Olympic Sized Goal Setting

As I write this post, it is approaching New Year’s, and like many if not most people, I do some scheduled reflection at this time of the year.

I learned about goals and the systems one needs for achieving them through training for the Olympic sport known as sprint canoe. While I never made the Olympic team, I was taught elite level goal setting skills. This post will be about a bit of what I learned from paddling.

Sprint Canoeing

When I was 12, I started paddling sprint canoes and kayaks. I eventually specialized in canoes, finding their uniqueness and the asymmetrical nature of the technique to be both challenging and fun. I liked that it was hard to do. I still do. The picture above is from the summer of 1979, when I was 15 years old, racing at a regatta in Copenhagen prior to heading off to the Junior World Championships in Tampere, Finland as part of the US team.

My club’s coach — or simply “Coach” as we all still know and call the man — taught all of us how to properly set goals, both long and short term. I’ll try to distill the basics of these teachings below.

All goals should be:
  • Quantifiable, not qualifiable. If you can’t measure the goal, then it’s not a goal – it’s a desire.
  • Not tied to the performance of another individual or group. Your goals have to be about you alone as you cannot control the level of success of others.
  • Obtainable. While it is good to stretch yourself, your goals, especially short term ones, need to be something you believe you can do. If you can’t even visualize it, you aren’t likely going to be able to do it either.
  • Written down and reviewed at regular intervals. Talking about your goals is not the same as writing your goals. A written record of the efforts to achieve your goals can be reviewed and analyzed. Reviews and adjustments are part of the path to getting where you want to go.

These four traits are what make goals real. Everyone in our club was encouraged to consider making the Olympic team a long term goal. And several of my paddling partners over the years did just that.

I had success as a Junior/U18 but was never a threat to anyone else’s Olympic dreams. I am okay with that as I made other choices along the way, especially with school, and still the athletic effort changed my life for the better. I wouldn’t trade my experience training for the Olympics for anything. 40 years later, I’m still paddling and hope to for the rest of my life.

Goals Don’t Work Without a System

Achieving goals requires much more than just following the bulleted list above. Goals rely on systems to be successful. New Year’s resolutions fail frequently because they are just goals, and without a system to support them, they will likely fail.  It’s the system and not the goals that get you where you want to go.

My system for achieving my paddling goals relied on the following – a training log, calendared workouts that followed a plan, and scheduled blocks of time for training.

  • My training log, which included my daily weight, resting heart rate, and information about every workout I did, was a motivator and tool for analysis.
  • My calendar of workouts was taped to my bathroom mirror. I would cross out each workout after getting home and it was a visual reminder and motivator when I would get up at 5am and rather be back in bed. I stuck to the plan unless my resting heart rate was up significantly, which would indicate overtraining or perhaps illness.
  • My scheduled blocks of time were for training and were not used for any other purpose. This included a rest period, too. My time was very structured.

The goals I made would change some over time but the system for executing them remained the same. My paddling systems have evolved to digital ones today that rely on a heart rate monitor and GPS device. I use Strava as my training log, and block out my time listing workouts with Google calendars that I can share with my own club today. My goals are written in Evernote.

Goals and GTD

This approach to achievement through a systemized application of goals is applicable to anything you want to achieve. I think of Getting Things Done (GTD) as yet another system used to achieve goals.

Here’s my system’s toolkit for achieving life goals today – Todoist, Google Calendar, all within a GTD framework.

  • Todoist acts as both my training log and place I store my “workouts” or actions.
  • My calendar is still the tool I use for blocking off and reserving time. I know I have to make time for things and not find time.
  • My GTD “next actions” are really just goals as Coach Bragg taught me to write them; actionable, quantifiable things I want to achieve.
  • My GTD weekly review is the regular reviewing of my goals where I plan my time and analyze my past efforts.

I still write all my GTD tasks and goals down with the same criteria taught to me by Coach, including my life and long-term goals. Because of my paddling experiences, I know I need a system to focus my work in achieving these goals and trust that when I follow through with these systems, success will come.

For me, GTD really is just an extension of everything I learned training for the Olympics.

Photos: 1979 Copenhagen Regatta and 2018 US Nationals in Oklahoma City.

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