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Goal vs. Process Oriented Training

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 vs. Process 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….

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.

Here are some Specific Examples

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 (i.e. insufficient lockout strength) and fix it prior to the next meet.

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.

Is Being Goal or Process Oriented “Better”?

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 they 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.

What Do I Prefer when I’m Coaching?

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” or “leaving their dick at the door.”  No, this isn’t universal.  there are ego driven women trainees and process oriented male trainees.  I’m speaking in generalities.  And generally male athletes are more likely to be like this.

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 sex related tendencies here.

A question that comes up and which I won’t address in detail is whether or not you can change a goal oriented athlete to a process oriented athlete or vice versa.  And I’m not sure I have an answer.  In general, I think it’s difficult to shift an athlete’s attitude completely.

At best you might get them to at least conceptualize the opposite attitude an apply it to a limited degree.  But this is another discussion for another day.

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 2005 when I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to pursue the absurd goal of long-track ice speedskating.  I had been pretty good at inline racing and figured “How hard can 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 then I’d carry that into the next set of time trials.  I’d be so busy thinking about how awfully the last races went that it would mess me up on the current set.  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.

Being Goal Oriented Was Killing Me

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, 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.

Finally Getting Back to Being Process Oriented

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, 3000m, 5000m). 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 to go 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, usually 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 to and just 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 I went well.

Finally Focusing on the Process

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).

As it turns out, I scratched on my 10000m but for nothing related to this article. 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”.  Especially in the long-term.  If you do the process, the goal will happen or it won’t.  If all you focus on is the goal, you often skip the process and make less progress overall.

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3 thoughts on “Goal vs. Process Oriented Training

  1. Lyle

    This may be the key to understanding why so many competitive athletes do not age well: once they no longer compete, they quit altogether.

    By contrast, athletes who are processed oriented may continue lifelong to maintain fitness and health.

  2. Thanks very much for the post. You put into words something I’ve been thinking about for a while.



  3. Very good post! This topic is such a key factor in success and failure in sport yet often gets over looked. The only negative would be the last section. I have personally made the switch from a outcome orientated athlete and i am now very process orientated. This makes life much easier and allows me to handle to pressure of competition much much more effectively!! The reason i could make the change was because i researched the area and had a huge understanding of how it worked.

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