impossible to possible

Why I Never Use the Word “Impossible” with Athletes I Coach

Quite often, athletes I coach ask me questions like, “Do you think I could qualify for Boston?” or “Am I kidding myself to think I might still be able to PR at my age?” My answer to these questions is always some version of the following: “You won’t hear me say you can’t. Obviously, we both know you’re not ready to do it today, but if that’s the long-term goal that motivates you, then it’s also my long-term goal for you. So let’s work toward it one step at a time.”

There are no fewer than five reasons I give this answer. Here they are:

1. I can’t claim to know the limit of what’s possible for any given athlete.

Some things are obviously possible and others clearly impossible. I would consider it obviously possible for a runner who cranks out a 38-minute 10K after six months in the sport to eventually run a sub-three-hour marathon. I would consider it clearly impossible for a runner who, after five years of dedicated and intelligent training, has a 10K PR of 38 minutes to eventually run a sub-two-hour marathon. But any coach who thinks that he can accurately predict the exact limit of any given athlete’s performance potential is deluding himself. I am not such a coach. I know that I don’t know if any given athlete’s dream or “stretch goal” is beyond the limit of his or her capabilities, so I’m not going to claim to.

2. I don’t see any intrinsic harm in setting impossible long-term goals.

What happens when a runner who is genetically incapable of ever achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time for his or her age group sets a long-term goal to do just that? In my experience, the runner works really hard and consistently to improve and eventually becomes the best runner he or she can be without ever qualifying for Boston. In other words, setting impossible long-term goals is usually good for an athlete’s development, not bad.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that athletes should set impossible long-term goals. But any athlete whose underlying ambition is to realize 100% of his or her potential should at least set goals that sit at the lofty end of realistic, because that’s just how human motivation works.

Short-term goals are another matter. Athletes who set an impossible goal for their next race tend to overtrain and/or race too aggressively and end up performing beneath their current capacity. Short-term goals must be challenging but realistic.

3. The most successful athletes believe they can do things everyone else believes they can’t.

I was visiting a certain elite endurance athlete in his home when I asked him for his wifi password. “It’s tokyo2020,” he told me. “Of course it is,” I said.

This episode is perfectly emblematic of how the most successful athletes approach long-term goal-setting. They shoot for the moon. And I do believe this pattern is causal, not merely correlative. In other words, shooting for the moon is part of what makes the most successful athletes successful. Why would I encourage the athletes I coach to do any different  merely because they happen to be less genetically gifted? It’s just a different moon they’re shooting for.

4. I just don’t want to be that kind of coach.

But wait: What if I’m coaching an athlete who shares with me a long-term goal that I believe he or she has less than a one in a million chance of ever achieving? Shouldn’t I at least tell the athlete that?

Well, yes and no. I am willing to join an athlete in acknowledging that a particular dream or long-term goal is a long shot. This conversation can be helpful in steering an athlete toward a healthy process-focused orientation toward the sport and away from a poisonous dependency on outcomes. But as a general rule I try to spend as little time as possible being the cold voice of reason with respect to an athlete’s dreams and ambitions. There are plenty of other people in the lives of most athletes who are ready and willing to assume that rule. As a coach I just don’t want my athletes to associate me with the set of negative emotions one feels when hearing words like “can’t” and “never.”

5. There’s no greater shame for a coach than to be called out by a former athlete who achieves something the coach said was impossible.

 This last one kind of speaks for itself. We all know examples of great athletes (and entertainers, entrepreneurs, scientists, etc.) who turn around and say “Ha! How ya like me now?” after achieving something that a former coach (or teacher or other mentor) said he or she would never do. I would just about die if this ever happened to me, and the best way I can think of to prevent it from ever happening to me is to never tell an athlete that something he or she wants to do is impossible!