Dream Vs. Goals - So You Want to be on the Olympic Team?

Dr. Jenny R. Susser, Sport Psychologist
Dr. Jenny R. Susser, Sport Psychologist

“Welcome to Hollywood, what’s your dream?” Who can name that movie? Pretty Woman, in case your brain was still rattling around. The movie starts with a dream of a prince and a white horse and ends with it coming true…which happens all the time in real life, right? Think about the power that line had in the movie; a whole movie based on a dream…that was more like a fairytale. Powerful. Dreams and goals: big words, big thoughts, scary thoughts, success, failure, fun, devastation, elation, short-term, long-term, powerful, meaningful, shared, secret, motivating…I could go on for hours with the stream of consciousness on dreams and goals. I love dreams and I love goals, but have you ever stopped to think about if there is a difference between the two? I also love language and find that we don’t put enough thought into the way we say things these days—and the result is a loss of power. We use words like “awesome” when we find a good parking spot…what word will we use then for things that truly inspire “awe”? I travel all over the country and find the same thing, no matter where, people afraid to use the word goal so instead use the word dream. Dreams have this magical element, like, if it’s a dream, then it has to come true. Goals seem to be reserved for the “successful,” a distant idea reserved for someone else, something you have to accomplish or else. My goal is to change that. So how do you become part of the successful then? Maybe set some goals...

Let’s start using our language more powerfully by distinguishing dreams from goals. What is a dream? Funny you should ask because when I look it up two things come up: a dive into Freudian theory about dreams that occur when sleeping, or quotes to help you follow your dream. Humph. It seems that when we say, “following our dreams,” it is really daydreams we are talking about. Daydreaming is a very good thing. It is said to foster creativity by brain scientists. For the non-scientist, we like it because it makes us feel good. It is a great escape from things, a good way to elicit some of those good chemicals in our bodies, and reminds us of younger days when daydreaming was a much larger part of our days. The time we spend dreaming decreases over the lifespan. Perhaps because when we are young, we use dreams to anticipate the future and as the future becomes more predictable and less of it, we don't need dreams as much. Still, I suggest finding time to daydream regularly! Since dreams (daydreams) are a bit of an escape as adults, I like to distinguish them from goals. We all daydream and most of us never spill the beans of all the dreams we had as kids or teens (or yesterday). I used to play the guitar and write silly songs, so of course I dreamed of being a rock star. Something soooooo not in the cards for me in any way, but I had that dream. Was it realistic? Not in the least. But was it fun? Heck yeah, the dreamer in me loved it! Now, what if I had related to that dream as if it was a goal? I have little talent for music, just a love for it like most of us. I knew a handful of chords so I could play a few songs but does that make me a rock star? Sadly, no. But when I look back on it, it makes me wonder if I had a goal with guitar, not just a lofty dream, would I still be playing today (I haven’t played in decades)? When I gave up that dream, I gave up guitar completely. I am not wrecked from it, but I think there was a middle ground somewhere I missed.

When I was five and a half years old, I started swimming. Now, that I had talent for. I had a national record by the time I was seven and my coach gave me a t-shirt that read, “Look for me in the Olympics in 1984.” One heck of a dream, eh? And yes, at that point, with at least a decade ahead of me, it was still a dream. But I stopped swimming for those ten years and missed the opportunity. So when 1984 rolled around, that dream became a nagging irritation and I went back to the pool. The 1988 Olympics were a leftover of the earlier dream from childhood, but I was willing to give it a test drive. So, with lots of support and work, I turned that dream into a goal. I swam at the trials and failed to make the team…still the best four years ever.

So what is the difference between a dream and a goal? I saw a t-shirt once that said, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” I like that. You have to be in action with a goal, not just thinking about it. When making the Olympic team transitioned from a dream to a goal, the work, the commitment, the energy, the money, the time, the everything changed. It was no longer private or something I could pretend I wasn't up to and the people close to me had to be onboard. It was now something that I spent time on, lots of time, everyday. A goal has to have meat to it, or dairy if you are vegetarian, but it needs substance. I talk about SMARTS goals, which I did not create, but love to use to gain power with your goals (Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic but challenging, Time sensitive, and Support). Not every goal has to be all consuming with regards to your time and energy, but the bigger the goal, the bigger the commitment, so be ready for that.

I love goals and I think they are incredibly important. They help direct our energy, they enhance and express our passions, they give us great things to focus on, and they help us feel successful. If you accomplish all of your goals, you are not setting the bar high enough, by the way! And if you are not even in the ballpark for a goal, then it’s probably more like a dream. When you define them correctly, they are much more empowering.

One of the reasons I wanted to write this is everywhere I go, people tell me they want to make the Olympic Team or a Professional team or the like. I have worked with thousands of athletes, amateur and international, high school and college, and almost everyone has an Olympic or Professional “goal.” The problem I see is that most of them are really “dreams” and not goals. It’s pretty easy to say you want to make an Olympic or NFL team someday but getting there is no easy task. I lived that goal for years and I’m telling you, it is not something to toss out there over coffee. In professional sports such as football, baseball, basketball and hockey, less than .01% of all college athletes become professional athletes (yes, this is an actual statistic). LESS than .01%! I wonder what the percentage would be for the equestrian Olympic teams? Even less, unfortunately. Equestrian teams for the WEG or Olympics have 4 spots plus an alternate. A football team has close to 100, just for reference, and there are 32 teams in the league. One US Dressage team, of which Steffen Peters will be occupying a spot for a while, so four. Crushing, I know.

I’m not trying to be a buzz-kill here but sometimes relating to a dream as if it’s a goal can be incredibly bad for you and your horse or your shoulder pads. When the goal is unrealistic, it does some negative things to the process.

First, it kills motivation. If you wonder deep down inside if you will ever accomplish that goal because you might not have the skills, the support, or the commitment (Jenny-the-rock-star), then you don’t really have to put that much effort into it because it wasn't going to happen anyway. You wouldn't find me practicing guitar if there was something better to do or if I was having trouble learning something new. But every morning at 4:45 am when my alarm clock went off, I peeled myself out of bed and into the pool because I knew, no matter how remote the Olympic chance, that there was one and I had to find out.

The second thing it does is separate you from the game you are playing. I eventually stopped playing the guitar because I knew I wasn’t “world class” and so I gave it up. I think the problem was the lack of a realistic goal, outcome, or vision of myself as an average player that just enjoyed sitting around with my guitar. Interestingly, I have refused to sell my guitar and have lugged it all over the country in countless moves and one day, will play again (never in public after this, though). I see this in horses a lot, but because people love horses differently than guitars, they give up in secret ways. They stop riding and start making excuses, they get over-pressurized and become hard on their horses, they have their trainer ride, they lease the horse out or even sell it. This slow burn to disconnect, because it happens over time, is hard to see as a goal vs. dream problem, but I suspect it is more than we know. It is terribly sad to see so many horse lovers lose that lovin’ feeling because they had something they said was a goal that should have been called a dream. If their goal had been realistic, the fun and fulfillment would have followed, because it would have been possible, even if they failed.

The third thing is the work. The work it takes to move a dream to a goal is substantial. Now, it is great work and incredibly fulfilling, but it is work and not everyone is up to that kind of work so let’s just be honest about that.

I remember sitting down with a two-time Olympian who was a trainer for a young rider I was working with. The three of us talked about her goal of making a US Team. It was an incredible conversation filled with planning, hope, disappointment, and a big dose of reality. The components were there: the horse is fantastic, the rider is highly skilled, the mental toughness is great, and the support team is there.

One thing that truly impressed me, as in made a strong impression, occurred when the Olympian asked what it would be like if she did not make the team? Would her dressage career be invalid because you see young rider, making the Olympic Team is hard and statistically against the odds.

The pause that occurred in that moment and the thinking that was necessary to answer, invented a new relationship for the rider to her competitive career. Watching that transformation was a gift. The rider flinched at first because her Olympic dream was so much a part of her riding that separating it seemed impossible, but as she settled into the goal part, much more became available.

Her new connection to a goal created power that wasn’t accessible when it was a dream.

It created a visible path to follow as opposed to a foggy idea…and when you have that, you have actions to take, which is the only way to get there! She is on her path, taking her actions, and who knows if she will accomplish that goal.

Not making a Team is disappointing but it’s not the only result of that goal. The path to that goal is so wide and fun, that it has a life and result of it’s own. I failed to make the Olympic Team, but on the way I went to one of the best colleges in the country and had an amazing experience there, I made 2 other national teams so got to travel the world to compete, and the friends and experiences were amazing. It made me the person I am today and includes a range of successes and failures, not just one dream.

So, can someone really dash your dreams? Yes, no, well, sort of. Here’s the point of this, you need BOTH dreams and goals. If you have a goal, a plan for that goal, the support, the commitment, the understanding that it may or may not happen, and the tenacity to do it anyway, then no one should be able to touch that. I had plenty of people tell me I was crazy to try to make the team after swimming for only four years. It didn’t matter to me though and it never stopped me once because I had all the components of that goal and was willing to go for it anyway. And I failed and oh my gosh, I’m still alive! If succeeding at a goal was guaranteed, only two people would try out for the Olympic Team in each event in swimming…

If you have a dream that you are calling a goal, then you become very susceptible to criticism and defeat, and quick to abandon ship. I love goals but I hate the pressure we put on ourselves to have big, lofty ones. Why can’t we just be happy and fulfilled doing some normal stuff? Why does everyone have to be a pro, make a Team, or ride Grand Prix? I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I write this and a man just walked by wearing a t-shirt that says, “Dream Big” (seriously, what is it about t-shirts and dreams?). I never hear anyone ask what if we let some of those dreams stay dreams?

Just so you know, it is completely fine to NOT take a dream to a goal and to just have it as something that makes you happy to think about. What if daydreams were just fun to escape to and lovely to think about but not a source of pressure because the truth might be we are really not committed to it…and what if all of that was OK! Protect your dreams because they are important and powerful. And if and when you become ready to move them to a goal, go for it and enjoy the ride!




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