It's that time of year where people are using the start of a new year to set goals in an attempt to change a behaviour pattern. Making short or long term behavioural changes to improve our quality of life is terrific, but how often are do they last? Today I am going to be discussing the peak of of goal setting pyramids, dream goals. Dream goals do in fact have something in common with New Years resolutions and that is that most are doomed to fail. Does this mean we should not bother setting or pursuing either type of goal? Let's find out.
Through emails and Serious Squash social media platforms I get a lot of messages from players all around the world. I recently had a 12 year old boy message me and tell me how his goal was to become world champion. It made me think about what it was like when I was that age. Twenty-six years ago I was wearing similar shoes as I was extremely driven to become the best in the world (I'm the little guy in the photo below).
When I was young I kept a journal where I logged my daily training sessions and I wrote out analysis from my matches. Some weeks I was on court more than 20 hours and solo hitting for 2-4 hours at a time. Nobody told me I should do this, I just instinctively knew that I had to do more than the competition to get the results and life that I dreamed of.
It's normal for young kids to have ambitions and dreams. A lot of kids dream about being the next Lebron James or in squash, Ramy Ashour. If we look at squash for an example there are very few world #1 ranked players in the history of our sport. Let's say there's been around 40 total (just a guess). Out of 40 total world #1's ever what are the odds of any child making this select group? If I was a mathematician I imagine it would be close, but not quite impossible. Yes just like the infamous scene from Dumb and Dumber, 'so you're saying there's a chance?'
I'm guessing many of the world top athletes all had these big dreams at one point or another, but 99.99+% of us never reach our dream goal of becoming the best in the world. And for the selection few who do reach their dream goal after a decade plus of dedication what is left to drive them forwards afterwards?
This is one of the most difficult things about squash. When you're an adult playing on the PSA tour there are no weight, age or height divisions. There is always a winner or loser so we can generally definitive say who is better than who. For something like music this is far different. Who is the best musician in thew world? I would argue it's not whoever sells the most albums and it would depend on personal preference. But for sports there's less of an argument, you either are or are not world #1. Which means at the time of writing this article only Ali Farag and Raneem El Wilily can say they are living their dream childhood goals while the rest of the pack are giving everything the have to experience that glory. Although it's an amazing feat I can't imagine many kids grow up dreaming of being world #2.
So if you are a parent or coach should you support your child's overly ambitious dreams of becoming the next Ramy (pictured above)? Or should we ensure that they have something to fall back on for they inevitably fail? I recall my parents saying 'what if you get hurt?' That's what parents are supposed to do; they're supposed to worry about your future and they tend to have a lot more common sense. When you're a kid (at least for me) I didn't care what anyone else said I could or couldn't do, I was going to be the best in the world; even though as you can tell from the photo above I was one of the smallest kids in my grade. I believe I was 12 in that photo and that was take n after beating my good friend and childhood rival in the final of the U13 U.S. Open.
Breaking news, I did not become world #1. I know it's sad, my dreams which I war absolutely convinced would happen didn't. But I did get to a pretty high level because of my dedication, work ethic and passion for the game. And it's because of what I was able to accomplish I learned that if I want to do something in life I can do it if I really put my mind to it.
As I get older it's not so simple resurrecting that same type of passion and dedication for a new goal that takes over your every thought and motivates each of the daily decisions you make. This is probably why I was a pretty serious coach for the first few years. How could anyone not put their everything into trying to become the best they can? It took probably close to 8-10 years of coaching to learn how to allow kids to be kids and have fun and to understand and most importably accept that they are not all (in fact very few are) the crazy self driven kid that I once was.
As a coach I think that trying to become the best I can be is something that motivates me most similar to that young version of me who lived for squash. And I've learnt that being the best coach does not mean just knowing the techniques, tactics, etc. Being a great coach is much more about dealing with different types of people, handling challenges, planning a variety of fun engaging practices which will also enable skill development.
Let's discuss outcome squash goals for the moment. Over the past decade I knew I wasn't going to play on the PSA tour, but I still trained a lot and tried to improve my game? There is this innate curiosity about still trying to improve oneself and as you improve various parts of your game you can't help but feel like your best game of squash is still ahead of you. I have also learned how to actually enjoy pushing myself hard in training and in matches. When I was a kid that is something I was not great at.
As I got older I also have learned to accept losing better, although I'm still not too good at it. When I was young I focused so much on winning that it put a lot of pressure on me and I focused on the wrong things (the outcome vs. the process). There are a lot of factors that are outside of your control when you play squash. Plus if you want to become the best you can possibly be you have to get spanked by better players along the way. How many matches do you think Ramy Ashour lost in his entire life? And how many tins do you think he hit in his career? A LOT!!!
I know this post is a little all over the place, but I really want to focus on motivation, perseverance and dream goals. It's not always easy finding things in life that are enjoyable when you lose something that you are so passionate about or when your goals change. When I was chasing world #1 I had a purpose each day. That purpose is so motivating and inspirational and it forces you to make a lot of sacrifices. That's why I love hearing someone else tell me that they have the same dream I once had. When kids set their goals too modestly they will not dig deep and grind it out and miraculously become a great champion some day.
A number of years ago I ran a camp with many of the top juniors in western Canada. Only 1 out of these top juniors said they had a dream goal of playing on the PSA tour. Some of their dream goals were things they could already achieve and had little meaning. I was so perplexed and upset as a coach. I wasn't sure if they didn't really want to put in the work needed to get to the top level or if they only wanted to set goals they knew that they could easily achieve? A little better than mediocracy is what I believe most kids, at least in Canada are striving for these days. We aren't brought up wanting or needing to work extra hard for something and getting uncomfortable enjoying that process of the daily grind. This is why it was quite refreshing when this recent junior shared his goal.
For a few years as a child I lived with purpose where my lofty dreams fuelled me. At school or lying in bed all I thought about was squash. Why does this happen to some kids and not others? Does it have something to do with the environment or genetics? Likely it's a mixture, but as a coach there is nothing better than working with someone so motivated and driven. It's easy to spot this type of dedication and dreams in athletes. There are many parents who are more motivated for their children's squash potential than their kids themselves; this rarely ever works out and the kids eventually will lose their motivation to play squash. Intrinsic motivation, persistence and a dare to dream is what it takes and those are things that someone else cannot wish upon you.
Do you think it's healthy to have dream goals even if they more than likely won't come true? Someone has to be the next Nicol David (pictured above), why not you?
What do you do when you finally have to give up on your dream goal? That I don't have all of the answers for, but I know I didn't feel as alive and as driven to do other things with the same focus and passion. Finding new goals or passions are certainly important. Wether it's training, improving a variety of skills on or off court, taking up a new hobby or what I thoroughly enjoy it helping someone else achieve something special.
Squash was what I've been most passionate about so that's why it's hard to envision doing anything besides coaching. Squash is what made me and it's how I feel I can pay it back to other people, especially the young motivated dreamers. I can't imagine being happy doing a random job that didn't interest me and I wasn't passionate about. I know that's what most people do, but I don't know how they do it. I would never go the extra mile (or for that matter do the bare minimum) for something that doesn't interest me. If I was doing something to make a living that didn't engage me I will admit I would not hire me.
Have you ever or do you currently have a dream goal? Even if other people think they are unrealistic, what keeps you working towards your dream? Do you have someone you aspire to be like? Role models who you can relate to can be extremely motivating and this can prove that what you want to do or where you want to go too is indeed possible. And here's my take on the popular quote, you may shoot for the stars and end up on the moon. But if you only aim for the moon you may not get far off the ground. Do you use the naysayers to motivate you to prove them wrong? Do you have a team that is supporting you with your dream goal? Because if there is 1 thing I do know for sure, it's that you can achieve much more with support than you can on your own.
I wish there was a way to see what past squash champions are all up to nowadays. How many are still involved in squash? How many are helping the up and coming future squash stars (like Jonathon Power and Diego Elias or Thierry Lincou and Amanda Sobhy)? Same goes for world champions in other sports. What do these former champions do to find meaning now that their time has come and gone? I'm sure family has a big impact on this and can help put things in perspective. Even still there's a reason Tiger Woods is still out there competing and training even though he's had countless surgeries and his back is a mess. Tiger sure doesn't need the money, but something keeps him teeing it up. I bet it's still his childhood dream of being world #1 and winning majors and these goals still have a stranglehold in his life.
I suppose this is we are so transfixed by athletes who do defy the odds and end up achieving their childhood dreams. There's a long list of books which attempt to get to the bottom of how and why elite performers achieved the results they did. All top athletes begin their sporting journey with a dream and there is nothing quite as intrinsically motivating as that dream. And for a few select hard working athletes dreams do once in awhile become a reality. Someone has to be world #1 so why not you?
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