Article by Hunter Kemper, Olympian Triathlete
It was an event I’d been eagerly anticipating for six months straight, but the Olympic trials in San Diego, California, didn’t exactly start off the way I had imagined. I came out of the water in twentieth position in a 75-person field, I finished the bike portion of the race in fifteenth position, and now it was on to the run. Two miles into the 10k race, I found myself in fifteenth position and growing more concerned by the minute that I wouldn’t make it back to the Olympic Games. I knew I had to finish in the top nine overall in order to secure a spot on the American team; was this even possible now?
For the previous six months I had trained such that the last 5k of the run during my last chance to qualify for the Olympics would be the strongest part of my entire race. I’d prepped my body to be the tortoise among hares, and as the old fable would attest, the tortoise did okay. Now I was here. How I hoped I’d remember what I learned.
As I approached that final five kilometers of my run to the finish, I was pacing to be the third American to finish—and was clearly outside the overall top ten. But instead of obsessing over how imperfectly things were going, I trained my thoughts on process instead. I focused on quickening my leg turnover and on relaxing my shoulders and on quickening my leg turnover even more. With one mile remaining, still I was outside the top ten, and so I went to process once again: stay in the moment, quicken leg turnover, keep your shoulders loose.
The final eight hundred meters came and went, and I had moved up from outside the top ten to finishing fifth overall and first among Americans. I was headed for my fourth Olympic Games, and process, not perfection, had gotten me there.
Whether you’re a professional athlete or a recreational competitor, you’ve probably noticed that there is no such thing as a “perfect” race. Maybe you wake up on race day with a stuffy nose. Or maybe it’s one hundred degrees outside. Or maybe you had a horrible night’s sleep and are bleary-eyed even after a strong cup of coffee. Countless thousands of imperfect factors can potentially keep you from reaching your goal, but that is no reason to despair. When things are far from perfect, focus on your process goals instead.
§ If you’re not feeling 100 percent, focus on holding your pace one mile at a time.
§ If it’s sweltering outside, focus on the cool water you’ll drink at the next aid station.
§ If you begin to fatigue mid-race, focus on a landmark up ahead, and steadily increase your speed until you reach that mark. (For me, whenever my legs get heavy while running, I aim for leg turnover of ninety steps per minute.)
Process goals help train our thoughts on helpful aspects of competing, instead of allowing them to dwell on what’s not going well. They help us stay mindful of our desired outcome—whether it’s winning an individual race, or pointing an entire training season toward a broader goal.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Currently, I have an outcome goal of qualifying for my 5th Olympic Games. To achieve this, I know I’ll have to set specific process goals that I’ll focus on along the way to Olympic Trials. It’s important that I begin to concentrate on the little things that aid to my success. I may be exceptionally rigid about my diet. I may pay special attention to recovery, ice baths, and getting adequate sleep. I may have to limit my travel commitments during the days leading up to the big event. Regardless of the specific process goals I set, the key is I’m constantly pushing myself to get that overall outcome goal hit.
Just as was the case for me in San Diego, there are always myriad factors outside of our direct control. But a true athlete focuses on those things she or he can control. Process, not perfection—this is what makes competing worthwhile.