Goals within Goals

One of the books that has influenced me as someone new to the field of coaching is Ignite the Fire: The Secrets to Building a Successful Personal Training Career by Jonathan Goodman. As the title indicates, the book itself is targeted toward people who work within the fitness industry, and most of the information that it contains is directed to that very specific audience.

However, there is one idea in particular within the book that I believe has relevance for others, particularly anyone who is either at the beginning of their path towards strength and fitness or—in the case of someone who has already been training for a while—who is experiencing lagging enthusiasm for or commitment to their workouts.

This idea, to put it in my own words, is that underneath most of our conscious goals are deeper, more emotionally relevant goals. Or, as described in greater detail by Goodman:

For example, a client might come in and say that he [or she] wants to lose 5 pounds. Or she says that she wants to run a 5K charity run in ‘x’ number of minutes. When you hear a goal like this, I suggest you ask, ‘Why?’… Five pounds isn’t the goal; the reason why your client wants to lose 5 pounds is the goal. For reasons unknown to you (whether the media, friends of hers, her own expectations), she believes that in order to achieve what she really desires, she needs to lose 5 pounds.

I definitely agree that it is important for us to be aware of the “Why?” behind our goals, and perhaps for even more reasons than those described by Goodman.

From what I have seen, it is often the case that the goals that people are most aware of are focused on changing some aspect of how their body looks and/or what it can do (e.g., gain 10 pounds of lean mass, deadlift 200% of body weight, fit into a certain item of clothing). There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, I think it’s quite natural. Also, these goals do have a place: for example, they tend to lend themselves well to being shaped into S.M.A.R.T. goals, or goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant (alternatively: sometimes the “R” is listed as Realistic, though because that is a bit redundant to “Attainable,” I prefer Relevant.)
  • Timely

However, there are two main problems at work if these are the only goals that someone is conscious of:

  • While someone’s desire for these outcomes is valid—and often very important to them—they are frequently rather superficial… and I’m not using superficial here in the sense of something that is untrue or insignificant, but rather as something that occurs at the surface of something that is much deeper.
  • These goals are often connected to a sense that who they are in that moment is somehow not good enough and must be changed in order to be a success.

This is where the “Why” comes in handy.

Maybe the desire to gain 10 pounds of lean mass is to be able to feel more solid, secure, and confident.

Perhaps the desire to deadlift twice one’s body weight is to gain a sense of self-efficacy, or to be able to be a better caretaker for a loved one with physical limitations, or to be more competitive…

And if it’s the latter, it will be worthwhile to ask “Why?” again. Perhaps competing (and, when possible, winning) provides a boost of self-esteem or a longer-lasting sense of accomplishment than is available to them elsewhere in their life. Or maybe it’s just a source of fun and excitement!

Maybe the desire to fit into a certain item of clothing is connected to the memories one has from the time when that item was worn a lot, such as an earlier time in a relationship or a more carefree time of life, and fitting into the clothing is less about the clothing size and more about how one once felt about oneself.

Maybe wanting to run a 5k in a certain amount of time also reflects one’s ability to keep up with one’s kids or grandkids, or to be able to dance for a longer amount of time when one goes out on the town, or a reclamation of a past injury or health problem.

Ah-ha! I've just figured out the
Ah-ha! I’ve just figured out the “why!”

These sorts of emotional reasons may not be measurable, but they do have depth. They can sustain us in our training when the S.M.A.R.T. goals feel unattainable or unimportant.

And here’s the best part: they don’t imply that our worth is limited by our physical appearance or capabilities. They uncover our very human needs for health, community, self-efficacy, fun, and confidence… needs that reach deeper than a desire for a certain shape, size, or powerlifting total.

As those needs are met through continued training and other aspects of self-care, our motivation for working out is freed from the self-judgments that are implicit in goals focused on changing our appearance. When that happens, the practice of strength and conditioning training truly becomes an act of self-love and a source of joy.

And that’s awesome stuff right there.

I encourage you all to consider the “Why” behind your goals. Keep asking, and allow your answers to grow and change. You might be surprised by what you learn!


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