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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

Always a Work in Progress

For the past year or so, the adidas North American Headquarters in Portland have been undergoing an expansion project. The campus sits on the north side of town, and is a frequent landmark on my daily runs. On the fencing that marks the construction area, there is a windscreen that reads: Always a work in progress.

I like that.

Not because it's good branding (it is), or because it's more creative than a typical Keep Out sign. No, I like it because it's a reminder.

Too often, I've seen athletes (and their coaches) eschew racing opportunities because they're "not in shape yet." They claim to be "still a work in progress." In my experience, this is most common early in the season, after an injury, or time off. The mindset usually comes from a goal-oriented approach. For example, the athlete has a goal of breaking 14:00 in the 5k, and because they don't think they can break 14:00 at the moment, they deem it safer to avoid putting themselves on the line and risk being disappointed by the outcome.

Goals may have their place, but they also have their pitfalls. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, offers a different view. He uses a systems approach. Whereas a goal is usually a pinpoint at a specific objective (i.e. breaking 14:00), a system is "something you do every day, and you don't have a specific goal, but it's moving you in the right direction."

If a goal is a point on a graph, a system is the slope of the line. What Adams argues is that we shouldn't focus on the point, but rather, if the slope is heading towards the point or not.

In the case of our goal-oriented athlete, when the focus is solely on breaking 14:00, there won't be a desire to race a 5k if they aren't at that point yet. Not breaking 14:00 will be seen as a failure. But, if the focus is on getting closer to that point, the athlete will toe the line. After all, you'd be hard pressed to find a stimulus more specific to breaking 14:00 for 5k in a competition setting than racing a 5k in a competition setting. In this case, regardless of outcome, it's a victory for the system. It's a good, hard effort. It provides feedback to inform training. Above all, it prepares the athlete for their next opportunity better than if they had stayed home.

When you are goal-oriented, being a work in progress is something to hide.

When you are systems-oriented, you get it. We're always a work in progress.

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