There’s nothing that feels better than setting a lofty goal and achieving it.  Beyond the fact that you’ve accomplished something that you’ve set your mind to, reaching your goal is the culmination of a long process and lots of hard work.  Successfully completing that journey is immensely satisfying.   That said, if you’re in the business of setting goals it is inevitable that you’re going to fall short of some of them and this can be crushingly disappointing.  How you deal with this disappointment is going to go a long way towards determining your success in achieving future goals so let’s take a look at dealing with missed goals a little more closely.

The first thing you need to do when you fall short of a goal is face the music.  Don’t run from it, own it.  Rationalizing or making excuses is not going to help you.  You need to take an objective look at what you did in the process of trying to achieve your goal, ask yourself some important questions and be honest with the answers you come up with.  Remember you set your goal in the first place because you wanted to accomplish something worthwhile.  You’ve still got a chance to accomplish it but it’s only going to happen if you can learn from mistakes you may have made and can eliminate them in the future.

Some people take missing their goals really hard and have difficulty owning it.  It’s worth remembering that no matter how disappointing missing your goal may be, it’s not the end of the world.  There are millions of people in this world with problems a lot bigger than that.  Keep things in perspective.  Your dog is still going to think you’re the greatest whether you achieved your goal or not.

I find the best way to get over the disappointment of missing goals is by doing something about it.  That’s where reflecting on the process and asking yourself some difficult questions comes in.  Completing an audit of what you did and asking yourself what worked and what didn’t is taking action.  You can’t learn from mistakes if you are unwilling to try to identify them.  Realizing you may have made mistakes can be painful but at least you’ve begun the process of correcting things.  You can then go about the process of setting new goals.  You’ll always feel better working towards a new goal rather than wallowing in disappointments of the past. 

Here’s a list of some of the questions I ask myself when I’ve fallen short of my goals:

  1. Was the goal realistic?
  2. Was the plan I developed realistic and effective?
  3. Did I follow the plan?
  4. What, if any, elements did I miss in my plan?
  5. Did I do everything within my control to meet my goal?
  6. What elements within my control could I have done better?  What mistakes did I make?
  7. What worked well?  What didn’t?
  8. What elements beyond my control affected me missing my goal? 
  9. Is there any realistic way that I can exercise control over these elements in the future?

It’s extremely important that the answers you come up with are honest.  The only person you’re fooling if you’re not honest is yourself and you’ll pay for it by likely making the same mistakes again in the future.  Remember, everyone makes mistakes.  They’re nothing to be ashamed of.  The only shame should come from not learning from them and repeating them.

Once you’ve answered these questions (I like to write the answers down so I can refer to them) it is time to develop some new goals and a plan of action.  The first thing to consider is the answer to question 1 above.  Was the goal you missed realistic?

Setting realistic goals

It’s my belief that many people miss their goals because the goals they set were never realistic in the first place.  People either overestimate what they are capable of or underestimate the difficulty and complexity of what they are trying to accomplish.  Sometimes they clearly have the ability to achieve their goals but they overestimate the time they have to devote to achieving them.  Real life commitments have a habit of cutting into the time we have available to do things like the training required to achieve sport goals.  If you’re not realistic about the time you’ll have available to train then you’re likely going to fall short of your goals. 

Another mistake people make when setting their goals is that they set “result oriented” goals rather than “performance oriented” goals.  I know that business tells us that it is all about the bottom line.  Results are all that matter.  This may work in business but in sport it is the absolute wrong way to approach goal setting. 

Imagine setting the goal that you want to come top 5 in your class in a particular race.  You may have finished 6th place last year, so improving by just one position seems realistic, right?  Now, what happens when you train hard all year, improve your sustained paddling pace by 20 seconds/km, and then show up to the race only to find there are 5 paddlers there that you didn’t expect to see and who are all faster than you?  You end up coming 9th, even though you paddled the course faster than you ever have before.  You missed your goal. 

Is this failure?  In my view, the only failure here is that you didn’t set your goal properly.  The only reason you missed your goal is that 5 people faster than you showed up to the race.  You managed to improve your traveling pace by 20 sec/km which in a 10 km race is 3 min and 20 sec.  That is a considerable improvement.  You should be viewing your performance as an unqualified success yet, because of the way you set your goal, you go home feeling like a failure. 

In sport it is imperative to focus on your own performance.  Focus on what you can control (yourself) and not on things you have no control over (how fast the others are).  Set a goal that is performance related, for example being able to travel at 6:00 minute/km pace rather than 6:20 pace.  Let the results take care of themselves.  If you improve your performance and meet your goal you’re a success, regardless of the result. 

Developing a plan of action

The most important step is developing a plan of action.  If your goal is to paddle a particular distance for the season the plan is relatively simple, you just need to set up a schedule based on your real-life commitments that allows you to get on the water regularly enough to meet your goal. Apply the lessons you learned from the pursuit of your previous goal and get to work.

If your goal is performance oriented it is more complicated.  You’ve got to take an inventory of all your strengths and weaknesses and then set up a plan that addresses your weaknesses while maintaining your strengths.  You’ll also need to consider the time line for your goal.  When is/are the priority event(s) that you’re aiming for?   Lastly you’ll need to reflect on all the lessons you learned in pursuit of your previous goals so mistakes you may have made in the past are not repeated.

The most effective plan is always one that is properly periodized so it’s worth doing some research into how to periodize a training program.  Properly periodizing a program can be an intimidating process as there are a lot of things to consider so if you’re unsure of how to get started it’s worth consulting a coach to help you get started or to develop a plan for you. 

All the planning in the world does you no good if you don’t end up following the plan.  This is ultimately where your goals are made or missed.  It can be hard keeping up with a plan, especially if your goals are lofty and your plan is correspondingly comprehensive.  Here are a few things that I have done to help me stick to the plan even on days when I’m tired, feel unmotivated and the weather isn’t particularly inviting for activity on the water:

  1. Make training fun.  If training isn’t fun then you should probably be doing something else with your time.  That said, even people who really enjoy training have days where they find it less enjoyable than others.  Recognize those days when you confront them and set a special challenge for that workout that you know you will attain.  Then be sure to reward yourself with something suitably special when you meet that challenge and complete the workout.  This could be as simple as lunch at your favourite restaurant or an extra big dessert at dinner.  These rewards are always more enjoyable than they otherwise would be when you know that they’re well-earned.
  1. Remind yourself that your competitors aren’t taking the day off.  If you’re training to race it’s always useful to remind yourself that the people you will be racing aren’t skipping the workout so why should you.  When I was racing sprint canoe most of my competition came from Europe which is at least 6 hours ahead of where I am in the Eastern Time Zone.  Whenever I got up in the morning feeling lazy, tired and unmotivated I just reminded myself that they had already trained that day and I was already behind.  This gave me no choice other than doing the workout, whether I was looking forward to it or not.
  1. Everyone can do a good workout but training consistently day-to-day is another matter.  Make it a point of pride to be the person that is consistent. Know that on those days when the weather is nastiest and you still go paddling, you’re doing something that most other people won’t do.   You’ll find it feels great knowing you’re doing more than just about everyone else and it gives you a great deal of confidence in your training and the fitness you’re building. 
  1. Find others to train with.  Knowing that you’ll be meeting others for the workout makes you accountable to show up and put in a solid effort.  This can help you through those days when you feel like staying in bed rather than getting out on the water before having to go to work. 
  1. If you can’t find others to train with become a member of a virtual group.  Groups like the 100 Paddle Challenge can serve as virtual training groups that can hold you as accountable as an actual training group can.  Simply having to report to the group each day on the training you did can be a great motivator to help you get things done.  You’ll also find that seeing the efforts of others in the group can be quite inspiring. 
  1. Be organized.  Most of us have busy lives with other commitments.   If you’re on top of managing these various commitments you can find a way to make training a regular part of your day. You’ll likely get more done in a given day in every area of your life.  If, on the other hand, you’re unorganized and lack structure in your day-to-day life you’ll likely find life’s commitments end up getting the better of you and you feel like you’re always behind; always catching up.  You’ll have a hard time finding time to paddle. 

Here’s wishing everyone a fantastic 2020, happy paddling and good luck pursuing your goals.