In speaking with other triathletes, as well as executives that I work with in my consulting practice, I frequently get asked about mental strategy, focus and goal setting. It is not surprising that those questions come up so regularly; nearly everyone has strong ambitions and clear objectives of wanting to better themselves in a variety of ways.
The principal component that I always emphasize is the need to focus on process over outcome. Or, for another way of phrasing, focusing only on that which you can control.
The idea is very simple in theory: worry only about the aspects of a particular task that you actually can influence, and the finished product (i.e., the outcome) will take care of itself. However, the application of this theory becomes a bit more difficult because a large number of delineated goals are often tied to outcomes – for example, a promotion at work or a specific finish time in a race.
Just a quick investigation into those particular examples reveals the difficulty associated with focusing on outcomes. An athlete may have a particular time or finish position as a goal, but that athlete has absolutely no control over the weather or the other athletes in the competition. If you have a personal best time in mind, yet on race day the weather is 95 degrees with 75 percent humidity, it’s clear that you likely will fall short of that particular time even though you may have had all the fitness necessary to achieve it. The fact remains that you simply can’t control the weather. Similarly, you may be acutely focused on a promotion at work. However, for better or worse, you have no control over your boss’s personal preferences or specific plans for employees.
To worry about those things beyond your control only creates additional problems, further inhibiting the likelihood of goal achievement. Instead, your focus should be placed entirely on process. And that is exactly what I did at Ironman 70.3 Raleigh.
To be perfectly honest, while I understand the concept, I often have difficulty with implementation myself. As a professional triathlete, it’s very difficult not to get caught up in goal setting based on finish position. After all, where you finish ultimately determines how much money you earn. But as mentioned above, I cannot control how my competition performs on any given day. If I set a goal of winning a race and perform to the utmost of my abilities – executing everything perfectly on the day – yet I fall short because a competitor has the race of his life, did I fail?
The correct answer is, of course not. And this is exactly why your focus should be on execution, also known as the “process.” Hitting all of your marks in terms of execution will set you up for the best possible outcome. As such, there is no reason to think about the outcome; it takes care of itself.
In Raleigh, the focus on process was heightened due to a couple of factors. First, I was still behind in my training for this particular time of year due to my long recovery from being hit by a car. Second, I had been nursing an illness for 5-6 days immediately preceding the event. I could waste a lot of time worrying about both of those factors, but in the end, where would it get me?
Obviously, some of my ambitious long-term objectives were not yet attainable given the current situation. Therefore, I instead developed a “process sheet” for each discipline since the best chance for a good result was to emphasize only those elements under my control.
My process for the swim was simple: (1) find clean water early, since that works best for me at the start of the race; (2) integrate into the group about 300-400 meters into the race and quickly settle into a draft; and (3) maintain a high turnover throughout the swim, which is contrary to my preferred style of swimming. I executed each of these goals very well, starting on the outside of the field, settling in well on a good set of feet, and cruising the rest of the distance. Surprisingly, the effort was perhaps too easy, but I didn’t believe it smart to burn a match so early into the race.
Onto the bike, my process goals were: (1) work hard early into the headwind to make up any lost ground to the leaders and find free road for a solo effort; (2) if in a group of riders by mile 25 (where the change of direction leads to a tailwind), stay within the group to conserve energy; and (3) consume 400 calories of nutrition per hour, along with two additional bottles of water. As expected in North Carolina in June, the temperature and humidity were both high, so fluid would be at a premium. I pushed the effort early as planned and was able to work my way up into a group with only 2-3 riders up the road, but I did not have the energy to separate myself. So I settled into the group to get ready for the run.
As expected, I was not feeling all that great. The lingering illness sapped my energy levels a bit, and what energy was left was sapped by the weather. Therefore, on the run I had only one objective: (1) pace conservatively throughout and play it safe. I was unable to run to my capabilities on the day, but I could minimize the damage and be smart so that I had enough left in the tank to hold my position in the latter stages of the run.
In this instance, I did exactly what I needed to do. I faded slightly over the back half of the run, but I had conserved enough to hold strong. Had I surged and pushed the pace early, I likely would have lost 2-3 positions in the final miles.
So what did my focus on process get me? A 4th place finish. Not the result that I regularly aim for, but on this day I was more than pleased. Given the lead up to the race, things could easily have gone much further south had I not been so heavily focused on the variables that I could control. It was incredibly unfortunate to be one step off the podium for the second consecutive race, but I am proud of my consistency in performance after being sidelined for 8 months.
Next up is Ironman 70.3 Mont Tremblant, with a continued focus on process over outcome.