Friday, 16 October 2009

The Importance of Setting Relevant Goals

                       The legendary Wolfgang Gullich on Action Directe 9a  

Setting goals is an excellent way to push ourselves beyond our current limits. Measuring progress is made significantly easier when you have an end point to measure against and it facilitates the direction of our mental energy towards achieving a single quantifiable objective.

That being said, we often use goals inefficiently; confusing them with the more romantically appealing but ultimately less practical "dream". The Oxford English dictionary defines a dream as "a cherished ambition or ideal; a fantasy". What relevance to our physical and mental expansion can a fantasy have? I would expect very little.

For example, I regularly meet young climbers who are fairly new to the sport (a year or two of experience) who when asked what their goals are will reel off a list of cutting edge classics such as Wolfgang Gullich's Action Directe (The worlds first 9a climb) and Parthian Shot E9 6c!. When asked what they are currently climbing they respond sheepishly with the beginner-intermediate grade expected from a climber of their experience. Now before anyone crucifies me for elitism or some other such offence, I'd like to make it clear that I'm no grade snob. I don't think the unlikely dream of one day climbing Action Directe shouldn't be held by an aspiring young climber -on the contrary- it just cannot be justified as a reasonable goal and therefore will often waste attention.

In directing our goals at the cutting edge, we often fail to pay the necessary attention to the relevant goals that are only just beyond our capabilities. An intermediate climber who on-sights 6c is far better off focusing their energy on on-sighting 7a than on dreaming of 9a. Just as a young Traceur who has recently learnt to Kong vault would benefit more from consolidating this relatively basic move before attempting it at height or in combination with other moves.

A goal should be:
1) easily measured
2) aimed at building on our weaknesses as well as our strengths
3) just beyond our current accepted capabilities; the next logical step

The first is obvious. We can't ever achieve a goal that we can't measure. Less evidently; people tend to lose motivation if they don't have a certain degree of perceived progress. You may be improving but it's important to find a way to measure that progress to keep up morale.

The second is very important as in whatever we do, our abilities and skills are always limited by the weakest link in the chain. A strong overhang climber who neglects slabs will be hindered by this weakness when climbing on Welsh slate. Additionally, the footwork skills learnt on slabs will directly improve the climbers overhang skills.

The third point is the main one of my argument. In my opinion, the most valuable lessons are always learned in the area just outside of our comfort zone. Stay within that zone and your development will stagnate. Push too far beyond it and you may get caught up in dreams of grandeur and lose sight of the valuable lessons close at hand. Learning advanced lessons are often dependant -completely or in part- upon the lessons learned at a lower level. Attempt to progress too quickly and you may stagnate once more. The lessons just outside our comfort zone are the ones most relevant to us, the ones most easily learned and the quickest route towards achieving those dreams.

A personal experience from the Gymnastics Rings showed me the importance of building up basic strength in the support position and with ring dips before training towards harder moves like the Muscle up and Iron Cross. After months of training these simple manoeuvres, I attempted the muscle up on the rings and was pleased to find it come quite easily. Friends of mine who attempt to skip straight to the Muscle up often lose motivation due to their slow progress in developing the strength far more easily achieved through the basics. For more information see my Muscle Up guide).

•A Traceur is someone who practises Parkour/Free-running meaning literally "tracer bullet".

• To on-sight a climb is to ascend it on the first attempt without knowing of the moves involved. 


  1. rich, have you thought about getting into kind of NLP and sports performance as well as training at high level?

  2. Hi Ida, I've read a book on neuro-linguistic programming but would need to learn a good deal more before advising people on it professionally. It's something I intend to look into further to improve my abilities to train others. Thanks for the comment:)

  3. Rich, good article as always. It's far to easy to live our lives in the future rather than rooting them in the moment and the present. Living ( & training) in the here and now is the key to performance improvement. On a different note I have started a new blog and wondered if you would like to write a guest post?

  4. Hi Rich, great post. Too many people overlook logical progression, and end up either losing interest due to stagnation, or having huge gaps in their skillset, which often leads to injury (speaking as traceur, not climber).
    I take it you've been reading some Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? Good stuff.

  5. Hey J, your point applies to climbers (and others) too. I feel that this is an area which can be applied to most sports and that not enough thought goes into mental preparation. If elite athletes can benefit from sports psycology, then so can we! I haven't read any Csikszentmihalyi but I'll take it as a recommendation. Thanks for the comments.

  6. Excellent post, helped me a lot. thanks.