I love goals. People love goals. But goals are a tricky thing for most people. It sounds silly to say, but as someone who teaches people how to set goals for a living I can tell you that most of the people I talk to do not understand the goal of a goal. In sports, where the word goal comes from, the goal is the thing you’re aiming the ball at. It’s the unmoving target upon which your every thought, action, and desire is focused. Coaches and athletes however, soon appropriated the metaphor of “a goal” to talk about something abstract: a desired outcome at some point in the future. But the differences between “the goal” and “a goal” should be obvious from the change between the definite article “the” and the indefinite article “a.” Projecting our will into the future is tricky business, and our metaphorical goals can and should change to accommodate changes in our present reality. Sport Psychology folks use the acronym SMART to help people set useful goals and the “A” stands for “Adjustable.” What shouldn’t change is what a goal does for you. According to Weingburg et al. (1993; 2000), athletes set goals to “provide direction and focus for their actions.” So any goal, no matter how lofty, noble, or well-informed, that does not make you feel grounded or focused is no longer a goal. It’s a burden. Therefore the goal of a goal is simple: to give you a Point B. The catch is that Point B is a variable. And that’s fantastic.
There is a Zen koan that simply says, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” In some tellings of the koan, it is the Buddha’s final instructions to his followers. Because the only true path to enlightenment is the path that gets you there. And the only goal that matters is the one that keeps you moving forward.
Goals on the Road
When I get a new client, they often have a goal in mind that sounds a lot like, “I want to achieve [big thing almost entirely outside of my control] by [arbitrary time] because [reasons I think Coach Stevo will like to hear].” There is nothing wrong with Cliche Goal #47 if it motivates my client, but my first job is usually to dissect that goal so deeply and into so many pieces that if anything goes wrong or my client’s reality, priorities, or desires change, then we can rearrange those fragments of passion and motivation into a new goal on moment’s notice. If my client doesn’t want to go to Point B1 anymore, fine. We’ll start headed to Point B2. If I’ve done my job correctly, it should be in roughly the same direction.
Take what seems to be every young white person’s goal of running a marathon before they turn the next year in their life that is evenly divisible by 5 or 10. If my client gets injured, then we might change the year. If they realize they hate running, we might change the sport. If they hate the pressure competition, cardio, and doing anything by any date, we might change the goal to simply getting stronger in the basic lifts. The point is that no matter what their Point B is that month, we are keeping them moving forward by teaching them the habits of the fundamentals: Getting them stronger in the basic human movements and learning what food choices work best for them. If lightening strikes and they suddenly need to do [something], then all that work on the fundamentals will not be in vain because the awareness, the patience, and most importantly the habits will be there.
The 215lb Guru on the Road
All of the metaphors I use, all the strength training skills I have, and all the best conversations I have ever had about goal setting have been with Dan John. And if the Swedes awarded a Nobel Prize for a single sentence on goal-setting, then Dan’s “the Goal is to Keep the Goal the Goal” would have won it every year since first he wrote it in his newsletter Get Up. When it comes to advice on goal setting in strength and conditioning, Dan is the 215lb Guru in the room and his most famous axiom seems to run completely counter to the previous paragraphs you have just read. But it doesn’t for the simple fact that Dan himself writes about in Intervention: Athletes know Point B with crystal clarity but regular people have no what they want, they just don’t want to be where they’re at anymore.
Therefore, any Point B for regular people is the goal because it’s not Point A! As long as they are improving, getting better at something, and taking ownership of their journey, then they are moving away from Point A and most importantly they are moving. We just have to be patient. They’ll find out where they want to go eventually, even if it’s long after they’ve gotten there.