Why Extraordinary Goals Matter

American swimmer Katie Ledecky is rewriting the record books of women’s distance swimming. This week, she set two world records at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. The Olympic gold medalist is not just winning races, she is making people rethink what is possible. This summer, she has set five world records. In the last year, taken 16 seconds off the world record in the 1500m freestyle.

Extraordinary Goals Redefine What’s Possible

Ledecky is a phenomenon, a spectacular talent, and we can learn about goal setting by watching her performances. Her world records are check-ins on her training. She’s building toward these mindboggling times. They are intentional. Unlike most athletes, she is not aiming at incremental improvement. At some point, she and her coach realized how much upside was available and set extraordinary, revolutionary goals.

In my sport, I’m known for doing tumbling moves. I’ll spin the disc on my finger, pop it up, spin around, do a somersault and get the disc spinning back on my finger. I learned that move – and the double spinning tumble – from watching another top player, Dave Murphy. Once I got used to that move, I imagined an entire family of moves beyond my existing skill level. How about a triple spinning tumble? What if I did more difficult tricks after the somersault, like a very technical trick called The Juice. What about doing the tumbles directly from restricted moves like a behind the back set or a pass we call the Yogi? What about a quadruple spinning tumble?

Thinking of these moves created extraordinary goals. Once I imagined them, they became possible. From that moment on, freestyle was not just about getting better at the expected. It was about claiming new territory. I began to figure out the training and skills needed to make these ideas real. The training plan emerged from the idea, and the training plan was more ambitious than before. All those ideas became real moves, and I trained many of them well enough to try in competition. Here’s a triple spinning tumble from a beach session a few years ago:

The Goal Creates The Plan

Back to Katie Ledecky. She’s training toward the 2013 season. The six-year old world record is 15:42.54 by Kate Ziegler. She realizes not only that she can break it but that she can reset the standard. She doesn’t train for 15:42.53. That’s not worthy of her vision. She trains to destroy the record and does just that. She takes 9 seconds off Ziegler’s time.

Cool. Now what? The best time to consolidate your greatness is after a big victory, when most people would be resting on their laurels. She reimagines reality. The new record is 15:36.53. She sets her sights way beyond that for 2014 and gets to work. People are amazed when she takes another two seconds off the world record at meet in June, but it’s just a glimpse of what she’s been training toward. Two months later, we see the next payoff of her training at the Pan Pacific Championships with this new world record: 15:28.36. No man had swum that fast until 1975. It would have placed 18th in the men’s 1500m race at this year’s US Championships. Extraordinary goal for 2014 completed!

I don’t know whether Ledecky is scheduled to swim any more races this year, but I can’t wait to see how she redefines her own potential. Whether or not she hits her goal, the goal will be huge and confident and courageous.

Applying Extraordinary Goals Outside Sports

As sports fans we cheer for achievements like Ledecky’s. What we don’t do often enough is apply sports lessons to our everyday lives. But if we look to community and business leaders, we can see extraordinary goals in action.

Elon Musk imagined a world where electric vehicles are the standard, and we’re seeing him pursue that vision. The success of Tesla vehicles was only one chapter of his plan. We’re beginning to see that they are part of a complete reimagining of transportation infrastructure.

The fight for marriage equality shows us how extraordinary goals become reality in society. For most people, same sex marriage was an alien concept until very recently. But for the leaders of the marriage equality movement, it was an idea. A seemingly impossible idea, but one that they as leaders could not betray. By imagining marriage equality, however improbable, they set the wheels in motion. And here’s the important part: it didn’t succeed at first. Just having an extraordinary idea does not guarantee its success. I can imagine swimming faster than Katie Ledecky, but all it guarantees is that my personal likelihood of achieving that goal just increased by some unmeasurable amount. It became possible, not guaranteed or even probable until I create the right plan and execute on it. Progress toward marriage equality included setbacks, and the action plan toward this extraordinary goal evolves with each piece of new data.

Think about your skills, your projects, your aspirations. What are you aiming for now, and what ridiculously bigger result could you imagine. What new territory are you willing to claim? Now, what would it take to get there? Remember, you already made a good portion of the journey just by imagining a bigger goal. How would it feel to experience that huge result? How would it change things to embrace the ridiculous and go after it?

What Mountain Will You Climb At 61 Years Old?

This is a stunning video about passion, longevity, vitality and family.

Rock climber Francisco Marin is 61 years old. He found his passion, devoted himself to it, and wove the rest of his life around it. As he shows us photos from throughout his life, we see the richness, the many chapters, the varied interests, the other passions he has devoted himself to, the pride in his family. We see how he has simplified his life. In one small living space, he has everything he needs – at least during his current quest to climb Geminis.

EpicTV’s description of the video pitches it as a more difficult rock face than anyone his age has climbed, but it’s clear that the record isn’t what really matters to Marin. Devoting himself to this climb for two years has offered him something more. If I had to guess, it would be about stretching his limits, using his creativity to solve this climbing challenge, and sharing the experience with those he loves. Something we can all aspire to.

Why Michael Phelps Shouldn’t Retire – And Neither Will I

Michael Phelps swam the 4th fastest 100m butterly time in the world tonight, and the media headlines are about losing.

This is how we know the media has no clue about elite performance.

Phelps, the greatest swimmer ever, finished second to Ryan Lochte, who may end up as the second best swimmer ever. He did it after taking two years off, gaining 30 pounds, then quietly training back into shape over the last six months.

Today’s placement wasn’t about winning or losing. It was a kickoff. An experiment. The smile he showed in the prelims showed it has elements of a game. It’s fun.

While I’m sure Phelps would have been pumped to win, his results show he still belongs among the world’s elite swimmers. That he could be so competitive after such a short time training should terrify his rivals.
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Elite Action Series Part 2: The Together Issue

In the Elite Action Series, we explore elite athlete strategies you can apply to your life. I’ve used them all as I’ve accumulated 15 world championship titles in my sport. Last time, we explored the strategy of being systematic. This time, it’s about who is around us.

Strategy 2: Assemble Your Team

12619 Lemon Soda Drinkers
Photo by Arthur Coddington

Pro teams have legions of staff to handle all the details, freeing the players to focus on their training. The best individual athletes have the same thing. The fortunate ones with sponsorships and prize money build an entourage of coaches, physical therapists, practice partners and assistants to keep them focused, healthy and sharp. The rest of us without budgets need to be more scrappy to apply the same strategy. We invest in the best professional support possible and improvise when needed.

My sport thrives without big budgets and lucrative endorsement contracts. We play for the love of the game. Our friends are our support network.

I never had a formal freestyle coach, but I’ve received masterful coaching from my teammates. They had a vision for where I could take my game. They gave me feedback on what was working and what wasn’t, and they gave me ideas for new things to try.

When I trained with my competition team, we didn’t have choreographers. We invented our routines then relied on our critical eye – and the critical eyes of our friends and family to achieve excellence. When we felt the limitations of our bodies, we invested in yoga or dance classes. When we practiced, we didn’t have a team of assistants marking the field, keeping time and collecting video. Our friends were sometimes kind enough to run the video camera, and when they weren’t around we put the camera on the tripod and tried to stay in frame. After workouts, we didn’t have fancy cryotherapy chambers to help our recovery. We had bags of supermarket ice.

We weren’t stopped by the absence of structure. We assembled the team we could. We made it happen. Whatever it takes.

It’s the same beyond sports. The support that comes with our jobs may not be enough to support the elite level performance we want. Who’s on your support team? What’s missing between you and achieving greatness? What will keep you focused on the essential? Where are you willing to invest money for support? Who are you willing to ask for help?

Elite Action Series Part 1: The Doughnut Issue

A balanced diet
Photo by Lynne Hand

Elite athletes continually push their limits. They find new gears or fall behind. Pushing limits has been the key to me competing at the elite level for two decades and winning 15 world championship titles. In this Elite Action Series, I’ll share strategies from elite athletes that can shake up your performance and push your limits. Let’s start with the plan that comes from inspiration.

Continue reading “Elite Action Series Part 1: The Doughnut Issue”