How to Make Peace with Missing Big Goals
My sport is a huge part of my identity, but I’m not as good as I hoped I’d be. What if this is my peak?
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Since I was 11 years old, I’ve been training seriously in a sport. (I’m not going to say which sport here, for privacy.) I went on to play in college, and it’s been my identity for practically my whole life. But now I’m graduating and realizing that this might be it for me. I’m never going to get better than I am right now. There were a few years when I was even dreaming of going to the Olympics. I was good, but not exceptional. I never set any records. I’ll probably never be able to train as hard as I have these past few years, so I’m only going to get worse. I feel like everyone had such high expectations for me and I’m a little afraid that if I stop I’ll be disappointing them. How do you live with knowing that you aren’t as good as you wanted to be? Everyone tells you to set goals and aim for them, but they never tell you what to do when you still fail. I don’t know what’s worse: thinking I never lived up to my potential, or realizing that my potential was never as much as I hoped. If I stop now, am I giving up on my dream or just cutting my losses so I can move on with life?
I showed your question to my dad, who’s a chess expert, because I thought he could relate to your situation. By the time he took a step back from chess tournaments, he was 50 points shy of becoming a Master—which was his ultimate goal. “The thing about chess,” he explained, “is that teenage kids can give it all their time, but that’s harder to do in midlife. Could I have become a Master? Probably. But at some point I realized it would be harder and harder to reach that goal. I had a family and a career. I had to ask myself, how much am I going to give this pursuit? How much am I going to sacrifice the rest of my life?”
I know it must have been bittersweet for him to step back from competing. Still, even on a more recreational level, chess has added a ton of depth to his life. Wherever he’s lived, he’s made friends through the chess world. He was at the Fischer-Spassky world championship in Iceland in ’72, the most famous match in chess history, and still considers it a life highlight. And though it’s not a regular thing, he still enters tournaments from time to time. A few years ago, he tied for second in the Oregon Senior Open.
I’m proud of his achievements, so I’m totally taking this opportunity to brag—but I’m just as proud, if not more so, of the fact that he’s maintained his chess friendships through decades; that some of my earliest memories are of sitting on his lap while he played; and that he wrote, in a journal he kept for me as a toddler, “You’ve learned to distinguish between black and white chess pieces!”
What I mean is that skills and achievements are great, but the thing that’s even more impressive is living a passionate life, unapologetically loving the things that bring you joy, and sharing that joy with people you care about. That’s what your family and loved ones want for you. Yes, being an Olympian is extraordinary—as in the literal sense of extra-ordinary, meaning the vast, vast majority of humans will never even get close)—but if they truly care for you, then what will actually make them proud is seeing your happiness, in whatever form that takes.
Your task, right now, is to figure out what kind of balance will bring you the most happiness and comfort. You’ll never know what could have been, but you can, with time, come to peace with that uncertainty. Maybe you’ll decide to train intensely for one or two more years; maybe you’ll become a mentor or coach in your sport; maybe you’ll play recreationally forever; maybe you’ll step away for a long time, and reconnect later; maybe it will be a single chapter in your life, and now you’re ready to turn the page. Whatever happens, know that your sport will always be part of who you are. It’s shaped you. And by giving it your all, you’ve been a part of shaping it, too.
As for feeling like a failure because you haven’t reached your goal—well, my dad has thoughts on that, too. To him, ambitious goals matter, regardless of how things turn out. “Big goals make life intense and interesting,” he says. “That’s better than having little bitty goals and always reaching them easily. There’s value in getting as far as you can.” Your goals in this sport, and the effort you put in to reach them, say far more about your character than any actual externally recognized achievement would, even if these internal efforts are less celebrated and recognized. You’re someone who chases what you want. And though there’s grief, sometimes, in reaching a limit, you should be proud of that fire. It’s part of you—and you’ll carry it wherever life takes you next.