Breaking the Mold - That Happiness or Success is Only Achieved on... [ARTICLE]

Breaking the Mold - That Happiness or Success is Only Achieved on the Other Side of a Result
By: Nate Hoey

Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine

Provided by: USTFCCCA

This article will look at breaking the mold of happiness or success being on the other side of achievement. If the coach creates an intentionally positive training environment which is mindfully focused on the task at hand, and embraces the process, this combination will put the athlete in a better position and set the table to achieve their aspirations.

1Society has taught us that happiness needs to be on the other side of a result and success is not achieved until that result is reached. We are often taught to work really hard and when you achieve a goal, then you will be rewarded with happiness and success. With this structure, coaches are setting kids up for failure with the false promise of achievement, meaning the only way to win, achieve success or happiness is by reaching a specific result. There is a better way. Coaches can help put athletes in a position to achieve their aspirations and this will teach the athlete to grow and learn along their journey. Being journey driven and mindful of the moments which make up the process will put the athlete in a better position to strive for their aspirations.


Coaches should look to creating an environment where the focus is on setting high aspirations and striving for excellence as the athlete pursues their aspirations. However, the coach should make it clear their definition of success does not revolve around whether an athlete achieves that specific aspiration or not. The season is about progress, not perfection. The coach should clearly establish that they care about the athletes' track & field performance, but that there is a greater care for who the athlete becomes as a result of the chase, and as a result of the pursuit of their aspirations. The athlete will not be defined by a result.

The person they grow into becoming and the character traits they develop over the course of a season and four-year period is the priority within the program.

It should be established that the individual and team will strive to win, but do it by enjoying and embracing the moments which make up the process. Teammates supporting and lifting each other up with positive words and actions. When this is done, the athletes' happiness does not need to be on the other side of a result. They will instead enjoy the experience and the process which in turn, will put them into a better position to achieve their specific aspirations.

People have been traditionally taught that if they work hard, they will achieve success and that they will be happy once a specific achievement is reached. This mindset has become a staple in the athletic arena. Athletes are told to set a goal, work really hard to achieve that goal and once the goal is achieved, the athlete will be happy. Harvard professor Shawn Achor states, "This is scientifically backwards. Once you achieve success your brain just changes the goal post standard for what success looks like" (Achor, 2011). So once an athlete does achieve a specific goal or aspiration, they will immediately establish a new goal and aspiration to pursue.

For example, an athlete wants to break 12 seconds in the 100m, once they break 12 seconds, then they want to run 11.80. An athlete wants to High Jump 5'8", once they clear 5'8" they now want to clear 5'10". An athlete aims to run 14.30 in the 100m Hurdles, once they run 14.30, now they want to run 14.15. A climber wants to summit Mt. Everest, they summit Mt. Everest, and now they want to do it again, but this time without oxygen tank support. Once a goal is reached, the human drive for achievement will then always reset the goal standard.

"We are born with the powerful urge to have an effect on and master our environment." (Elliot, A.J, McGregor, H.A, Thrash, T.M, YEAR, p15-16). Humans are wired to pursue achievement and that is great. Coaches should embrace this pursuit, but simply not want their athlete's happiness to be on the other side of a result. The coach and team leaders should find ways to create an environment which allows the athlete to learn, enjoy and embrace what is in front of them on a given day. Encourage them to not worry about down the road, but instead simply focus on doing the best they can on the task at hand. Teach them to embrace the moments which make up the process and the journey. Motivate the team to enjoy the relationships with their teammates. Foster a high energy and supportive environment where teammates are cheering each other on in their workout and during a weight room session. Over time simple acts repeated daily will make a big impact on establishing the environment and culture.

Sit in on any post-season banquet, and listen to stories which teammates share about graduating seniors. You will rarely hear about a major performance or result. You will hear about how a graduating senior made another individual on the team feel. Those small seemingly insignificant moments when compounded over time are what make up the experience for the athlete and the foundation on what the relationship and experience is built upon.

Shaw Achor states "it's not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality." Achor continues "You don't get happy by achieving success. You achieve success by getting happy" (Achor, 2011). "When we are happy, when our mindset and mood are positive, we are smarter, more motivated and thus more successful. Happiness is at the center and success revolves around it" (Achor, S. 2010, p.37).

Achor calls this the "happiness advantage," our brain works better in a positive state then it does in a negative, neutral or stressed state. When coaches create an intentionally positive environment, then the athletes will be able to have more productive training sessions which will in turn put them into a better position to achieve their aspirations.

When a person is in a positive and intentionally grateful state "positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels." (Achor, S. 2010, p.44). It is important to note that creating a positive environment does not mean there will be an absence of negativity. There will be unfortunate injury, illness and personal challenges. However, when the team has a sound support network around them, these negative situations will appear with less frequency and the individual will be better equipped to handle them when they do show up. Achor continues, "happiness is not all yellow smiley faces and rainbows, for me happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential" (Achor, S. 2010, p.40). The coach needs to always be honest and upfront with the athlete, not simply pretending everything is perfect. He or she needs to address negative situations or challenges as they arise. The coach needs to be constructive, instructive and supportive with their communication and feedback. If something is not going well, it's important to recognize it, address it clearly head on, so the athlete can grow from that situation. The season will not be a clean linear path to achievement. Letting the athletes know there will be ups and downs and that is OK and all part of the process. This is an important step in creating a growth mindset environment. Learning and growth for everyone is messy. Through this process, the athletes will grow physically, mentally and emotionally, and be better prepared down the road for when similar situations appear.


"Growth never occurs in a vacuum, so we must choose the kind of person we wish to become." (Compton, W.C, Hoffman, E. 2013, p225). This team environment will not happen organically. The team needs to intentionally create their environment with an emphasis on encouraging positivity, supporting team-mates, learning from failure, and bringing a team-first attitude. Small consistent daily acts will go a long way in establishing the culture. This can be done with creating core values and standards of behavior which the team itself puts together. These values are what the team holds true to their identity. When created by the team, they will have a vested interest and the result will be they are more likely to hold themselves and each other accountable to those standards. That accountability is the key to creating an intentional environment.

We do not control factors or events down the road, but having a conscious focus on being your best self today, on the task at hand, will help the athlete get the most out of the training session. Learning to celebrate their own events and training with positivity and gratitude is another way in which teammates can intentionally set each other up for success. Awareness of this is a big step in creating an intentionally positive environment. Focusing and being in the present is another step. Learning from the past and planning for the future, but being mindful on this one day. Having a clear objective of this session will help that athlete focus on that activity. On a daily basis at practice, clearly stating WHAT you are doing, WHY you are doing it, and HOW the workout should flow will give clear expectations and objectives to the athlete. Then follow the session up with a clear and direct debrief; What went well today and why? What can be improved upon next time?

Coach Dan Pfaff, a world leader in high performance coaching who has guided 52 athletes to ten Olympic Games and ten Olympic medals has talked about the benefits of creating and fostering a positive, supportive training environment. Track & Field is a sport full of driven individuals and the sport itself is about the pursuit of being your very best self and trying to attain that "personal record." Dan Pfaff states, "I think it comes down to your fundamental philosophy that you establish with your training group as a coach. If you're process or journey driven, then I think that is a constant focal point and conference point in the relationship. So balancing intrinsic and extrinsic goals and objectives versus process, is the art of coaching." (Pfaff, D. Personal Interview, Oct. 11, 2016). What is contained in a team's core values and standards of behavior should reflect this philosophy the coach and captains have for the program. The team should be held accountable to those standards on a daily basis.

Coach Pfaff has sustained success at the pinnacle of the sport. When asked what he feels are the most important factors that go into the coaching engine, he states "being enmeshed in the process and the relationships and the moment along the journey for me are the central drivers. I think after you have done it a few times, you realize those extrinsic landmarks that you strove for really didn't change your life that drastically and they didn't really bring perhaps the joy or relief or confirmation you thought they would. So I think the longer you're in coaching, the more you value the relationships, the process, the journey and the moments so to speak, rather than the grand moments that people see on TV." (Pfaff, D. Personal Interview, Oct. 11, 2016).

Athletes often feel that once they hit that landmark achievement, they will be happy and confirm their value as a person and an athlete. It's important to make a part of the daily process and culture of the training environment, that an athlete's self-worth never be tied into a result. An athlete needs to understand and feel that their value as a team member does not go up or down based on performance, but that their value is in who they are, how they act, the effort they put into their journey and how they treat their teammates. When they do this, they are going to be able to let go of the fear of failure and go out and replicate what they have been doing in their training and execute their event model or race plan at a higher level without the external pressure of needing validation.

Being mindful of oneself and their individual path and journey can enhance the environment. The sport of Track & Field is all about comparing. A performance list comes out for a meet and athletes are quickly looking online to compare where they are relative to someone else. "Who is in my heat or flight" is a phrase often heard. Comparison is the thief of all joy. A coach's philosophy and teaching structure needs to consistently bring this to the forefront from day one. "There are so many variables that go into a world class performance in any event that to compare yourself to the next person defies logic, because of the unique matrix of variables that individual possess." (Pfaff, D. Personal Interview, Oct. 11, 2016). If a coach can use that as a central teaching point in their daily training environment and culture, one that discusses and talks about the importance of focusing only on what the athlete can control, the coach is already one step ahead of the game on the comparison trap. "If you are truly involved in the process and you define serious key performance indicators there shouldn't be a lot of time to compare to other people or a need to compare, because you are trying to address your unique map and journey" (Pfaff, D. Personal Interview, Oct. 11, 2016).

Establishing clear, realistic team and individual goals and then process oriented goals which will help put the athlete into a position to achieve their aspirations is a very important piece of the puzzle. The end goal is not the most important step, it's the process oriented goals and steps which are the most critical. These process oriented goals should be steps the athlete is fully in control of. These may be consistent sleeping habits, nutritional goals or weight room focus points. All specific measurable, actionable items they can look to achieve and keep track of.

"Goals: the results to which effort is aimed." (Ledbetter, B. 2016, p.2). "When you focus on goals, what do you focus on? Results." (Ledbetter, B. 2016, p.2). So having a clear conversation and established process goals, knowing they are what you will focus on and put your effort and energy toward is critical. We want to direct the effort and the energy on a daily basis to being their best self on that day. "When you focus on the effort aimed at the result, you focus your energy on the things that you can control." (Ledbetter, B. 2016, p.3). This is the process. Your process is what drives you toward your results. This drive will not guarantee you will achieve the result, but it will help get you into the right neighborhood.


It's really all about the little things. An athletes experience ultimately is the sum of all the "small" little details which add up to make the overall experience what it is. An athlete knows that a coach is there to help them run faster, jump farther/ higher and throw farther than they ever thought possible, but more importantly the coach needs to be there to help guide the athlete as they grow during their four years. The coach needs to care about the athletes T&F performance, but they need to care more about who the athlete becomes as a result of the chase and pursuit of the athlete's goals and aspirations.

Work to create a program which will strive to win, but do it in an environment which fosters enjoying and embracing the moments which make up the process and by supporting and lifting up their teammates. Create an environment where the athlete will enjoy the pursuit of striving for excellence. An environment where the athletes' happiness will not be on the other side of a result, but their happines in the daily moments will in turn put them into a position to achieve their goals and aspirations. Happiness, joy and gratification will come from the journey of striving to become their very best self.


Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage. The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, p. 37, 40, 44.

Achor, S. (2011, May). Shawn Achor: The happiness advantage: linking brains to performance [video file]. Retrieved from https:11www.ted.comItalksIshawn_achor the_happy_secret to_bett work

Compton, WC., Hoffman, E. (2013). Positive Psychology. The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, p. 225

Elliot, A.J, McGregor, H.A, Thrash, T.M, YEAR, The Need For Competence, Handbook of self- determination research, p. 15-16

Ledbetter, B. (2015). What Drives Winning. Building Character Gets Results. Here's How, p. 2-3

Lohr, J. (2012). The Only Way To Win. How Building Character Drives Higher Achievement and Greater Fulfillment in Business and Life, p. 16

Pfaff D. (2016, October 11). Personal Phone Interview

Nate Hoey is in his fourth year as the Head Womens Track & Field Coach at Williams College. He has guided Williams to three straight NESCAC Championships.

PHOTO CREDITS: Jim Harleen and Marisa Turner

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20 Jul 2017

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