Setting Goals: Finding your perfect process

Setting the right type of goals for increased performance

It’s a scene out of any number of Hollywood movies. The big event is looming and one character, usually the sidekick, says timidly, “I’ll try my best.” The heroic protagonist will have none of it, boldly stating that, “losers whine about trying their best. Champions win the race.”

Growing up, I thought that was the winning attitude; but recently I’ve had the opportunity to talk with several world champions. They used expressions like, “I focused on my peak performance,” or, “I wanted to ride my strongest race.” In short, they tried their best. So what gives? How are all these losers winning rainbow jerseys? Maybe they aren’t watching enough movies. Or maybe, just maybe, Hollywood has missed something.

Let’s put it another way. You’re standing at the start line. You know you are the strongest rider there, and have boldly proclaimed that you are going to win the race. But here’s the problem. There’s a lot of road between the start line and the podium. Your daring claim doesn’t address how you’re going to handle the hill 10 miles in, the breakaway from your chief rival, or the mechanical halfway through. The fact is, stating that you are going to win contains no action — it doesn’t say anything about what you need to do to achieve your victory.

Put into technical jargon, winning is a type of outcome goal. Setting outcome goals is critical to racing successfully and to help you define the action. Julie Emmerman, who has worked as the sports psychologist for Garmin teams in the past, points out that outcome goals alone are not enough. “You can’t just say you’re going to do that. What is it going to look like? How are you going to execute it before, during, and after a race? Have you thought through what impact doing X, Y, or Z is going to have?” she said.

To achieve an outcome goal, you need to focus on another level of goals called process goals. “The outcome goal is the final result. Process goals are the things that you need to do to maximize your chances of getting there,” Emmerman said. The key difference is that outcome goals are, to a degree, out of your control. You can race the perfect race, suffer a flat two miles from the finish, and your goal is potentially lost. Process goals are what you can control and should focus on along the way to the finish line.

Emmerman gives an example of the rider who tends to drift too far back in the field before the climb. If they set a process goal of hitting the hill with the top five riders, they will increase their chances of achieving their desired outcome. It was exactly this sort of process goal that allowed Chad Haga of Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies to finish second overall at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal earlier this year. “Take stage 1,” Haga said. “We expected it to be a small group going crazy up the final climb at the finish and I knew I could do well on that climb. It came down to getting myself positioned and having good legs. So the question for me became what do I have to do to be in that group with good legs?”

Setting process goals starts with determining what you need to do to achieve your outcome goal(s). But that’s not all. Knowing the course so you can prepare for a big climb or key corner is also critical. Likewise, looking to your past will provide clues. “Each race you’re building on your own skill set,” Emmerman said. “You have to really look at yourself in the mirror and ask what are some things that are holding you back and how do you make sure you don’t keep repeating that same error.”

For Haga, nutrition was a key process goal. “It evolved from mistakes in the past — finishing a race with pockets full of food because I was too focused on racing, and that set me back for the next day,” he said. Haga now focuses on an eating schedule. “I try to eat a bar and a gel in the first hour. I have time checks to make sure I’m keeping up with my eating.”

All of this is how Haga has learned to try his best.

Staying on process

Once you’ve set your process goals, the trick becomes staying focused on those goals. But as Emmerman pointed out, “part of the process is knowing that you might forget some of the time.” Here are a few tips to help you stay focused.

1. Limit to three goals
Have three simple process goals each race and make sure one of them is taken care of beforehand. “Let’s say someone gets caught up in socializing and never has a good warm-up,” Emmerman said. “Process goal number one would be to work on your time management to get that warm-up in and eliminate it from the possibility of things that can hinder your results.”

2. Stay present
“By staying present in the here and now, you are going to remember your process goals because they will keep you focused on what you need to do instead of looking ahead to the podium,” Emmerman said.

3. Reminders and cues
Write down reminders and tape them to your handlebar, stem, or top tube if you have to. If you have a bike computer that accepts routes (such as the Garmin 510), place markers on the course to remind you to take action such as positioning for a climb.

4. Switch focus
It’s not uncommon for someone to say, ‘I was so focused on eating and drinking, I missed the break.’ Emmerman pointed out that “part of the process is learning how to reign in your focus to best take care of yourself and also zoom your focus out enough so that you’re staying aware of what’s going on around you.” Riders who are too externally focused should have internal process goals and vice versa.

5. Evaluate after each race
Emmerman recommends making a grid with a positive column for things you did well, and a negative column for things that you need to work on. “You can say, ‘I handled turns three and four well on the positive side, but didn’t handle the 180-degree turn well on the negative side.’ It gives you more specific things you can work on in the future,” she said.

Trevor Connor is a long-time cycling coach and researches both exercise physiology and nutrition at Colorado State University.