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Goal vs. Process Oriented Training: Part 2

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In Goal vs. Process Oriented Training: Part 1, I introduced everybody to the concept of goal (or outcome) versus process (or mastery) oriented athletes. In this second and final part of the article, I want to continue on that topic with a few different ideas.

As a coach
As a coach, I vastly prefer to work with process oriented athletes. This is probably why, typically, I’ve ended up training women. Males are invariably a huge pain in the ass. Even if they recognize you as their coach, they still think they know more than you and hate doing things like ‘working on technique’ or ‘putting the ego aside’. If things don’t go stunningly every workout and every competition, they just mope. If they aren’t using minimum macho poundages on all exercises, they just hate it. Women, on average, are less likely to have this happen.

That said, I’ve worked with several males who were not like this. They were the ones who focused on the process, kept the long-term in mind, and invariably had much better success. I’ve also had females who were overly goal oriented. So I’m not saying that this is purely a male/female thing; just that there are some fairly clear gender-related tendencies here.

I’m also going to contradict something I wrote yesterday which was the idea that an individual can’t really change their psychological approach to training. In general, I still think that’s true but I said it a bit too absolutely yesterday and, as I thought about it, one of my current charges (training for strongman) has gone through a profound change over the last two years I’ve worked with him. Early on, he was very very goal/outcome oriented. A single bad workout would spiral him into a pit of self-doubt and loathing.

Now, as a bit of background, this athlete is dealing with a congenital spinal condition and literally started with me being unable to stand up straight or move much at all. So it’s easy to see how workouts could and did go badly for him. If his back was acting up or his mobility was off, he’d be off his best. Oh yeah, last year, he pulled an easy 500 pound deadlift and he intends to hit 550-600 this year (after competing in his first strongman contest).

Over the two years, I’ve seen a subtle shift in his mental approach to training. He’s finally realized that, despite all of the setbacks (including a hamstring pull 4 weeks before the 500lb DL), he’s made amazing progress. Doctors originally told him to give up on training, he’d have ended up in a wheel chair had he done this. Now he’s almost ready for his first amateur strongman competition. Bad workouts still happen, don’t get me wrong. When they do, he leaves them behind, we figure out what happened and fix it next time.

As an athlete
Ok, to some degree, this bit is why I decided to blog about this topic in the first place: to talk about myself.

I need to back up first. In my 20’s, I competed in inline skate racing, primarily at the 10k distance. I had been skating (with poor technique mind you) for years at that point and, although I eventually overtrained, I was strong through a combination of training like a maniac and being young enough to get away with it.

Strong enough to overcome my poor technique (to a degree) and just go hammer and race reasonably well. But more importantly within the context of this blog post series, I always raced my own race. I knew exactly what I was capable of doing in a race, how hard I could go over the distance and not blow up.

And so long as I came away being able to say “That was the best I could have done today” I considered it a success. I would figure out where I was weak in any given race, fix it next time around and go. And I never raced badly. My final year I was either top-10 overall or top-3 age group in every race I did. Because I was never concerned with the results.

I could only race as fast as I was capable of racing on any given day and the results would either come or they wouldn’t. I can’t control the course or the weather or the other athletes or anything else, I could only control myself. I was as process oriented as they came and it always worked wonderfully. Well, until I overtrained myself into the ground with 20+ hours of training but that’s a different article.

Contrast that to my teammate who wanted to be at the top (which is fine) but just didn’t have the ability. He’d go out with the top guys every race and die halfway through. I’d come chugging up at the 5k mark, pass him and finish racing. Then I’d have to deal with him sulking all the way back home and then he’d go into the next race expecting to fail b/c that’s all he knew.

Anyhow, fast forwards to now. If you didn’t read the about me bit here or on the site, I moved up here in 2004 to pursue the absurd goal of long-track speedskating. Figured I was good at inline, how hard could it possibly be? Famous last words.

But somewhere along the way I lost my old process oriented self. I think it’s because I feel this huge time pressure to meet my goal in long-track, when I moved up here I had given myself 1.5 years. I’ve gone past that but only have about 1.5 seasons left before it’s time to retire from this stupidity (I’ll be 39). So there’s the issue where I feel that I have to go a certain speed in practice, that I have to go a certain speed in trials. And I become too concerned about ‘going fast’ than ‘skating well’. And when I don’t, well….

I’d get anxious the night before focusing on what time I wanted to get, nervous at the line. And I’d tie up and slip and just generally mess up during every race. And carry that crap into the next set of trials; thinking about how awfully the last one went. I walked out of one trial before my second race, unable to face it. And this is someone who has NEVER quit during a competition ever.

It was eating me up inside and I was close to quitting skating entirely at one point during my 2007-2008 season.

I’m not a born sprinter by any stretch and the short races give me all kinds of problems. I tighten up, I try too hard, I TRY TO GO FAST. Whereas I know deep down that if I simply TRY TO SKATE WELL, I will go fast. Goal versus process orientation right there in bold.

And my technique hasn’t been consistent enough to let me do the longer stuff well. It has just sucked all around.

Part of it is also that I’ve been fighting with technique for the full 3.5 years. I had horrible inline habits that I’ve toiled to break, long-track ice speedskating is horribly technical. And the improvements just weren’t coming fast enough.

Don’t get me wrong, it was always improving bit by bit but there were key aspects of my corners that kept eluding me. I’ve had good straights since my first season but since you get most of your speed in the corners, this didn’t help me. The self-doubt was crippling. Maybe I’m too old to learn how to do this, maybe I’ll never get ice feel, maybe I should go back to inline where corners aren’t that critical. It’s been a miserably frustrating year for myself, my SO and my coach.

Until 2 weeks ago. When everything started to click. The endless off-ice drills into the pads, the endless turn-cable, the remedial short-track (video of me training long and short-track can be seen here), the endless thinking about it and practicing and fighting my natural instincts to get my feet underneath me and fall into the corner.

Suddenly it all started coming together.

Around the end of March is our big end of season finale, the Utah Olympic Oval holds a big competition and, although I’ve been frustrated with racing all year long, I signed up to race 4 distances (500m, 1500m, 5000m, 1000m). On Wednesday, on the final day of our taper, I threw down a sprint corner that my coach had nothing to correct. That was a first.

On Thursday night before my first two races, I noticed something. I wasn’t anxious about racing, I wasn’t even thinking about the competition. I had only one goal “Go skate well”. Just do what I’d been doing in practice and I’d either go faster or I wouldn’t.

On the ice the next morning during warmups, everything felt perfect. Sprint corners, starts, all clicking. Coach asked me how I felt (he always does). I told him simply “I’m ready”.

And I was. All of the stress and worry and anxiety about going fast had fallen away, the only goal was to skate well.

The 500m is my worst race, it’s most people’s worst race. The pressure is intense, you have one 100m to accelerate and one lap and there is this crushing pressure to work as hard as you can go to fast. So you try too hard which just makes it worse. Oddly, a lot of skaters will skate a faster first lap in the 1000m than in their 500m. Because, knowing you have that second lap to go, you relax just a little bit more and end up going faster for less work.

Now, I didn’t skate as well as I could, I still rushed a bit. But it’s better than it ever has been because I was only focusing on one thing “Skate well”. I had my fastest start to date, and my fastest lap and set over a half-second PR. More interestingly, using at the first 100m, I’m listening for my opening time, to see how fast (or not) I’m going. I didn’t do it this time, I was oblivious, I was focusing on skating well, not what my times were.

Fifty minutes later I skated my 1500m. While I didn’t PR, it’s the technically most solid race I’ve done to date. Great start, had my fastest opener to date but relaxed a bit much (to make sure everything stayed technically solid) and came 1 second short of my PR. I’m still happy. I know I have more in me. My main observation is that my anaerobic endurance is down a bit, we’ve been focusing on sprint stuff and I died on the third lap. But that’s easy to fix. Technically it was an excellent race and I’m pleased with it. So is my coach.

A night of rest and it was time to skate a 5k. Now this is a bit of a grinder, 12.5 laps around an oval is no fun at all and the last time I did this, I died at the end big time. I’d only raced a 3k this year although I hand-timed a 10k during practice two weeks ago that went supremely well. I told my coach what I wanted to skate, rolled to the start line and I went.

And went well.

And except for a little problem with two slower skaters who would not get out of my way (overtaking skater has the right of way), it went perfectly. I skated it exactly to my schedule, I made a 30 second PR and I did it with gas in the tank so it wasn’t even a maximal effort. Essentially I did everything right that I had any control over (i.e. not the two morons who couldn’t get out of my path).

Video is a touch long but you can see my race here


Problems with the other skaters in my way start at the 5 minute mark.

As it turns out, I scratched on my 1000m but for nothing related to this blog entry. I fell hard about 8 weeks ago, slicing my right ankle to the bone. Because of where it is and the nature of skating, it’s been slow healing and appears to be a bit infected. Rather than risk having my foot fall off, it seems most prudent to scratch the race and fix the foot. I did what I wanted to do this weekend, I’m pleased with every aspect of the last 2 weeks and there’s plenty of time for big lap drops and race improvements.
Next year.

Now, as I mentioned last post, I don’t want this to read as if being process oriented is de-facto superior, even though it is what works far better for me personally. Goal oriented attitudes towards training or competition can clearly work, at least in the short-term. And especially when someone is going really well. But when it’s not going well, I find that being too goal oriented works against people. One bad workout becomes a series of bad workouts because the pressure to overcome it leads people to invariably try harder and harder.

When often what’s needed is to back off and try less hard. Or at least focus on something slightly different. Sometimes focusing on ‘doing things right’ yields far better results than on ‘trying to make the results happen’.

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