Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Raise your standards.

I was re-reading Tony Robbins “Awaken the Giant Within” book earlier this week. I am a big fan of his. I like the whole concept of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and it strikes me that there is great benefit to being an active programmer vs doing what most of us do and let society type the code for our lives. But I digress….

In the first chapter of the book, Robbins makes the following statement:

“If you don’t set baseline standards for what you’ll accept in your life, you’ll find it easy to slip into behaviours and attitudes and a quality of life that’s far below what you deserve”

This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this applies to athletics. The concept of setting minimal standards, expectations that you resolve to hold yourself to seems like a very common trait among winners.

Gordo has spoken frequently about the importance of out-performing the expectations that you set for yourself. And yet, so many of us keep falling into the same habits and making one of the 3, what I consider, critical errors that hold us back from expressing our potential:

1. Failing to set standards
2. Setting unachieveable standards
3. Setting overly complex standards

Let’s look at the first. For many of us, triathlon represents a recreational pursuit or a hobby. In the big picture of what’s important in our lives it may not rank at the top of the list. Because of this, many of us don’t get to the point where we set the same standards for the athletic role in our life as we do for some of our other roles.

For example, you may have impeccable work standards (whether implicit within your employment or not) that include:

* I will be on time for work each morning
* I will be productive throughout the day
* I will dress professionally

Maybe even:

* I will move up the corporate ladder by consistently out-performing my peers

Likewise, at home you probably have standards for yourself as a father or mother that ensure that your end goal of raising a happy and productive child is reached.

In both of these roles, the end goal dictates the standards that must be followed. If you stop showing up on time for work each morning, your goal of a long and happy career will probably be compromised.

Yet, all too often, as athletes we set goals with passion and good intentions but no accompanying standards.

Not only do I find this to be a shame as a coach, but I also think it largely ignores the importance of physical fitness to your larger goals. It may be worth checking out the angiograms of the CEOs of the fortune 500 before deciding that you want to join them!

Put simply, irrespective of how important triathlon as a sport is in your life, the importance of physical fitness to your larger life demands that you set some minimal standards for yourself.


Now, on to the second common error when setting standards, the all too common “New Years Resolution” syndrome…..

The couch potato rises from the sofa on January 1st and declares: “This year I’m going to work out 4 hours every day and race the Hawaii Ironman.”

Honestly, this is a better goal than most folks set because it at the very least contains some assessment of what the goal setter ascertains the ‘cost’ of the goal to be. We could say that this is a SMAT goal, but it’s missing one key element that would make it a SMART goal – Realism :-)

And so, the goal setter is left with a good intention rather than a standard and so the goal is abandoned and the cycle goes on.

Appropriate standards are built upon previously demonstrated performances not pipe dreams.


And, finally, the problem of setting overly complex standards. This stems from not having a firm understanding on what elements are essential to the goal.

First a personal anecdote on this one: A couple of years ago I went through the goal setting process with the G-man. I rocked up to our meeting with notes and notes about what I thought I needed to do to achieve my goals. I took out what I had written on health and nutrition. I’m sure I had set goals for every macro and micronutrient known to man. Gordo took a pen drew a line through it and wrote this:

“Eat more. Eat more often.”

Point taken.

Occasionally I will have a novice athlete tell me that they couldn’t complete a workout because they; forgot their heart rate monitor, didn’t have access to a pool to complete the scheduled swim workout, weren’t able to run on their usual measured course etc.

To be sure, I love data and equally love measured, controlled workouts, but even I would be ready to admit that these elements are not essential to achieving your athletic goals.

A standard such as: “I will achieve 2hrs of aerobic training each day” is much more likely to happen than a standard of: I will accomplish:
- One threshold swim per week for 3000m at 1:30/100
- One hilly bike w/10x30s hill repeats at 200-240W
- One track workout of 10x800 with each under 3:00
- Etc.

This is not to say that these session goals are not appropriate or optimal but, in the name of compliance, especially when starting out, it is most important to distinguish the optimal from the essential by answering that one important question “what will it really take to make me a better athlete?” As Pareto observed, where my athletes are concerned, 80% of their improvement in results will be explained by 20% of the suggestions that I give during our many hours of conversations. While I spend a lot of my time optimizing my athletes’ programs (largely because I get a kick out of it) hopefully I also do a good job of distinguishing ‘the essentials’.

Put simply, the essentials that matter for most of my guys are:
- Doing more work than last season
- Focusing more of the work on your weaknesses
- And for more advanced athletes, distributing the work more intelligently, with more attention given to appropriate recovery

This leads to the following list of day to day standards that really do matter….
· I will get 8hrs of sleep every night
· I will eat real foods away from training and only use sports nutrition for the long stuff
· I will get 2 strength sessions completed each week
· I will do yoga 3x per week
· I will do 1-3hrs of aerobic training each day
· I will do one big day each week.

While standards should be set based upon a 100% compliance intent, it is important for the sake of your own integrity that acceptable exceptions be ‘put on the table’ from the outset. Often these exceptions can be headed off at the pass before they become an issue. Either way, the important people in your life (your partner, your boss, your kids, your coach ;-) need to know what they can expect from you and more importantly, you need to know what you can expect from yourself.

For the closing word, I turn back to Tony, somebody who transformed his life from that of a depressed, unemployed, out of shape, single guy living in a run down studio apartment to living the life of a multi-millionaire with wife, family and all the trappings….

“When people ask me what really changed my life 8 years ago, I tell them absolutely the most important thing was changing what I demanded of myself. I wrote down all of the things that I would no longer accept in my life, all the things I would no longer tolerate, and all the things I aspired to becoming”

When it comes down to it, the key to every PR you set in life doesn’t come from discovering a new secret tool or program, but rather from progressively raising what you expect of yourself.

Train Smart.



ll said...

funny thing you wrote this (again awesome) piece right now. I just set myself a very challenging goal for this year and I just better believe it is a SMART goal with that R in there :-)

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jaakko,

My sense is that guys who live the sport day in day out like yourself have a better sense of the 'R' than most :-)

All the best for a great 09!