Shooting the Moon: Will You Be the Next Cycling Superhero? – The Importance of Setting Performance and Outcome Goals

Only one person will win the next Tour de France or U.S. Men’s Professional Road Race. No one knows who it is yet, but we do know some important things about him: He is a hard-working, goal oriented rider between 18 and 35 years of age who is already racing for a top professional team and who has decided to win the race. He, his coach, his family and his friends expect him to win. He’s probably already riding for a top team and has certainly made it a goal to win bike races at the highest level. One person will win in each of the following years. Those people may or may not already be riding for top teams, and may or may not have decided to win the Tour or Natz. They are willing to to risk all for a grand dream.

Could you be one of them? Do you believe you could? "Impossible" is a dangerous word. It saves you from wasting time but when misapplied can prevent you from achieving your potential. Lazy and cowardly people routinely apply the "i"-word to challenges they perceive as difficult. The only way to find out if a desired outcome is truly possible for you is to pursue it continuously with utmost effort and all the support and resources you can bring to bear.

Does this frighten you? It means making yourself vulnerable to failure and also committing your whole self to a cause and a course of action. This commitment is necessary to real success. Two unavoidable parts of the process of achieving anything meaningful in life are deciding what you want and committing to achieve it. This is called setting a goal. You may or may not succeed after you’ve set a goal, but it is unlikely that you will achieve anything greater than the biggest goal you set. At Wenzel Coaching we encourage riders to develop at least one "shoot the moon" goal in cycling. We want you to pick the highest goal that you can imagine yourself achieving. We’re not talking about silly, arbitrary daydream goals, but things that you believe you might really achieve with enough hard work and enough luck. What is your "shoot the moon" goal? How could you get there? Are you willing to do the work? Is it more important to you to win bike races or to improve as a racer? If you are not satisfied with the outcomes you are achieving in your races, either because you are not winning or because you are not in the races you ultimately want to ride, you’ll need to improve some aspect of your performance. Maybe it’s your training, nutrition, preparation, emotional approach, or racing tactics that need adjustment, or maybe it’s something else. This is a question to take up with your coach.

To Win or Improve

No matter what is holding you back, to reach your shoot-the-moon goal, your answer to the question of whether you want to improve or to win has to be, "both!" Too many riders when setting goals for their racing year or career simply list the races they want to win or the times they want to ride on various courses, but not the changes they need to make in training and racing to win those races or ride those times. They don’t make the commitment to do what is needed to prepare for those events. They see every race they enter as an opportunity to win. Those who will eventually win at the highest level also see each race as an opportunity for improvement, a chance to identify or correct a limiter. If you don’t win and that’s all you take away from a race, not only have you not won that race, you’ve missed an opportunity to improve and win later as well.

One common approach to goal setting advocates that you set goals by time: what are your ultimate or long-term goals? What are the intermediate goals along the way, and then what are the short-term goals that will get you to the intermediate ones? Intermediate goals are usually things like upgrades, races to win or times to set, though these are sometimes long-term goals. Short-term goals may be training sessions or weeks or months of training. You are probably familiar with this idea of dividing goals by time scale. There may be several steps or short-term goals to get you to each intermediate goal. One error that a lot of beginning cyclists make and that a coach can help you avoid is forgetting the intermediate goals altogether, just thinking in terms of training and the ultimate goal without establishing benchmarks and necessary steps towards the goal.

Seek Guidance

My thinking when I was racing as a junior was something like this: I’ll do a bunch of long rides and then I’ll go to the Tour de France. Another week I figured out that I was too heavy to be a road champion, so my thinking turned to: I’ll lose ten pounds and go to the Tour de France. I had my VO2-max measured and scored 83.5 ml/kg•min, so I figured I really shouldn’t need to do much of anything but wait to be noticed and I would get to the Tour. Basically, I had no idea what it took to get to the Tour, so I did a lot of the right things, but with no overall plan my efforts were never going to get me anywhere near Europe. At 18 I had never been in the Tour or known anyone who had been. I had no clue what the needed steps might be. How much did I need to ride? What races did I need to win? Had I spoken with a rider or coach with more experience, I might have received the needed guidance, picked appropriate intermediate goals and achieved success.

Sports psychologists recognize the importance of short, intermediate and long-term goals, but also divide goals by whether they relate to a performance or an outcome. Outcome goals are what you want to happen: If you want to podium, finish with the main group or beat your old buddy, you have established an outcome goal. Most likely there will be many things you need to do just right to get the desired outcome. If you set out to draft closely, avoid using the brakes in corners, stay in an aero position, or eat and drink enough to fuel your body through the length of the race, you have established performance goals. Performance goals are things you need to do to reach your outcome goal. Performance and outcome goals are distinct in that your performance is generally under your control, but the outcome is not. If you want to win races, you need to make yourself strong and fast and tough and smart, and then you need to ride efficiently and ride hard at the right times, but even if you do all these things you may not win. You can train perfectly and ride a perfect race and still get thrashed if a stronger, faster, tougher, smarter or luckier rider enters your race. You can’t win without making yourself strong and fast and smart and so on though.

Build Motivation

Should you be happy or depressed if you ride really well and don’t win? If you see every race outcome as a test of your worth as a person, you’re going to spend a lot of time frustrated, depressed and angry. If you see each race as an opportunity to perform, a part of the necessary process of testing and growing as an athlete, you spend a lot more time in a positive mood, motivated to train and improve. If you make an error, curse and browbeat yourself a bit and swear that you will never make that error again, but then move on motivated to do better. If you ride well but don’t win, take the opportunity to identify a weakness, and then go to work on correcting it. That is, set yourself a new performance goal for the next race. Of course you are a competitive person, so there will be frustration when you don’t win, but the fact that in losing you have identified an area for improvement and that you have a new goal towards which to work should help you get over the frustration and back to the work of making yourself a better cyclist.

Motivation is one of the key benefits of goal setting: knowing what you eventually want to do keeps you motivated. Having some ideas how to get there makes it seem possible, and that helps keep you motivated as well. As a cyclist who has both won and lost a lot of races, I can assure you that winning feels great, but also doesn’t mean nearly as much as you might like. Unless we are talking about the professional World Championship or one of the major classics or tours, winning simply means that you were the best prepared or luckiest among the people who showed up. Especially if you won in one of the lower categories, the stronger riders were simply somewhere else that day. The glory of winning is fragile. You win one week and you’re high. You don’t win another and you’re devastated. All that you gain when you win can be taken away again.

What can’t be taken away is the progress you’ve made in your cycling fitness and skills. Those of course bring more of those delicious though fleeting victories. Savor your wins when you get them, but whether or not you win, set those performance goals. Think about what you could have done better and commit to doing it. Then you’ll have something to keep from every race. Unless you’ve already achieved your ultimate goal, this is something you must do. The best athletes don’t cut themselves a lot of slack. Those who don’t believe in the possibility don’t get to ride in the Tour or win nationals, and neither do those who don’t learn from their errors and overcome their limiters. The only truly impossible things are those that you don’t attempt.

This article was originally published in ROAD Magazine in October, 2007.