. Real achievement, building habits and figuring out your body takes years to accomplish. You aren’t going to master any aspect of it in a matter of months. People who are the most successful at anything tend to do that thing for a really long time. Developing athletic skill or exceptional body composition is no exception.

You need to have grit. Grit does not come in a matter of weeks or months.

Now we’ve arrived at problem number three: the goal isn’t meaningful enough. Sure it would have been cool for Kyle to win the CrossFit Games. He would have gained a bit of fame and made some money off of it. He certainly would have been the hero of the gym. But he already had a career going as a trainer and a fitness model. He was living with his wife (then girlfriend). He had other interests. The effort that it would have taken and the sacrifices that would have had to be made just for an outside chance at actually competing just weren’t worth it.

Is your goal worth increasing your training time exponentially? What happens when your girlfriends call and want to go out for martinis? Or you want to celebrate your anniversary at a steakhouse? Is your goal meaningful enough that you are going to sacrifice the other things and people in your life in order to accomplish them?

I’ve heard Travis Mash, a former world record holding power lifter, discuss missing the funeral of a loved one because he felt he couldn’t skip out on training that day. And while that does sound a bit crazy, it shows just how meaningful his goals were to him. Can you say the same?

Goals: The Upside

Now that I’ve shit all over setting goals, let me back track a little. I do think goal setting is a great and even necessary part of your fitness life. So here is a little checklist to help you set meaningful and achievable fitness goals.

  1. The Goal Must Be Realistic

At 44 years old I am never going to win the National Championships in the 105kg weight class in the sport of Weightlifting. I’m too old, started too late and my knees hurt too much. This doesn’t make me a quitter or a loser, it makes me a realist who doesn’t bang his head against the wall every night because they don’t have the numbers to even qualify to compete (never mind win) at Nationals. Fortunately for me, there is Master’s Nationals which is full of old-timers like me. The last two times I’ve competed in national or international competitions I’ve come in fourth place (this does make me bang my head against the wall), so making it onto the podium (third place or better) is a realistic goal. The goals you set should seem challenging but not impossible because the minute you realize they are impossible (and that moment will come faster than you think) you’ll be sitting on the couch, crying, eating an oversized box of Ho-Ho’s while watching a marathon of the Millionaire Matchmaker. I’ve seen it happen. And by “seen it happen” maybe I mean it’s happened to me.

  1. When It Comes To Timeframe, Think Big Picture

Yes, I understand that you want to be in better shape than anyone at your 20 year reunion. And, that’s not even a bad goal. And while you may put in some extra effort in the month leading up to that day where you slip on your favorite little black dress, drink too much champagne and slow dance with the former Prom King to Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”, realize that is a short-term “stretch goal”. Once the hangover subsides make sure you get back in the gym and stay focused on your long-term goal of being the person in the best shape at your 30 year reunion.

  1. The Goal Should Be In Your Control

Getting down to 8% body fat, winning the CrossFit Games, making a podium at a meet are all great goals. But guess what? Meeting these goals is not completely in your control. What if you have some health issue that just won’t allow you to shed that much fat? Or you put in your best effort and can’t quite make it to the Games? Or some great lifters show up to the next meet and now you are in 6th place instead of 4th? There is nothing you can do about it. So try to set goals you can actually control. I’m going to pre-cook all my meals on Sunday so they are ready for the week and I can’t slip up on my diet. I’m going to make it to all my training sessions this month so I have the best shot at squatting a new personal best. I’m going to schedule an extra two practices per week just to focus on technique so I’m razor sharp when I step on the platform. These are things you can control, that you are in charge of. No one can show up and snatch those goals from you. Those are also the things that champions do, so you’ll be in good company.

I love Kyle. And like I’ve said, he’s one of the absolute best athletes I know. But he’s not making the CrossFit Games. He’s not even trying to. He wants to create a great training environment for our clients. We have huge, time-consuming goals to grow the gym. He wants to spend time with his wife. He wants to go to the occasional movie.

I would never want anyone to not dream big. But your effort has to match the scope of those dreams. You have to put yourself in absolutely the ultimate situation to make them happen. And the bigger your goals the larger the sacrifice you must be willing to make to achieve them. But who the fuck am I to say you won’t make it? I’m just a guy who consistently finishes in 4th place.

But hopefully not for long.