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You Don't Rise to Goals, You Fall to Your Systems

As the author of Atomic Habits, James Clear has dedicated his work to studying the science of behavior change and how small habits can lead to remarkable results. In his book, he emphasizes the importance of creating systems to help implement your goals and develop habits, and how your identity plays into your ability to follow through. One powerful example he shares is that of the British Cyclists who achieved massive success in the Tour de France, not by setting a goal of winning, but by implementing a system of continuous small improvements.


This example highlights an important truth about success: it's not just about setting the right goals, but also about creating systems that help you achieve those goals. Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal, every candidate wants to get the job, but the successful ones are the ones who have systems in place to support their efforts. In the swimming world, I can't help but think of Michael Phelps, one of the most decorated Olympians in history. After hearing about Michael's training and systems, it was evident that Michael saw himself being the "GOAT" way before he became it.


What exactly does a system look like? It's a set of habits, routines, and processes that you follow consistently to achieve your goals. For example, if your goal is to become healthier, your system might involve going to the gym every morning, meal prepping every Sunday, and tracking your progress in a journal. In my opinion, one of the most powerful quotes in the book is as follows: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”


But here's the thing: your system is only as effective as your ability to follow through with it. This is where your identity comes into play. If you see yourself as someone who is committed to your goals and values, you are more likely to follow through with your system and create lasting habits. On the other hand, if you see yourself as someone who is lazy or undisciplined, you are more likely to give up on your system and fall back into old patterns.

This is why it's so important to cultivate a positive identity that aligns with your goals.


You need to see yourself as someone who is capable of achieving your goals, and who has the discipline and resilience to follow through with your system. When you embrace this identity, you are more likely to take action that supports your goals, and to persevere through setbacks and challenges. Again, this is easily seen in sport. Those who start to identify as champions seem to be intrinsically motivated to show up to morning practice, eat mindfully, avoid harmful substances and sacrifice for their goals. They do it because they seem to believe it's who they are not just what they do.


In fact, the feedback swim coaches often share after hosting an Ultimate Swimmer BREAKOUT Swim Clinic confirms this idea. They observe a shift in their swimmers' motivation and attitude. When Olympians, like Josh Davis, place Olympic gold medals around the necks of young swimmers, they seem to catch a vision of their future self and start to move towards this identity; thus, making their habits of excellence much easier to exhibit and act upon. As James Clear states in the book, your identity plays a significant role in your follow through.


One of my absolute favorite stories from a BREAKOUT Swim Clinic hosted by Davis involved a young Houston swimmer. This young girl refused to wear the gold medals and kindly stated, "I want to wear my own." Many years later, that young girl went on to become a World-Record Holder and a Five-Time Olympic Medalist. Dana Vollmer believed herself to be an Olympic Champion way before she became one. Truthfully, this story is not limited to Dana. Many Olympic swimmers share a similar experience.


So, if you want to achieve your goals and develop lasting habits, start by creating a system that supports your efforts. But don't stop there. Cultivate a positive identity that aligns with your goals and values, and that empowers you to follow through with your system. With the right mindset and the right habits, anything is possible.

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