Our last guiding principle is process over outcome. Simply put, an athlete's focus should be primarily on the smaller process goals that are required to be achieved in order to reach the desired outcome.
Generally, you will have more control over the processes than you do over the outcome. It's important to define what you can actually control and spend the time focusing on that. Spending the time and energy to prioritise the process also places more emphasis on the journey you're undertaking and provides you with consistent opportunities to appreciate the milestones along the way. When you amplify the outcome you often miss the opportunity to appreciate the milestones that exist throughout the process.
Focusing on the outcome can place the stress of time on how you operate day to day. If you approach training with the mindset that you have to be in a certain shape by a certain date you're almost always setting yourself up for failure. The clock is always ticking and it's important to focus on training as a continuum and not a point in time where the binary outcome is win or loss. Focusing on the outcome also shifts the focus to external motivation and validation. We wrote about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation here: https://www.thedistancecollective.com/post/finding-the-fun-in-running-why-enjoyment-should-be-a-key-principle-in-running-coaching
Photo is of the last long run of my biggest ever training week and that was something to be celebrated on the way to a larger goal.
The psychology of the process
We know enough from the psychology of sports science to understand that process driven goals appear to be the most effective goal type for achieving positive outcomes, enhancing performance, and improving certain psychological outcomes (e.g. self-efficacy). Whereas performance, outcome, and social comparison goals have a moderate and negligible effect on performance and can result in maladaptive psychological outcomes (Williamson et al., 2022). Focusing on the process doesn't mean we don't have to set big goals. Rather, it means setting big goals and identifying the processes that lead to that goal, then allowing the goal to sit in the background while you focus on the processes.
One way of looking at the psychology of the process over outcome is through the lens of Hedonic Adaptation. The Hedonic Adaptation Theory refers to the notion that after positive or negative events, and a subsequent increase in positive or negative feelings, people return to a relatively stable, baseline level (Diner, Lucas & Scollon, 2006) To align this with running, if outcomes have a long term impact on our wellbeing, our happiness would be consistently compounding with every personal best or race win. This also assumes our baseline happiness would increase as a result. What we usually see as coaches is short term spikes in happiness followed by a return to pre-event levels of happiness. We've seen plenty of runners finally break 20 minutes in the 5km or 3 hours in the marathon only to arrive back at exactly the same place as they were pre outcome.
Anecdotally, we’ve seen a recent case of an athlete achieving their big outcome goal only to struggle with returning to their baseline level. Chelsea Sodaro won the Ironman World Championship in 2022 and found that following her monumental win, she descended into anxiety and depression as she struggled to handle the pressure of achieving a lifetime goal. The New York Times did an article with Sodaro which I’ll reference below.
Photo is of Chelsea Sodaro winning the 2022 Ironman World Championship in Kona.
So how do we shift focus from being outcome focused to process focused?
1. Embrace mindfulness and focus on where you are right now
2. Enjoy where you are right now and practice gratitude
3. Understand the tools and processes that help you develop day to day
4. Control the controllables
5. Aim for consistency over a long period of time
6. Lean on the people around and share your highs and lows
Diener, E., Lucas, R.E. & Scollon, C.N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychological Association, 61(4), 305–314. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.61.4.305
Futterman, M. (2023, March 31). Chelsea Sodaro Conquered Kona. Then the Real Struggles Returned. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/30/sports/ironwoman-kona-chelsa-sodaro.html
Williamson, O., Swann, C., Bennett, K.J.M., Bird, M.D., Goddard, S.G., Schweickle, M.J. & Jackman, P.C. (2022). The performance and psychological effects of goal setting in sport: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1750984X.2022.2116723