Goals and Motivation, Part 1

Process Goals & Growth Mindset

Today’s student-athletes (at least in the Salt Lake City School District) are well-versed in terms like “growth mindset” and “process goals.” I certainly understand a racer’s frustration when their race result is not quite what they hoped, but I think having process goals and a growth mindset are good frameworks for student racers.

Whether or not you win a race is not always up to you. Someone probably has trained more than you have. Someone probably has better genetics than you do. The particular course may not suit your strengths. Your experiences at school, work, home, and elsewhere in life may create stress that impacts your performance. You may have the best training, the best genetics, the ideal course, minimal stress, perfect motivation, and excellent form–but it isn’t up to you whether a root may grab your tire or a rock may shred your sidewall. You can only control what you can control.

I prefer that our student-athletes have goals centered on them rather than centered on other things. Goals like: “ride consistent or negative splits;” or “nail my nutrition plan;” or “get through the rock garden cleanly;” and other goals focused on things you can control will make you a better racer (and person), even if they don’t necessarily make you a winning racer. Process goals, in fact, have been shown to make you a better racer.

A Story

One of my sons had a second row call-up in a field of nearly sixty racers, and the kids around him were kids with whom he had raced and trained for years. He knew the course as well as any of them. But when a competitor made an unsafe pass, my son found himself in a pileup with kids with broken and/or dislocated bones. My son was run over three times (including once across his throat) while he was on the ground. I was both panicked and furious, but my son gathered himself, now at the back of the field, hopped on his bike, and recalibrated.

He knew he could no longer win the race, but he quickly recalibrated his plan and goals. The race had been delayed by weather then shortened because of daylight, so he had just over four miles in a single lap race, and he made a goal to catch and then pass the rider in front of him. His next goal was to catch and pass the next rider. And so forth. By the end of the race, he had passed over 40 racers and finished 15th. He was absolutely capable of finishing higher than 15th, but finishing higher than 15th wasn’t in his control. Instead, he raced his race and had one of the most inspiring races I’ve watched.

I don’t have that kind of resilience, that ability to recalibrate, or that level of calm in the midst of chaos. But I (and you) can develop that mindset.

Another Coach’s Perspective

One of my favorite coaches and thought leaders is Steve Magness. He provided some valuable thoughts that apply to life, not simply athletic performance:

When I was in high school, I was a running phenom, reaching #1 in the nation. 

Then I largely failed. I never improved. 

Here are 9 lessons for the driven that I wish I knew when I was obsessively training and neglecting just about everything else: 

1. Being really good at something at a young age narrows your world. 

It seems like nothing else matters. That’s false.

We need mentors and adults in the world to provide perspective. Having the ability to zoom out is one of the most important skills you can develop. 

2. Hard work absolutely matters. 

But so does recovery, so does having friends, family, and hobbies, and other outlets. I know that sounds sacrilegious to the ‘pushers’, but there’s a reason why Nobel Prize-Winning scientists are 3x as likely to have a hobby. We need a break. 

3. Obsession can be both a gift and a curse. 

It all depends on how you utilize and handle it. Treat it with care. Learn how to direct it and use it when you need it. Learn how to turn the dial down, relax, and be in the moment. 

4. Separate your identity from what you do

When you tie your identity too closely to what you do, anytime you fail at that thing, you will take it as a failure of your true self. It won’t be that I failed at running. It will [be that] I am a failure.

If you can’t separate yourself from what you do, the losses will hit particularly hard. Instead, embrace your complexity. Understand that running is something that you are really good at. It’s a passion. Embrace how much you care about the sport. But remember it isn’t who you are. 

5. Develop a Short Memory and Stop Comparing

Comparisons lack context. We aren’t terribly kind or rational when it comes to our evaluations. We look to our best performance and have amnesia on the rest. 

6. Don’t get stuck in comparison mode. 

Don’t look fondly at the glory days and think that they hold some secret to success. It worked in that moment. That moment is now gone. 

Focus on what you can do at the moment to get better. Not what worked or didn’t in the past. 

7. Keep things in perspective. 

No one really cares how fast or slow you run in circles, or whether you published in some magazine or not. The only people who truly care will be there even if you fail at all of those things.

The people who leave, don’t really matter. 

8. Don’t Follow Your Passion. Do Interesting Things

Passion isn’t attached to a singular item. It isn’t a magical soul mate that will solve all of your woes. Passion is something to apply. It’s a state that lies in the interplay of interests, obsession, & curiosity. It’s a tool 

9. Keep it simple. Do interesting things.

That alone is the real key to success. Interests allow you to explore. 

Allow your interests to percolate, fuel the ones that show promise, and the rest of the process will largely take care of itself. 

10. Don’t let your goals weigh you down.

Concrete goals are good and fun…until they aren’t.

Your goals will slowly shift from aspirational to anchors. While well-intentioned, the very things that may motivate and push you forward can ultimately weigh you down. 

Instead of placing the focus firmly on an external result, shift the focus internal. You can’t truly control if you ever run a mile in under 4 minutes, or write a NYT bestseller. 

11. What you can control is getting better.

Being a better runner, person, and student. 

12. Don’t force things.

You are going to experience some tremendous highs and some depressing lows. You’ll question why you do this sport, your job, and much more. At times, life will appear meaningless. 

When you force things, you become anxious, and you press. 

You start pushing the boundaries of your principles as the external result begins to supersede the work. Don’t let it. 

You can’t shove your way to success. 


Whether you win a race is not always up to you, but whether you learn and grow certainly is. The cliche is accurate: you can learn more in defeat than you can in victory. Try setting some process goals and see how the process informs your racing and increases your enjoyment of riding.