I often talk to kids/teenagers, especially visually impaired kids, about their goals. In case this is your first time reading one of my articles, I am legally blind. Because the setting is at sports camps we usually talk about goals in sports, but I always try to keep the topic general so it can apply to any area of their lives.
When I ask someone what their goals are with their sport, I usually get something like “I want to go to the Olympics or Paralympics,” or “I want to be a national, Olympic or Paralympic champion.” I hear that quit a bit from both kids and adults. They are always very clear on what they want to achieve but where they usually fall short is on how they are going to achieve this monumental goal. They usually have not given it that much thought. When someone tells me they want to win a gold medal in judo at the Paralympic Games and I ask them how they plan on achieving this goal they usually don’t really have any specific plans so they tell me they will train really hard and go to as many tournaments as possible. Training hard and going to tournaments are important but their really is a lot more to it than that. I do not claim to be an expert on goal setting, but I’m going to give you some of the ideas that I feel are important in goal setting, that I used myself when I was trying to reach my goal of wining a gold medal in Judo at the Paralympic Games.
The first step is you have to have a dream. I always tell people to reach for the stars. You may fall short but the higher you reach, the higher you will go. I always think of striving to achieve a major goal/dream like climbing a mountain. The peak is your ultimate goal, but you don’t just start climbing and expect to climb straight to the top in a straight shot. You have to break it down into smaller, attainable goals. These smaller goals, which I think of as plateaus on the mountain, are how you measure your success and ensure you are on the right path to achieving your ultimate goal. You have to set even smaller goals to help you reach each plateau. Then once you reach the first plateau you work out the path to reach the next and so on until you reach the top.
One big intermediate goal may be to win nationals in a senior or VI division. This is a big goal if you are starting out so you will need to break it down into smaller goals to help you reach this goal. For example if you are just getting into judo you might set a first goal of earning your yellow belt and then break that down into learning the techniques required for yellow and depending on your club’s rank requirements, competing in your first tournament. From there you might set your sights on earning your brown belt, as you have to be a brown belt to compete in the Senior division at nationals (in the US). This is just an example but the idea is that you set intermediate goals that will help you reach your overall goal then you set smaller goals to help you reach each intermediate goal.
It is important to remember that the first or even the second path you chose may not be the right path to the next plateau. If you goals are lofty, you will have pitfalls and setbacks along the way. This is where many people get discouraged and give up. I feel that if your dream is important enough to you, no amount of setbacks will stop you from trying to achieve your goal. When you have a setback it does not necessarily mean you are on the wrong path, but it is a good time to evaluate the path you are on. If you continue to have setbacks or come to an obstacle you cannot overcome, it is time to reevaluate the path and find a way around that obstacle and reach the next plateau. Overcoming obstacles in our path can be daunting, but you have to be driven and determined to either find a way over or around them.
All this climbing is hard work, especially when you have setbacks. This is why I feel it is very important to set rewards for achieving plateaus or even for overcoming obstacles in your path to the plateau. This is a part of goal setting I think a lot of people forget about so all they ever do is climb and climb and after several setbacks, get burned out and never reach their goal. When I started judo I was fighting at 86kg (189 lbs) and doing well in local tournaments but when I started going to bigger tournaments I was fighting guys several inches taller than me. I am 5 feet 7 ½ inches tall and I was fighting guys who were over 6 feet tall so I struggled with the tall guys reaching down my back. After struggling with the taller guys at the 1995 World Championships, where I won a bronze medal, my coach and I decided that I should go down to 71 kg (156 lbs). Well, actually he decided it would be best for me to go down and I agreed after some convincing.
So I decided I would spend the summer of 1995 getting my weight down. I took the summer off from school and worked on getting the weight down. It was very hard work but I fought in my first tournament at 71kg at Texas A&M University in August of 1995. My primary goal at the time was to win a gold medal at the 1996 Paralympic Games, in Atlanta at 86kg, so now I had to adjust my goal to win a gold medal at 71kg. To do this I had to adjust my intermediate goals, one of which was to make the weight by August and fight in the Texas A&M Tournament. To do this I worked out a training program consisting of weight training and cardio in the morning then lunch. Then I took 2 step aerobics classes taught by my Sensei, then a 10 minute break then judo practice. Then 2 days a week I was teaching a kids class where I would teach the kids and stay for an extra workout with the adult class. Then I would take a break and go for a run on the outdoor track near my apartment. I ran a minimum of 3 miles up to 5 and sometimes more, depending on how I felt, 4 days a week. And of course I had to adjust my diet as well. Fortunately the weight classes were changed after the Atlanta games so my weight went up to 73kg so I was about to gain a few pounds!
I’m telling you about this so I can tell you about my rewards. I set up weekly targets and if I hit my targets I would reward myself. My targets were all things I had to measure and I had to be honest with myself if I wanted to make the weight in time. If I felt I had good workouts and I pushed myself in practice and pushed hard on my runs and I hit my goal of at least 3 miles on every run, and I didn’t cheat on my diet and my weight was good, not even necessarily down but not up, I would reward myself. It’s easy to cheat and the only one watching was me, so I had to evaluate my training every Saturday after practice and decide if I had hit my marks or not, then if I did, I would go out to dinner and a movie with my friends, and even treat myself to a nice meal. I wouldn’t go overboard (most of the time) because I was eating really clean and if I ate too much fatty food it would make me sick. Sometimes I would go out to a club with my friends and listen to music. I was always the designated driver so I would get free diet soda. Don’t tell anyone that I was blind and not actually driving anyway. By sticking to my plan I made weight and took 2nd place in the tournament. I got caught in the final and unfortunately injured my shoulder so I lost that match but was pleased to have made the weight on schedule and overall fought well in the tournament.
Something else I feel is very important when setting goals is to write them down and look at them frequently. Writing them down makes them real, if they are just in your head it is easy to “forget” or let things slide. That is not to say you cannot change them if you write them down, it can be a fluid, ever changing document, but writing them down and displaying them in a place where you cannot avoid seeing them keeps them in the front of your mind and helps keep you motivated to continue working on them. I put my goals up in my dorm room when I was in college I even put up a picture of Richard Keeney who was the 1992 Paralympian I was going to have to beat if I was going to make the team at 86kg and I talked to that picture every day when I got up and every night before I went to bed. I told him that I was going to take his spot and that 86kg was my mine. Of course I went down in weight so we never fought and he was not on the 1996 team anyway but he was on the 1998 World team with me and we got a long really well. He was a little shocked when I told him about all the trash I talked to his picture. I don’t like trash talk, and I never talked trash to or really about anyone I fought but I did talk to that picture. It kept me motivated and got me out of bed every morning and made me train hard even when I didn’t want to train or I felt too tired. I would sometimes decide I was going to sleep in and I would look up at that picture and see my goals right next to it and I might have grumbled a bit about being tired or sore, but I got up and I trained, and I was almost always glad I did, and in 1998 when I won the World Championships in Madrid, Spain, I was very glad I did. Beating Rich was an intermediate goal towards my overall goal of the Paralympic gold.
After winning worlds in 1998 I moved to Denver, Colorado so I could train with the Paralymic coach, Larry Lee, full-time and train at the Olympic Training Center a few times a week. So I had to adjust my goals once again. My goals changed often, not necessarily my main overall goal but the intermediate goals. Goal setting is an ongoing process, you have your main goal that may or may not change but then you have all the intermediate goals, the plateaus on the mountain. Sometimes a path may be blocked or may not lead you in the right direction so you have to make changes. You may even have to back-track, but as long as you keep moving toward that main goal, you are moving in the right direction.
On October 20, 2000, I reached my goal when I became the first American to win a gold medal in either the Paralympic or Olympic Games. I remember being on the podium listening to my country’s national anthem and thinking that all those years of hard work had paid off and all that pain and suffering and agony was worth it. If you watch the video of the final match against China when I threw him for Ippon, and jump up and run back to my line, after my wife screams and runs down the steps, you can see me at my line walking back and forth talking to myself and I think I was saying something along the lines of “Oh My God, I actually did, I won! I actually won!” or something along those lines.
This was my overall goal and I did reach it but there are other goals that I did not achieve. I wanted to be the first visually impaired judo athlete to be nationally ranked and I did get on the national roster but my friend and teammate Kevin Szott beat me to it. He also wanted to be the first US gold medalist but I beat him to that, but he did win the next day and I was honored to be wearing my medal when I got to sit in the chair and coach him when he won his. I also wanted to make the Olympic team in judo but I never made it. It was not from a lack of effort though.
My point is that you may not achieve all your goals but I always tell my athletes that at the end of the day, if you know you did everything you could have possibly done to achieve your goal, you can hold you head high and be proud for the effort. It does not mean it will not hurt to fall short, of course it will, but when you look back you will at least know you tried and you didn’t just sit on the sidelines because you were to afraid to try.
If you fail to achieve you goal it does not make you a failure, but failing to try, that’s something you will have to decide for yourself.
My advice, be ambitious, shoot for the stars!
Thanks for reading.
I’ll talk to you soon,