The Dangers of Toxic Goal Setting

As sports fans, we often celebrate athletes and admire them for their beauty, fame and wealth. But in my experience, I’ve come to know beauty, fame and wealth as toxic goals.

These toxic three don’t drive the most successful sports figures. Rather, our heroes’ external success is more often the result of deep athlete-coach relationships and a clear sense of self.

The problem with pursuing fame, money and beauty is that all three rely heavily on external factors beyond our control. A goal like this can breed bitter dissatisfaction. Why? Each of the three toxic goals turns out to be a means to an end. Each of us are actually searching for a deeper level of happiness and self-acceptance that is found through self-growth, stronger community, healthier bodies and deeper relationships.

Toxic goals hurt

In their landmark paper, Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester found that goals in four areas — relationships, self-growth, community and health — contributed to a higher sense of well-being. In short, pursuing and achieving these goals will make you happier.

Kasser has based his academic career studying the link between materialism and well being. “We’re interested in how much a person cares about money relative to other things,” he said. “Research has shown in literally dozens of studies that the more people prioritize materialistic values, the less happy they are.”

What are the three most toxic goals? Money, status and physical beauty. The pursuit of these goals lowers satisfaction, removes energy, reduces pleasant emotions like happiness, contentment and joy, increases negative emotions like depression, anxiety, fear, anger and sadness, and increases the abuse of substances like cigarettes and alcohol.

To further the case against materialistic goals, researchers have linked toxic goals to behaviours that destroy the environment, increase racial and ethnic prejudice, and build relationships that are short-lived and filled with conflict. Kasser explains: “I always note that materialistic values are not only bad for people’s own well-being, but they lead people to behave in ways, which are bad for other people’s well-being.”

What works for Olympians

Decathlete Damian Warner has a goal of Olympic gold in Rio. Warner is currently training in Arizona, working specifically on his pole vault and doing intervals on the outdoor 400m track.

Warner, a level-headed 26-year old from London, Ont., won’t be doing it alone. Two of his coaches have been with him since high school: Dennis Nielsen and Gar Leyshon. “He’s just a great person,” said Leyshon. “He’s so grounded.

“The one thing about Damian is that he’s worked so hard to get where he is.”

Best goal to set

In 2008, renowned sport-psychologist Penny Werthner interviewed 57 coaches and athletes who won medals at the Beijing Olympics (including me!). Penny found five factors that contributed significantly to Olympic success.

The most important? A strong coach-athlete relationship was viewed as the most crucial factor in winning an Olympic medal or producing a personal best performance. Doing great things requires the humility to acknowledge that you can’t do it on your own. We need great relationships to drive us to achieve great things.

“Gar and Dennis have been like fathers to me — I think my dad would say the same thing,” said Warner of the two coaches he has had since 2005. “I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s a process and it takes time. You may not be at the top yet but you are making all the right moves to get there. It’s trusting the process and staying patient.”

Send Adam Kreek a message on Twitter @adamkreek. You can also find more tips to improve your body, mind and soul on the Don’t Change Much website or through Adam’s column on CBC Sports.

Adam delivers authentic keynotes, workshops and seminars for corporate, government and not-for-profit organizations worldwide.  Please contact us for information about our offerings.

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