With the new year upon us, many of us are thinking about setting new goals or resolutions for 2017. I’ve decided not to set goals at this point. I set SMART goals for tennis in 2016 and honestly I don’t believe that they affected my actions throughout the year. I achieved some and didn’t achieve others but don’t believe I was guided to this by my goals.
Also, they just sort of hung over my head, making me feel guilty that I wasn’t doing the activities I knew I “should” be doing to achieve my short-term goals, and feeling dread at the prospect of my long-term goal deadline drawing nearer.
How did I do?
I achieved some of my goals and not others. Here’s a visual:
I achieved one of my short term goals – to stay injury free – without doing the activities I thought I’d need to get there to get there. And I didn’t improve my mental game even though I did most of the associated activities (and really, I did do a lot of meditation, just not in the way I’d defined).
What went wrong?
I set my long-term goal to be to play in an ITF event in 2017 – after I would have hopefully achieved the goals of staying healthy enough to practice a lot, improve my first serve speed, and learn how to control my stress and negativity on the court. I was basically saying “I’m not confident enough to compete at a higher level now, but I will be once I achieve these short term goals.”
By saying this, was telling myself that I will not be confident in my game until I improve certain aspects. I’m saying I’m not ready to put myself on the line in a larger tournament and it’s not worth competing until I can perform in a certain way. I’m saying that if I achieve my short term goals, only then can I achieve my long-term goal of, essentially, confidence and self-belief in tennis.
My number one challenge in tennis is the mental game. I get nervous in matches and can’t play with relaxed focus, but instead can feel my muscles tightening up and my mind racing as I go into fight or flight mode. But beyond that, even in practice, I have a tendency to overthink everything, to put a lot of pressure on myself to improve and to be frustrated when I don’t see the progress I want to. And honestly because of this sometimes tennis is just mentally exhausting for me.
I set my 2016 goals in the hopes they’d help with this. I had a short term goal (not really a SMART goal but I didn’t know how to define it) of “improve mental game.” I came up with a series of activities like yoga and meditation that I thought would help with this. I also thought that improving my serve would give me more confidence in my game – something I’m lacking.
But what if my goals – a series of expected outcomes – were just adding fuel to the fire?
What if my goals were just giving me additional measuring sticks to compare myself to? While seeing progress can be motivating, not seeing the progress you want or expect can have the opposite effect.
This isn’t necessarily true for everyone. For some people, not seeing desired results would push them to work harder, to focus more, and on the court this could translate into a competitive edge. For me, though, I have a tendency to be too hard on myself – to see the shortcomings in my game instead of the strengths, and I know for a fact that this mindset doesn’t help me in practice or in competition.
I’ve realized that, in tennis, I’m always chasing something. Chasing improvement. Chasing wins. Chasing better opponents to push me. Chasing better instruction. Chasing confidence. Even if I do this in a very action-oriented way, I’m always focusing on the difference between where I am now, and where I want to be. And no matter where I get, I’ll always want to be somewhere else (there will always be a better opponent to play, a faster serve, a bigger trophy, steelier nerves).
The Problem with Goals – We’re Never Happy
Jess Lively, host of the The Lively Show podcast and a huge inspiration of mine, says in this interview on Fizzle that the constant focus on the distance between where you are now and where you want to be “makes it very hard to be fully grateful, fully fulfilled and fully joyful.”
Because we’re always wanting to be somewhere else, we’re never happy with where we are now. While this can be helpful in getting us out on the practice court after a loss, it can also lead to a lot of judgmental thinking, which, I’ve found, is a major problem for me in tennis.
In the interview, Jess discusses a 3-tier framework of living:
- Having – this is the least intentional and refers to the idea that having things will make you happy. In tennis this could be having a deadly backhand or trophies. The problem with these things is that they’re typically beyond our control – what if you break your arm and your backhand is never the same, or you come up against a better opponent and you lose a match? If these things define your success, you will feel like you’ve failed.
- Doing – this is more intentional, and is the act of focusing on the doing of things. So instead of chasing the win, you focus on doing the things that you believe will make you win, like practicing your technique or relaxation techniques. I believe this is where my short-term goals and activities lay in 2016 – they were all about doing things to that I believed would lead to satisfaction in the game. However they still created a lot of focus for me on where I am now compared to where I want to be (thus saying I’m not where I want to be now).
- Being – the being level is all about “living your values in the present moment given your current circumstances, and the big shift is that you don’t actually climb the mountain, you start from the top and you work your way down.”
Jess believes that by choosing to live from our values we can experience happiness right now. We can choose actions that align with our values and experience joy and fulfilment in the present moment. This is in contrast to believing we’ll be happy when we achieve something we think we want (having tier) or are working towards achieving things we think we want (doing tier).
By playing tennis in the being tier – playing according to our tennis values – we can focus on who we are on the tennis court rather than what we achieve or what we’re working to achieve. We can choose the mindset we bring to the court and this doesn’t have to depend on anything external that we may or may not be able to control.
But if I’m happy where I am now, then what will push me to get better?
If you value improvement, you will practice. If you value courage under fire, you’ll compete. If you truly value these things – if your drive comes from the heart – you don’t need a carrot dangling at the end of a stick to push you forward.
So how do we go about playing from our values?
Jess recommends setting “values-based intentions” instead of goals. If you want, goals can also be set to measure your progress, but you need to be careful with goals since they can shift the focus from being to doing and wanting.
What’s the difference between Intentions and Goals?
- Goals have an endpoint. Intentions are enduring.
- Goals are achieved in the future. Intentions are lived in the present moment.
- Goals define a specific outcome. Intentions define how you relate to outcomes.
- Goals communicate wants. Intentions communicate personal values.
Tennis Example – Goals vs Intentions
Setting a goal to do serve drills daily and improve your serve speed by 10% is fine until your shoulder gets sore and for the next couple of weeks you have to stick to off-court training and some light groundstrokes. Your daily routine gets derailed and you might not achieve your goal.
Instead, you could set an intention to improve your serve using a wide variety of tools and methods. You might then spend your injury time reading, watching videos and improving your strength and mobility.
The goal and the intention both say that you value improving your serve and might even result in similar behaviour, but your intention endures throughout changing circumstances like your injury, and you don’t have the negative feelings associated with not achieving your goal. The intention will also continue even after your serve has improved by 10%, you don’t have to set a new intention.
Intentions are Simpler to Follow than Goals
If we know our values, then all we need to do is act according to them. Every time you have to make a decision, just ask yourself, is this in-line with my values? If it is, do it. If it isn’t, don’t.
I have a tendency to overcomplicate things (if this isn’t obvious you haven’t read much of this blog). Simple is good for me.
We don’t have to have weekly plans, logs where we record our actions and progress and quarterly check-ins in order to play from our intentions. I actually did this to try to stick to my goals for the first few months of 2016 until it became very tedious and also difficult because I’d already veered off-course.
If you do something not in line with your intentions (which you will) just resume with the intention. Every week, every day, every minute, every breath is a new opportunity to play tennis from your values. Just because you threw a temper tantrum on court doesn’t mean you can’t use your next breath to refocus and play calmly for the rest of the match.
How to set intentions
Setting intentions based on your values helps verbalize and prioritize what values are most important to you right now, and which values you’ll be drawing on to be the tennis player you want to be.
Intentions can just be a statement of your values (i.e. joy, compassion, determination), or you can construct short sentences if you want to direct your values towards something specific you want to work on.
For instance, you could say “I intend to eat and exercise to fuel my body on the court.” When that second piece of chocolate cake is calling your name, you can use this sentence to remind yourself that you value making healthy choices to benefit your game.
Or, look at your existing goals (if you don’t have written goals just think about things that you want to achieve) and see if you can reframe them as intentions. Your goals likely reflect your values, and you can turn them into intentions by removing the metrics and making them things you can live out right now.
I think that my 2016 goals reflect a few of my tennis values:
- Increase serve speed and play at higher levels → Continual growth and improvement
- Work on the under-practiced aspects of my game like the serve → Complete Game
- Staying injury free → Health
- Improve my mental game → Fearlessness, Confidence
Based on this list of values and the particular challenges I’m facing in tennis right now, my tennis intentions are:
Can we intend to be Fearless?
Notice that I didn’t say that I will be confident or fearless. In my experience, these are not within my direct control. I can’t choose to be confident or fearless. I think these states are by-products of not chasing outcomes and staying in the present moment.
However, regardless of my intentions to stay present and value improvement over winning, there will undoubtedly be times that I feel fear on the tennis court. My intention is to be ok with this fear. To not get angry at myself for feeling it. To not let it stop me from competing. I will not chastise myself after a game lost (or won) due to playing fearfully (that’s where compassion comes in!).
For some, goals can be a healthy way to motivate and measure progress. For me, goals add additional outcomes and benchmarks for me to chase, in a game that already has enough of these.
Focusing on outcomes is a major contributor to my inability to play relaxed, focused tennis (and to have fun doing it!)
Intentions provide an alternative that allows us to be the tennis players we want to be right now. We don’t have to achieve external outcomes to be satisfied. We can choose our relationship to what happens on the court.
Consider setting intentions if your goals haven’t been helping you. Mine haven’t been working for me and I’m hopeful that intentions will put me on a better path.