Confidence, Competence, Comfort, and Goal Setting for the Masters Athlete

One of the biggest things I hear from clients is that they wish they had more confidence. That they wish they could somehow take their hopes and dreams and make them a reality. Usually at this point they start looking at setting some goals.

And then they fail.

Not surprisingly, when they fail, their confidence takes a hit, and they have more fear of any further attempts to accomplish this goal. Let me tell you why they fail.

Goal setting in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, most goals are not well thought out. The most common acronym used for goal setting is SMART. That is, to make your goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Based. For instance, a common fitness goal to lose some weight is usually seen as a poor goal because while it is entirely sensible and realistic, it has no time attached to it, or way of measurement. Generally, your guru would suggest that a better way to write that would be that your goal was to, “lose 5kg within 10 weeks”. By adding an amount and a time frame it brings it into focus more clearly.

And yest still people fail. In fact, when it comes to weight loss, most people never truly succeed and it’s entirely down to the way they think about their goals.

Most people don’t lose that 5kg and never gain it back. Most people lose that 5kg over and over again, always returning back to the same place as before. A continual cycle of what is called yo-yo dieting, where the cycle just repeats on itself. If you’ve failed to keep that 5kg off several times prior, how much confidence will you have in keeping it off this time?

When we make goals we open our mind to possibility. We can envision this other version of ourselves as fitter, leaner, or faster. However, the rational mind doesn’t allow you to live in daydream land, and this is where the “if you dream it you can achieve it crowd” fail. I can tell myself that I am going to run a sub ten second hundred metres as much as I like. My mind knows that is impossible and will stop me. After I’ve failed multiple times to become a ten second runner I will lose faith in my ability to accomplish my goals, and give up trying to accomplish other goals. Success is an amazing thing and a lot like money – when you have some of it, getting more is easy. When you don’t have any, getting even a little is difficult.

How do you fix that?

Well, for starters, you need to realise that what we often mistakenly call confidence is nothing more than a comfortable competence at a skill. If we think about physical skills – whether it be losing weight or running faster – they all have skill components. In the case of losing body fat the skills are in meal prep, tracking calories, and even cooking skills to make foods palatable longer term. When I hear from people they struggle to lose weight because they don’t like to cook all I can think is that it’s probably about time they learnt. But how do you start making healthy, tasty meals for yourself if you haven’t cooked for years?

You start with a better, smarter goal. Tiny little short term goals that allow you to have incremental wins. Maybe the first goal is simply to eat a high protein breakfast. A simple thing to do is make an omelette that will satisfy those needs. You crack a few eggs, whisk them, chop some vegetables to add to your omelette and it’s pretty easy from there. Sure, the first few may look a bit messy, but compared to a bowl of sugary cereal a messy vegetable omelette is miles better. So here we are, it’s 6am on day one of your diet, and you’ve already had a small win. How motivated are you going to be now versus if you’d tried something more complex and struggled with it? The former makes you feel good about yourself and eager to try something more later in the day. The latter may just be enough already to decide this is too hard and that losing weight is going to be impossible for you.

Getting comfortable with the process is where confidence comes from. Having consistent small wins at the important things is what matters to building competence and therefore confidence in yourself. I used this process myself when I tore my hamstring off the bone in 2001. I’ve been around sport enough to know the importance of having a hamstring for explosive actions. Having a significant injury to one is a death sentence to the competitive aspirations of many. Without one your hopes of running fast or jumping high are over and even with one reattached it will never be the same. Mine was a significant enough injury that only two surgeons in my city were willing to operate on me. So my first goal was actually to get in to see one of those guys quickly, and organise surgery just as quickly. I didn’t worry myself thinking about rehabiltation or what sports I might be able to play later. I just focused on getting in to see the surgeon.

My initial appointment with a sports doctor was a Monday. I had an MRI the next day. I saw the surgeon on that Saturday and was being operated on by Wednesday the next week. Given I knew someone who had been waiting for eight months just to get an appointment to see this surgeon for a first visit it says something about my determination to achieve this goal when I went from zero to an operation within ten days. The same actually held true for when I needed shoulder surgery. I had had to delay surgery due to some work obligations but I had scheduled an appointment with the surgeon on the day they finished and knew he was operating the next morning. I pleaded my case and was being operated on the next day instead of having to wait months.

With my hamstring I knew the road to recovery would be slow taking at least a year before any sort of genuine strength or fitness would be returned. Again, I set an immediate short term goal of making sure the wound healed fully. I had about eighty stitches total in the muscle and surrounding wound so there was a lot of potential for infection. Stitches normally come out between ten and fourteen days and at about the halfway mark I was out for dinner when I noticed my pants were stuck to my leg and I was bleeding through them. A quick trip to hospital showed that the wound was a bit infected and that some of the internal stitches weren’t breaking down as planned. In fact, they were trying to force their way out through the wound like a massive ingrown hair. The next morning my surgeon pulled out the knots much like you squeeze out an ingrown hair and the relief was instant. I got a round of antibiotics and a new dressing and went back to making sure I didn’t get any further infection. A week later and things were back to normal. My stitches came out as planned and I at least got to be able to have a shower without wrapping Glad Wrap around my thigh.

My next goal was to do whatever training I was told to do exactly to the letter. Once the stitches were out I was told I was not allowed do anything for the first twelve weeks. So I did nothing. It’s very difficult when you’ve spent years training regularly and moving a lot to sit still but that’s what I did. I set the goal to heal by following the doctors prescription to the letter.

Once I was allowed train it was very little at first. The first thing I was allowed do was swim with fins to ad some work in extension. So I swam daily with fins on. My simple goal of getting to the pool every day helped enormously. So far, in three months of rehab work I had three goals, if you’re counting – no infection, rest, swim. I made it no more complicated than that, achieved all my goals, and knew that when I was allowed train harder I would do well.

Fast forward to 2012 when I was at a conference and had the opportunity to do some force plate analysis work. I discovered that my left/ right balance was about seven percent in favour of my good leg. That’s actually not that bad as up to a ten percent difference is seen as normal. However, in running athletes less than five percent is desirable. At this point I’d gone from being told that I’d never run again to being within normal, although not athletic ranges. Over the course of the next twelve months I worked on that left/ right balance issue and got it down to within five percent. Oh, and I did an Ironman and several half Ironman races. Fair to say that my goal setting had accomplished what it set out to all those years ago to return my leg to being as strong and durable as possible.

If we contrast my healing and rehabilitation to the normal process we’ll see how powerful this small, incremental win strategy was. How many people do you know who are forty-plus and don’t do anything anymore because of a knee operation or having had a sore back one time? I didn’t just wait for my injury to become pain free. I rehabilitated it so I was able to go back to what was normal life for me.

I didn’t start with a goal to finish an Ironman. I started with a very small, easily achievable goal to get my leg to heal fully. Over time, as my confidence grew, I could take on bigger, and harder challenges. I’ve since translated that into even bigger and more audacious goals and succeeded in all of them. But I did it all by building confidence in myself with small achievable tasks, that ultimately made me comfortable with these new skills, just like learning to cook an omelette opened a doorway to cooking to healthily for me.

So don’t look for confidence. Look to make yourself comfortable with smaller tasks on the way. Break that big goal down into small chunks that the mind can envision. As your competence with these new skills grows, so will that confidence you seek.