Watching the Olympics is inspirational if you need a kick in the pants to set high goals for yourself, but the trick is not to make goals so lofty that you make yourself sick.
Having finished 17th at beach volleyball nationals, I can tell you that the difference between the very top and those near the top is not skills — everyone has the skills. The difference is mental. Players in the top five or ten are so tough that almost nothing makes them waver, and their belief in their ability to succeed is extreme. I know because I didn't have those qualities, and as I inched closer to the top ranks the pressure gave me stomachaches during games.
I remember the first time I played the team ranked #1 in the United States: I got killed. Their focus on the game was unflappable, whereas I found myself thinking about my bathing suit, the crowd, my mother. Anything. Everything. It was like my mind was possessed by the volleyball devil. And every time I lost focus I made an error on the court.
Lack of focus became a defense against the goals that overwhelmed me. By distracting myself from my goal – to get to the number one spot — I protected myself from huge disappointment. Unfortunately, I also ensured that I never inched up beyond 17th place. I found myself spending too much time off the court, excelling at ancillary parts of professional sports where the stakes weren't very high. I was great at landing sponsorships and sniffing out the best coaches, but my fear of failing at my real goal always held me back.
Today I play volleyball only recreationally, but my experience with competitive volleyball informs my approach to setting goals in all aspects of my life: Goals should be tough enough that they challenge you to stay focused; goals should scare you a little because that's how you learn about yourself, but if the goals are too hard, you get stuck and stop learning.
Today most advice is about how to dream big. But goals need to be flexible. Too small a goal would not be rewarding, but too big a goal can be stifling. You need to create goals for yourself that enable you to stay focused. One way to know how well you're setting goals is to look at your intensity of focus: Too small a goal does not require focus, and if you want for focus but you can't make it happen, then your goal is probably too large. The better you know yourself the better you will be at setting goals.
I noticed that Natalie Coughlin, who has been called a more natural swimmer than anyone in history, decided to race in only two individual events in Athens. Most aficionados would say she's capable of winning more — maybe even a Michael Phelps sort of feat. But she knows her own limits and said, “It's good I'm not getting a lot of the attention he's getting. He does really well with that attention and I don't think I would do as well.”
I cannot imagine what it would be like to be as great an athlete as Natalie Coughlin, but I got shivers when I saw her holding a gold medal in Athens. Because I can imagine what it's like to have to adjust your goals in order to cope with the pressure. That is a path to success that requires knowing yourself very well, and it is a path as brave as any other.
That was the first time I realized that my focus was not strong enough to get into the top ten.
But I had worked so hard to get to #17. I felt surely I could figure out how to overcome the focus barrier. I tried the punishment approach (pushups for every mistake) and I tried the Zen approach (lessons in meditation). Nothing worked. Then I tried the introspection approach: I found that in a low-pressure game I had almost perfect focus. But in a high-pressure situation — like the end of a close game – I'd start thinking about my laundry, my mother, my senator. Anything. Everything. It was like my mind was possessed by the volleyball devil.
I came to the conclusion that I was too scared to focus. The harder you focus on a goal, the more energy you put into a goal, there more there is at stake. When you focus very little, then not achieving that goal is okay. But when you dedicated every ounce of energy to that goal, the pressure to achieve is huge. In order to put that kind of pressure on yourself you have to have total faith in yourself. I had total faith until I reached #17. Then I folded.