The Downsides of Performance Goals (or Why Letting Go Sometimes Leads to the Greatest Gains).

 

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By Dr. Allison Belger

I received a message on Facebook this week from a psychologywod reader who often responds with great ideas of his own.  This time, Fred Callori wrote,

I have become aware in myself and from observing others that there is this tendency to perform beyond our own personal expectations right after we decide that “we just don’t care anymore.”

How counter-intuitive does this seem? We stop caring, and we start meeting expectations that, just days ago, had seemed unattainable, despite our great focus and desire.  Anecdotally, though, this is a phenomenon that rings true.  I often work with people who are determined to reach certain fitness or physical goals, doing everything they are “supposed to do,” including caring a whole lot about the outcome.  But sometimes people get in their own way; investing so much of themselves in the desired objective may, in fact, prevent them from putting forth their best effort.  It’s as if the caring and obsessive focus on the goal makes people so anxious or afraid that they are unable to follow through.

We hear time and again that declaring a goal publicly is the first step in ensuring that we will stick with it.  We are told to share with friends and family our New Year’s resolutions: something about the act of telling other people leads to an accountability we might not otherwise capture. However, I do believe there’s another side to this approach; declaring goals out loud to others and professing that we will reach them can lead to a certain type of backlash.  So much unconscious material can become infused into our goals, especially when they involve our bodies—whether for esthetic change or for performance improvement.  As I’ve written about before here and here, we often project our past psychology into our physical selves in ways that are confusing, complicated, and difficult to unravel.  Our physical goals may then become more challenging than we ever imagined.

After all, for most of us, it’s no mystery how to lose a few pounds or run a faster mile at the track. It’s no mystery how to go from lifting 150 pounds off the floor to 175 pounds over the course of several months with regular, guided training sessions.  It’s not rocket science to follow a thoughtful mobility or yoga program and improve flexibility. And yet, so many of us set goals like these and fail to reach them. Until that magic moment when we decide to stop caring.

Admittedly this phenomenon doesn’t happen in a single moment, but it sometimes can occur pretty quickly.  You see, when we set goals, make them known to others (coaches, friends, family members), and enlist their help and support, we set in motion a wide range of interpersonal and psychological events, most of which are not consciously recognized.  We may, for example, replay an early relationship with our father, whose expectations could never be met.  We may recall feelings of envy for our middle-school friend who always beat us on the timed mile, no matter how hard we tried. On the other hand, we may be reminded of the envy felt by our best friend in high school when we made the varsity football team and he played on the freshman squad.  All sorts of internal material can be thrown into the mix when we care deeply about a performance goal and can’t quite seem to reach it, taking into account not only our own hopes and dreams, but the perceptions and judgments of others. Often these are projections of our own insecurities.

Sometimes the letting go of the goal and of the desire to perform allows us to shake off those demons, release ourselves from the intensity of the pursuit, and remove the relational and psychological implications of it all. With this release comes the possibility for our bodies to do what they have been striving for all along.

Makes sense, right?  Stop the madness of caring (and looping in all of those complex issues that make us human), and let your body do its thing.  I know it’s not always this simple, but then, sometimes it really is.  You can fight hard and persist to obtain a skill, lift a weight, run a certain amount in a certain time, lose pounds, achieve a muscle-up, win a tennis match, earn a handicap on the golf course.  But until you let go of all the loaded meaning that success and failure hold for you and your relationships, you may struggle in vain. This is what we mean when we say things like, “It’s all mental” or “If only my head didn’t get in the way.”

Let it go, People!  Sometimes you need to allow yourself the freedom from caring too much. Just get out there, relax, tone down the effort, enjoy your physical self, and you’re likely to make gains that were so elusive when you were trying too hard.

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Comments

  1. Robin Cadmus says:

    I read a book titled, The Inner Game of Tennis, years ago. I was about this very topic. Letting your brain do the work. Wish I would apply what I read. 🙂

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