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To Reach the Summit, You Must have Already Climbed the Mountain – Tips for Preventing Pre Goal Achievement Stress

It sounds like a quote from someone important. In fact, after I wrote it down I did a quick search because surely someone important already said this.

To be frank, most of the quotes about climbing mountains either don’t make a whole lot of sense, are meaningless comfort statements or are actually about technical mountain climbing but I did find a couple that apply:

“The summit is what drives us, but the climb itself is what matters.” – Conrad Anker

“Everybody wants to reach the peak, but there is no growth on the top of a mountain. It is in the valley that we slog through, the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enables us to summit life’s next peak.” – Andy Andrews

As a writer, I’m not disappointed that someone else hasn’t quite phrased it this way, or at least it seems that way from a very brief search. I’m sure that if I put the title phrase through a ‘plagiarism meter’ I’m probably offending someone’s copyright but never mind. It’s not like I’m getting paid for this and I’m happy for them to correct me so I can quite them.

And so to the point: In order to reach the summit, you must have already climbed the mountain. Disclaimer: Yes I know that someone could be dropped at the top by helicopter or giant eagle but please allow me some poetic license here.

Why is this important?

Well, if we get back to Mr Anker’s quote above, we often focus on the summit and increase its importance disproportionately.

Recently, I completed the last grading for my martial art before I can attempt to grade for a black belt. It’s a big deal, a mini-summit if you like. Earlier in the year, there had been opportunities to reach this martial art summit which I could have taken. But I chose to keep focusing on the climb instead.

If you delve back into the history of this blog you will find me learning a lot along the way about perseverance and how to focus on the journey rather than the results. In my lean and system improvement working life, I understand this concept well. Making progress starts like a heavy flywheel . Momentum and positive results are gained as long as we continue to push. These concepts work well when the length of the journey seems unending and incremental progress is its own reward.

It is completely different however when there is a tangible time based goal in sight.

Post achievement depression is a well understood phenomenon in sport and other areas such as business and academics. We have all experienced that feeling of emptiness and ‘what now’ when we have come to the other side of a goal we have focused hard on achieving. Hopefully in about a year from now I’ll be able write a post about my own experience of this but, as a good training friend of mine says, that is Black Belt Donna’s problem.

We hear less about Pre achievement stress, the mental and physical agony we put ourselves though on the way to achieving an important goal.

In the past months I have come to think that this issue can be avoided by changing our mindset towards the achievement of important goals. By focusing only on the journey and less on the summit, we can avoid both pre achievement burnout and post achievement depression.

In my sport, at any point in time, someone in our club is working on a major goal. It is usually related to an important grading, a competition or selection for a representative team. During these times, there is a pattern of extra training, focus on problem areas, more time in the dojang and unfortunately a lot of focus on our shortcomings. This is where the problem begins. Inevitably, these training sessions culminate in almost clockwork mental or physical breakdowns where self doubt and time pressure overloads our ability to rationalize. Ultimately, we end up at the important event, stressed out, tired out and with our confidence through the floor.

What we fail to remember during this process is that in order to consider taking the exam, performing at the recital, playing in the starting line up or appearing before the dissertation board is the years of training that went in before the key moment.

In ITF Taekwondo, the minimum time needed to achieve a 1st Dan Black Belt is around 4-5 years. it’s true that some people can manage this faster but its rare. To achieve the rank of Master, it’s closer to 30 years. This means that we have lots of time to incrementally improve as the weeks, months and years of training pass.

Goal related stress is by necessity time related. Once we commit to the goal, we are now bound to be at the right level on time, or else. It’s stressful. But often, we fail to remember the big picture. If we don’t summit the mountain today, will we never climb again? Is the achievement of the goal the end? Of course not, but we treat it as if it is the pinnacle of our journey, not just a milestone on the way.

In order to achieve any goal, we must have already done the ground work along the way. We regularly achieve the required level many times before we are prepared to put it on display. So why do we need to elevate importance the fleeting point in time when someone is actually watching? To be fair, I receive a lot more corrective instruction and nitpicking from my instructors in training sessions on more things than can possibly seen in the few minutes when I perform a pattern for the examiner.

My instructor started a discussion a few weeks ago about this exact topic. While also training for a very important grading (remember the bit about 30 years and Master rank?) he said that he had had a realization. He was also falling into the trap of self doubt and internal pressure. This went on for a few weeks until he decided that at his stage in the sport, it was a bit ridiculous. If he wasn’t ready for the next level after 30 years well OK. In the end, he said, “I’m just going to go the the grading and train”, just like any of the other many days a week he trains already.

Unlike less experienced practitioners, he knows that the next milestone on the path has nothing to do with his daily choice to keep pursuing the sport. His long term view allows him to de-escalate the importance of the goal.

Tips for Preventing Pre Goal Achievement Stress

There are some tricks to keeping it Zen on the way to achieving a tough goal, so that you arrive at the milestone point in a great state of mind, excited for the next mountain.

  1. Focus on a point after the goal. In my case, this last grading was the beginning of the final stage to Black Belt so it was exciting to think of the future. To prevent myself from over escalating the importance of my next goal, I will spend a lot of time focusing on what my journey might look like a few years from now, with my black belt rather than only thinking about the next grading.
  2. Think about why you are pursuing your sport, art, education, hobby outside of the achievement of goals. What do you like about it? If there were no goals would you do it anyway? I really enjoying hanging out with my Taekwondo friends and training together. It’s an excellent part of my week.
  3. If you are in a position to control the timeframe of your goal achievement, then pursue it when you are already at a point that it is simply a snapshot of where you are not where you aspire to be. This way, you are just recording your level, since you already achieved it.
  4. Give yourself a break. It is easy to be dissatisfied with our performance when we are focused on a goal. We take notes and nitpick at the smallest things. We can get a bit melodramatic about how terrible we are. A bit of perspective can help here. Just coach a few beginners and remember how far you’ve come.
  5. Acknowledge your achievements: It is also to forget to pat ourselves on the back for the amazing things we have already achieved. For example: when I returned to my sport, my turning kick was dismal at best. I could write an entire post on the turning kick and its purpose in teaching humility and perseverance. However, I used this same kick in the recent grading to break a board, while flying in the air.
  6. Focus on achievements that are unrelated to your goal: When I came back to Taekwondo just looking at my sparring gear would cause my hands to shake and I would break out into a cold sweat. Some days, I could step into the ring for a few minutes and other times I could only watch from the sidelines, still shaking. At my grading this time, I went two rounds with black belts bigger and more experienced that myself and it was awesome. Getting back my sparring confidence, I realized afterwards, was something I would always have, regardless of any rank achieved.
  7. Remember, you can always choose not to Summit: Just saying.

At the end of this year, I am planning to grade for a Taekwondo Black Belt. I’m nervous just writing that down. I will be 47, with a never ending back problem, various other injuries, an ageing body and less than ideal height. After that, I plan to keep on doing my sport because its awesome and the people are great. I plan to follow my own advice in this post and just keep on doing what I love. At some point, this year, next year, whenever, if I just keep climbing, I’ll get there.


  1. I love the point about looking beyond your goal, because in a way, having one goal and reaching it only takes the wind out of our sales (or why so many Olympians end up feeling depressed after winning gold). Wishing you all the best with your black belt grading!


    • Hey Stuart, thanks very much for your comment. It’s so easy to get lost in focusing on our goal, especially if we’re all in. Maybe we lose some intensity in looking beyond and being less emotionally invested in the event itself rather than the journey. All I know is that I practiced this way this time and while I was nervous, it was the ‘ready to go hard’ kind of nervous not the ‘omg, someone please help me’ kind of nervous. Seems like the way to go for the black belt version to. Wishing you all the best with your own goals 🙂


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