Goals that Change Lives
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 18th, 2011

In swimming – as in any endeavor – the highest purpose of a goal should be to transform the goal-setter in a significant and enduring way, not just provide a momentary milestone.  Thus, one test of the quality of any goal you set could be to ask “How can this change me or improve my life?” If the answer isn’t fairly obvious,  dig deeper into your reason for setting the goal. Ask yourself “Why” 3 to 4 times at steadily deeper levels of examination.

Today’s post was prompted by a comment by Peter Fabok, TI Coach in Slovakia, on What Kind of Goals Should You Set:

“Our goals should not be rigid, but should be set to grow with us.

Staying on the path of mastery means both:

1. Embrace and follow the continuous process of learning, improving and achieving; and

2. Learn how to set and redefine goals so they help us maximize our potential for creativity.

Our goals should demand focus in every moment and reflect the living dynamics of our personality.”

It was also prompted by an email exchange with my good friend Amby Burfoot, editor at large at Runner’s World, former Boston Marathon champ and convert to TI swimming. (See Amby’s blog here.)  I’d sent him and Mayo Clinic exercise researcher (and TI convert) Dr. Mike Joyner my swim practice from yesterday, inspired by a running workout they were planning to do. (Posted on TI Discussion Forum.)

Amby’s reaction was “Its funny how swimmer workout talk is so different than runner talk. I can barely follow this.”

Amby’s comment made me reflect on why my practices so little resemble a runner’s workout. A runner will generally consider (i) duration or distance, (ii) pace or effort, (iii) terrain or setting in planning. My practices involve all that, but also:

  • Four different strokes
  • Usually 3 or more different distances, at times changing distance every repeat.
  • Up to 4 different Stroke Counts, each having a distinct use,  requiring me to track, accurately calibrate and change counts  to optimize speed or efficiency.
  • Tempos – Same potential variation and application as Stroke Counts, but adjusted to the hundredth of a second over a range of more than a second, meaning potentially a hundred distinct tempos
  • Time – Similar potential variation of both of the above.

That makes eight potential practice variables I can include – sometimes all included in a single practice.  I’m not great at math but that list must allow thousands of possible permutations.

Applying Peter’s Principles for Goal Setting,  I plan such complicated practices . . . and the practices I plan today bear relatively little resemblance to those I did from my teens through my 40s . . . and I no longer train with Masters teams because on the verge of 60, I swim for fundamentally different reasons than I did earlier in life.  Before it was for physical activity. Now I take that for granted. Now I actively seek Peak Experience – a combination of physical and mental engagement that (i) Feels timeless and transcendent as I do it, (ii) Leaves me feeling physically energized and mentally elated as I complete; and (iii) Becomes powerfully addictive.

At this stage, and reflecting 45 years of ever-evolving practice, achieving Peak Experiences now requires me to design practices that combine Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty. (I should acknowledge that I chose these descriptive terms after reading David Brooks’s column Amy Chua is a Wimp in today’s NY Times. David shares my strong interest in what neuroscience reveals about personality.)

Arduous Experience can be both physical and mental. At its highest level it is both.  On the physical level that can be either about attaining a high level of efficiency, sometimes combined with a pretty intensive level of physical exertion. The most arduous experience involves precise and consistent execution of exacting tasks, far more than exhausting effort. As Peter says, it should require my highest focus in every moment.

Cognitive Difficulty is entirely mental and is the underpinning of exacting execution. In my case this requires planning, tracking, interpreting, and adjusting to a constant and heavy flow of information. Some is data — distance, stroke count, time, tempo – often changing at high frequency. Some is sensory — Balance,  Streamline and Propelling Thoughts, potentially dozens of them, the intentions that drive them and the sensations they produce.

So it’s reasonable that a runner whose workout experience involves relatively little change in the course of, say, an hour of road or trail running or tracking 3 variables during an hour-long track workout, would find it difficult to follow all the between-the-lines stuff — or even the stuff in the lines in one of my practices.

Likewise it would probably seem like brain surgery to a relatively new swimmer whose current goals are comfort and ease for 25, 100 or 1500 meters to follow what I do and why.

So the key idea is that my most fundamental goal is to routinely achieve peak experiences. I design practices which produce those.

While your Practice may be nothing like mine, your Goal can be precisely the same.

What Goal and what sort of Practice can help you routinely achieve peak experiences?

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