When I think about it, I’m aware that I seem to anticipate the New Year with a combination of renewed optimism and underlying misgivings. I’m reminded of the reoccurring Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy offers to hold the football for Charlie Brown, then inevitably, snatches it away at the last instant. Every year, in spite of his previous experience, Charlie becomes convinced that this year, Lucy might actually hold the ball in place so that he can kick it, yet every year she tricks him.
I’ve come to feel that way about New Year’s resolutions. Every year I think about a few aspects of my life that could be improved and resolve to make some changes. Inevitably, I get a few days or weeks into the new year, forget or simply ignore my resolutions, then abandon the whole effort as a failure. This recurring scenario is especially frustrating because for many years I was a competitive athlete, followed by a couple of decades of fairly high-level coaching. Goal-setting is a vital skill for successful athletes and coaches and was an important aspect of my competitive and coaching philosophy. What makes it even more embarrassing is that back in 1992, I wrote a book about Nordic skiing in which I included a section devoted to the importance of goal-setting.
Even though I haven’t competed for a while, it was helpful to glance back at what I had written 23 years ago for some help in setting New Year’s resolutions that might stick.
It is important for elite athletes to establish goals that are appropriate, possible, but also, not easily within reach. As a college ski coach, I frequently had athletes express their ultimate objective as skiing in the Winter Olympics. While for some, this might have been a reasonable, ultimate goal, for most of them a more appropriate immediate target might have been missing only one workout a week. On the other hand, I remember a very talented incoming freshman who, as an Alaskan high school student, had represented the forty-ninth state with impressive results in four, successive Junior National Championships. I was surprised and a little chagrinned when he informed me (with the independence and self-confidence typical of Alaskans) that his goal for his first year at college was to return to the Junior Nationals for a fifth time, rather than to compete at the NCAA Championships.
Since positive feedback is an important factor in the successful achievement of any goal, I’m a big believer in multiple goals. While only a few, elite athletes can realistically aspire to win the events they enter, most avid or even weekend runners can tell you their P.R.’s (personal records) at various distances. I spent years trying to improve my marathon PR of 2:43:05, but the many races where I fell short of that goal were not failures. Thankfully, most running and skiing events are divided into 10-year-age increments so even if you finish well back from the winners, you still may place very well in your age group.
Since we have no control over other competitors, I resist setting goals related to other athletes, even if we seem to be battling it out with the same age-group rival every weekend. A better approach would be to estimate a finish time that would assure us placing ahead of the rival and focus on that time as the goal.
An additional characteristic of successful goal-setting is specificity. All too often, I heard skiers say, “I just want to go faster,” or “I want to finish higher on the results sheets.” The more specific and clearly articulated the goal, the more likely it will be achieved. When President Kennedy stated in the early 1960’s that “we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade,” there was nothing wishy-washy about the objective.
So, in 2015 I resolve to: #1, lose weight, #2, get more exercise and #3, re-establish a healthier balance between work obligations and family activities. Specifically, that means: #1, taking smaller portions and avoiding desserts, #2, scheduling at least an hour of outdoor, physical activity at least five days each week and #3, committing to at least one day per week focused exclusively on family activities and free of work-related obligations. Another powerful enhancement to any goal or resolution is to actually write it down and post it where it can be easily viewed.
“So, Lucy, are you really going to hold the football in place this time…?”