This is one of my favorite times of the year – the very beginning with nothing but the endless possibilities of tomorrow ahead. Twelve months of tomorrows.
We all have expectations of ourselves as athletes for the year ahead. We expect to place in the top 3 of our age group, we expect to run a fast 10K off the bike, we expect to swim 1.2 miles in under 30 minutes, expect to finish an Ironman. Whatever your goal may be, you begin to expect it because you work hard for it, you’ve put in the time, paid the price in sweat and toil.
But with these expectations are we actually limiting ourselves? By saying “I just want to finish” are we denying ourselves the possibility that much, much more might be within ourselves?
I was reading a book the other day that discussed the limitation in expectation. Yes, you read that right – the limitation in expectation. The authors argued that with expectations, you allow yourself to perceive boundaries. An expectation of something limits you to that one thing. For example, let’s say an athlete expects to win their age group at a certain race. In expecting that are they limiting themselves for winning it overall? Or setting a new personal best?
The authors explained that when you have an expectation you are certain that something will turn out in a particular way. If you expect to place in the top 3 of your age group at a local race, you see it and expect it will happen. You start to look ahead, thinking about it, waiting for it to happen. Consequently, looking ahead tends to distract you from the moment or the training at hand. It makes you unfocused on the today while waiting for the tomorrow.
So how do you keep yourself grounded in the day to day while still guided on the path of what lies ahead tomorrow? The best goals are achieved by day-to-day progress over time. If you focus on the task at hand each day, breaking your expectations into smaller goals, the impossible all of a sudden becomes possible. In the great words of Bill Murray, baby steps.
But what do all of these day-to-day goals add up to? An expectation, right? No. We can do better than expectations. In fact, we can do without them. Without expectations, you allow yourself to perceive the possibilities – more than one thing – the potential in all of the things that could happen beyond that one thing.
And so the author suggests that you turn expectations into preferences. Preferences are directions that you would prefer to travel towards. Preferences are feelings you have about your performance. Preferences direct you on a path towards excellence rather than an outcome. Excellence is something you strive towards, a journey that follows a path of hard work and dedication. It is not an outcome. You cannot achieve excellence. You can only aspire towards it. And so you cannot expect it. You can only act in it day by day, following a path towards your preference.
Reading all of this, and then trying to interpret it, was a lot to handle all at once. So I put myself through an exercise the authors suggested:
List your expectations for an upcoming event
I’ll do an example. At “x” race, I would like to place in the top 3.
Now, rewrite your expectations as preferences. In other words, “I definitely prefer _______ or something better.”
Ok, this year I would definitely prefer to place in the top 3 or something better.
Wait – I got it.
Why limit myself to top 3? Why not top 2 or top 1? Why not break a course record, or beat a pro, or beat all the men? Part of me is being grandiose and facetious. But part of me also takes this very seriously. I mean – why not? Why not strive to be bigger and better than what you expect? Don’t we all prefer to be the best version of ourselves? I don’t know about you, but this exercise was the best exercise I did all day. Better than time trial intervals. Better than a timed 1650.
At this point, you’re probably thinking – aren’t you just talking about goals? Isn’t being in the top 3 a goal? Sure, it’s a goal. But I think the authors are suggesting that what we really work towards is bigger than a goal – it’s our preference. Goals are what allow our journey along the path of excellence towards our preferences to be satisfying and exciting. Short-term goals allow us to build confidence and keep us motivated. They are constantly set or re-set. They challenge you to the next level. They change to meet your needs at that particular time. A goal might be swimming 10 x 100 at a 1:19 pace. Once you do that, it might be a goal to hold a 1:17 pace. These goals would help a person build towards the preference of swimming a faster 1000. You achieve these in training, set a new goal and push yourself in training a little further. Collectively, all of these goals keep you moving along the path of excellence until finally your reach the point at which will probably find your have exceeded your original preference. Nice how that works, isn’t it?
What is revealed as you go through this process, is just how much work goes into one preference. As you look ahead to the upcoming season, you have to find that one thing that is your preference. Looking ahead, what do you really want, where do you really want to be? What makes you salivate, makes you goosebumpy, makes you want to throw your arms in the air in victory while standing in the kitchen just thinking about it? What makes you proud that you would even consider that as your preference? This is where your path of excellence will lead. Towards this preference. Along the way, set up smaller goals that are tangible, attainable, and meaningful. Set yourself up for success and works satisfyingly towards your preference.
I wrote this because I just went through this process, of looking ahead to the upcoming season and planning out my preferences and goals. I was all over the place and didn’t know where you begin. But once I seriously thought about my preference for the season, it all fell into place. Everything I do along way will be a stepping stone to get there. I hope you find it helpful when you look ahead.
Here’s to a successful and limitless year ahead!