Although I’m known more for nutrition and training, the psychology of good training is also a huge part of the picture and, thus, of interest to me.
Today, I want to talk about one of the major distinctions that is often made in the psychological approach that athletes take (usually to competition); that distinction is between being goal oriented and process oriented.
Goal oriented athletes
Simplistically, goal oriented athletes see their results in competition as the be-all, end-all of their training endeavors. This is also true of training. If they don’t win, or set a PR, or perform exceptionally all the time, they will see themselves as a failure. So on competition day, they have to win, or set a personal best, or set a record, or all of those. In the gym, if they aren’t beating their previous bests every damn time they train, they feel like a total failure.
God forbid they have a really bad workout; clearly they are worthless human beings and should be destroyed. Yes, fine, I’m being a touch hyperbolic but I’ve known athletes like this. Hell, knew one would go out, set a personal record and still be miserable about his performance.
Another way of looking at being goal oriented is that not only is the competitive outcome all that matters, it ends up defining the athlete’s self-worth. Win and the athlete is a winner, lose and he/she is a loser. And since nobody can win all the time….
Process oriented athletes
In some contrast, process oriented athletes, as the name suggests focus on the process. The process of training, the process of competition. Every competition can be analyzed for strengths and weaknesses so that the process of training can then be modified to fix it in the future. The same goes with training, which is simply part of the larger process of competition.
If the right things are done in training, the process will be met and the results will come. I should make it clear that a process oriented athlete is still concerned with the outcome of training and competition, simply that the outcome is not the be-all, end-all of how success is judged or not. A workout that went poorly might still be judged a success if something related to technique was improved, or they learned something about how they respond to training that lets them adjust their future training. Hopefully you get the idea.
Process oriented psychology is sometimes referred to as mastery oriented; the athlete focuses on becoming a better athlete and mastering his/her sport without the results of the competition per se defining his or her self worth. It’s almost always possible to improve some aspect of your sport, a little more strength, a bit more endurance, better technique. So there’s always something positive to take out of any negative outcome. I think you get the idea.
A specific example
To put the above into slightly clearer terms, consider two cyclists racing at some distance. Neither wins the event. The goal oriented athlete would tend to simply consider himself a failure for not having won (or even placed). The process oriented athlete, who certainly wouldn’t be happy with not winning, would look at what happened, say he did well on the flats but couldn’t keep up in the hills. Hills would be identified as a weakness and training would be adjusted so that, at the next race, he could keep up. That’s the process.
Or consider two powerlifters going for a PR 405 bench press. Both miss. The goal oriented athlete would start in about how he was weak, didn’t train correctly (or hard enough), how he was loser, etc. The process or mastery oriented athlete would figure out why he missed (insufficient lockout strength) and fix it on the next go around.
I’m sure you can think of other concrete examples, perhaps in your own training or competition history. Or you know someone who falls into one or the other categories.
Now, I want to make it clear that I’m absolutely not saying that one approach is superior to the other. They both have their pros and cons and are probably appropriate at different times.
Goal oriented athletes are probably more likely to succeed in the short-term. Think of any Rocky movie training sequence and you’re on the right track. The goal is ALL that matters to this athlete and they will do everything to win. But the burnout rate is high. With few exceptions, no athlete is always at their best, always dominant, always setting new records. If you live and die by your competition results, while this might lead to good results sometimes, the bad competitions or workouts can be crushing. Quite in fact, this can become a vicious circle/self-fulfilling prophecy. Have a bad competition, go into the next one still carrying the baggage of the past failure, then you tighten up and under-perform, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. Goal oriented athletes probably succeed best when they are simply so far ahead of everyone else that they can always win. That’s rarely the case.
The process oriented athlete tends to have less burnout, a bad competition or workout is simply analyzed to see what part of the process is lacking. As noted above, since something can almost always be improved, this leaves the process/mastery oriented athlete in a much better mental place to avoid burnout and keep improving. And, as process oriented athletes usually find out, if you keep working on the process and mastery, the results will tend to come anyhow.
In my experience, males (who typically train and compete with their egos/penis rather than their brain) are more likely to be excessively goal oriented. They are the guys who don’t want to backoff the weights and learn how to bench because they need to impress their buddies with a 315 all-you bounce press. They always want to go too fast or lift too much when they train and if they don’t improve constantly, they get fed up.
In contrast, women are generally much more process oriented; they are willing to work on the details, focus on mastering the sport, etc. I’d note that this can often go with a lower competitive drive when it comes time for that. But I think this has less to do with the topic of this post and more to do with a generally lower competitive nature/desire to crush your enemy (cf. opponent). And that’s an issue of discussion for another day.
As one last idea before I end Part 1, one idea that I’ve kicked around with my own coach is whether or not an athlete can switch from one approach to the other. That is, can the process oriented athlete become goal oriented or vice versa. He says that he’s never seen it and I’m not sure I have either, not in any real sense.
In Part 2 tomorrow, I’m going to apply what I talked about above and show you a real live case study (me) of how this can play out in the real world.
Continued in Goal Versus Process Oriented Training: Part 2