Life Exerts Itself

by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns


In most long term goal pursuits you will encounter events that you could not, or did not, anticipate at the start. The question is, when life exerts itself by interfering with your goals how to keep going? This article leads to a discussion of strategies for persisting over the long haul of a significant goal pursuit.

Getting a stretch before the semi-final race at the 2001 World Track and Field Championships



Sitting in the stands with coach Jackie Byrnes and squad mate
Ryan Sherry before the Optus Grand Prix race

My story

In February of 1998 I conducted the first Goal Achiever's Program. Every participant in that class started to pursue a universal goal - to achieve a yellow belt in the martial art of Tae Kwon Do.

At that time I was attending two classes each week, taking private lessons and had achieved the grade of "black tip", the grade you have just before your black belt. Given that I already had good motivation strategies in place to get to Tae Kwon Do classes I chose another goal to work on for the duration of this Goal Achiever's Program.

I set a subgoal to participate in the NSW State Veteran's Track and Field titles in some event the following year, and a long term goal to participate in the World Track and Field Championships in 2001 or 2003. Nothing like ambition, but notice I set the goal to participate - not to be competitive!

In the early part of 1999 I began to experience an odd set of symptoms.

I was sometimes breathless when warming up at the track.

I was having dyslexic episodes and forgetfulness.

I was generally fatigued and my legs especially felt like lead.

My body temperature was unnaturally elevated.

I wasn't sleeping.

My hair was falling out.

I was so breathless that I was having trouble talking.

These symptoms (and more) were there to varying degrees, and in varying intensities, nearly every day. It is only in retrospect that they are seen as a collection of related symptoms. That was not my perspective at the time. Many of these symptoms could have easily been signs of over-training, or having a bit of a bug. Although what I thought was going on with my hair is anybody's guess!

At about this time, I received an invitation to race at the Optus Grand Prix in Sydney. This event was scheduled for February. The invitation brought on a real sense of excitement. Very few Veteran's get this chance to run at an event for elite athletes. I would get to warm up with the other members of my squad who were racing in Open events at the warm-up track before the race. I'd never been on a warm up track before, let alone run in the Athletics Centre. That made it special.

What I knew was that I would race over 200m with many of the best Australian female Veteran's athletes, a few of whom are also the best in the world in their age group. Although there was no expectation that I would win a race against these women, I had trained hard and the stage was certainly set for me to sprint well. I thought perhaps a personal best would be achieved. On the night I warmed up on the same track as athletes I had only ever seen at a distance. I was very nervous. This was actually my very FIRST athletics race and for it to be at an Optus Grand Prix was overwhelming. This is so typical of my life!

I had a shocker of a race! I started well, but by the 80m mark I was so breathless and fatigued I limped home in 31 seconds or there abouts.

My symptoms and the confusion surrounding my difficulty sprinting by those around me at the track led me to the doctor for blood tests.

The tests came back a couple weeks later in early March. On the morning of the State Championships that I had trained all year to race in, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. Two weeks later a specialist diagnosed Grave's disease. During the two weeks I waited to see the specialist I became more symptomatic. There was nothing subtle about it any more! I was very sick. I lost most of the muscle I had worked so hard to gain during the year. This left me with little leg strength and I could not regulate my heart rate enough to walk - let alone jog, run or sprint. After all that work - life was exerting itself big time into my long-term goal!

Life exerted itself big time. The question was, could I really start all over again? How did I have to think about an event like this to keep the goal alive?


It can feel like we are behind a strong fence and have reached the end of the road .. but we have not. There is always a day when we can move around, over or under the barrier. There may even be a day when the we forget there
ever was a barrier.


Mel's story

For 20 years Melinda Gainsford-Taylor had trained as a sprinter with Jackie Byrnes. She had competed in two Olympic Games and when I met her she was well into her preparations for her final assault - the 100m and 200m sprints in front of her home crowd - the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

In September 1998, many of us witnessed Mel's knee collapse while she was sprinting in the final of the 200m at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpor. Her knee gave way on the bend then broke down and failed completely. Mel fell at the finish line in 4th place out of medal contention.

The weeks following KL Mel underwent surgery and began the long road to recovery. Life has exerted itself on Mel's third Olympic bid.

How will Mel come back? How does Mel have to think about an event like this?

Jackie's story

In 1998, Jackie Byrnes, our coach, achieved a life long dream. She is appointed to the Australian team as Women's Sprints Relay coach. This position was for the Commonwealth Games, to carry into the World Championships 1999 and onto the Olympics 2000. She knows now she will march into the stadium with the athletes at the opening ceremony - a goal that eluded her as an athlete.

Near the end of 1999, Jackie is informed that through controversy she has been sacked from the job. It is all over the newspapers. It is a mess.

Life exerted itself into Jackie's dream of marching in an opening ceremony.

How does Jackie have to think about this event to motivate action to achieve this goal - AGAIN?


The question is:
What kind of thinking do we need to do in order that we not abandon the goal when life exerts itself?

What happened?

You will just have to wait till the end of the story.

Are these stories uncommon?

No, they are not uncommon, they are only unique to the individual and the goal! This is life. This is the life of goal pursuits.

Every time I conduct the Goal Achiever's Program (or what is now the Labyrinth on-line course) unexpected events show up as a major factor for which my students must learn strategies to handle. And, it happens right from day 1. For instance, one student's goal was to learn to play a song on the harp. Having set the goal and preparing to take action he discovers he will not be able to get a harp for several weeks - how frustrating and deflating.

Another person signs on to do an art class to fulfill a goal she has had since childhood. The night before the class is to begin the course is canceled! How disorienting!

Of course, in the first group of participants doing Tae Kwon Do we had a broken toe, a broken wrist, traffic jams, unexpected trips out of town, half the group out with the flu, me out with shin splints from my working on my OTHER new goal of sprinting and so on.

The question is this: What kind of thinking do we need to do in order that we not abandon the goal when life exerts itself? How did Mel and I need to think in order to continue to pursue the long-term goal. How did Jackie need to think in order to continue to pursue this life long dream? How did my students need to think in order to get past these smaller interruptions in their short-term goals.

And, another question: How many goals have been abandoned because we give up all actions when some small event, unexpected and out-of-place, got in the way of a few actions? I know many people who after a few weeks vacation can not drag themselves toward action for the sake of their health and fitness goals.

Through the Goal Achiever's Program (and now the Labyrinth) we have learned that there are some useful thoughts and useful actions when life exerts itself. The next time this happens you might try the following.


Know what part of a situation to pay attention to is a critical feature of the motivation to move forward



Time passes is such an important thing to know mentally but more so to act on emotionally

Things to think about

1. Time will pass whether you do anything or not.

Abandoning goals is not a good idea. Remember, you will wake up in the future - and you will either have the benefit of having achieved this goal, or not. It is that simple.

2. Not being able to take a lot of action is not a good enough reason to take no action.

Even one small step, or one small action now is one less to do later.

3. Similar to #2 - not being able to take any action (being stalled) is never a good enough reason to abandon all future action.

4. Just know that, in most cases, after a few months this 'life exerts itself' time will be a vague memory - barely a blip on your radar.

Time is simply an amazing phenomenon. No matter how bad this moment is it will change in time. Although I remember well my experience in early 1999, it is now a non-event. It would have only remained significant had I not taken action.

5. Think in images - make pictures of getting back on track with your actions.

This allows you to keep the goal as a part of your daily experience even when you are not taking action. It can create anticipation for getting back to it and that is a very useful emotion for motivation.

6. Focus only on that which is relevant.

When life gets crazy and important things (like action toward your goal) is not getting done it is time to consciously reprioritise. I do this automatically when I remind myself to focus only on that which is relevant! It cuts out all the excesses and waste.


Always set an intention for a future time. If you fail to take action then, okay .. set another intention. On and on till you start!




Even passively watching others is a viable and useful alternative!


Things to do

1. Plan, and pick a date to restart

If you are working on a long-term goal then unexpected events are more likely to happen than not happen. When it does, don't beat yourself up for not getting to your goal. Release it for the time being but make a date to revisit your plans and to begin again. If that time also isn't right, move it forward again. Keep setting an intention to restart, you have better odds of it happening than if no intention exists at all.

2. Celebrate your ability to be taking very small actions again.

Don't think about where you were, think about where you are and where you are going.

3. Seek alternative actions that are still aligned with the goal

There are usually many facets to a goal, and usually if we put our mind to it we can think about activities that support our goal that can be done during the "life exerts itself"time. We can read at the doctors office, stretch in a hotel room, watch an inspiring movie when we are tired after a long day, or strengthen our fingers by doing exercises on the steering wheel. Do these simple things and you will feel you are still working toward your goal.

4. If you've had a long break remember you will struggle to initiate action again - so just start.

The hardest thing to do after a time of absence is to start again. Just see it happening, look forward to it, start doing something again. In a few weeks you will not remember the forced time out.

5. Do not re-evaluate the value of the goal!

When something unexpected happens that interferes with one or more actions related to your goal it is not a good time to re-evaluate whether it is a good goal to pursue - the answer will almost always be no!




I am happy to say we are somewhere from the end but far from the beginning of the journey



Mel came back to run more strongly than ever and produced a career best result placing 6th in the 200m final of the 2000 Olympic games.

What's the status of Mel, Jackie, our harpist, our painter and I?


When Mel returned from KL, I asked her to give a lecture to my Goal Achiever students. She began the lecture with a video taped replay of the race in KL - when it ended she asked the group, "Did you ever have a bad day?" They laughed and cringed at the same time. Mel had arrived at the lecture that day on crutches.

I was there the first night she turned up at the track, everyone was watching. She limped terribly as she jogged ever so slowly on the grass infield. She stayed focused and did what she had to do. She spent a lot of time in the pool doing deep water running sessions. No sprinter wants to run in the pool! But not liking it, wasn't a good enough reason to not do it.

When she was ready for her first run on the track Jackie took her out in an afternoon so she could have some privacy. She focused on what was relevant, what she could do now - not what she had done then. She knew September 2000 was going to come whether she did anything or not - and she also knew that she couldn't know for a fact what was possible without taking action.

If you are in Australia then you likely know what is happening with Mel - she became, for the 6th time, Australia's 100m National Champion. Only Raylene Boyle has a record to match. She also ran 22.80 to Cathy Freeman's 22.78. In 18 months Mel has come all the way back. She competed in the 2000 Games with her best career performance placing 6th in the final of the 200m.


On February 27th, during the National Championships, Jackie Byrnes was called into a room out at Homebush and told that she has been re-instated as the Sprint coach for the Olympic 100m relay team. She wore the green and gold uniform and marched into the stadium with Mel and Jana, while the rest of us on the squad waved at our TVs.

I've asked Jackie how she continued to take action every day while events spun out of her control. This is what she has told me.

I had to focus on that particular day each day and hoped that while I was doing that justice would prevail. I knew that I had done everything I could possibly do to address the situation and now had to leave it to my supporters behind the scenes.

From the day I was informed of my dismissal to the 27th of February was 3 1/2 months - probably one of the most difficult periods in my life. I threw myself into other things and friends gathered around me. I tried not to allow my disappointment and humiliation to take over. Instead to try and get on with what needed to be done with my athletes and my life. I decided that if justice did not prevail, if Athletics Australia did not reverse their decision, I would continue on and work to achieve even higher levels as a coach and become AA's 'worst nightmare'. Whatever happened, whatever outcome, I planned to enjoy it!






I am doing just fine and into all kinds of new adventures. My first horse, Nugget.



The Labyrinth online course is how students now study goal achievement with me. To read about the course and how you can participate please you
this link.

The harpist

Michael, our harpist eventually received his harp. He learned to play and used his music writing skills to compose a beautiful song for a woman dying of cancer at a hospice. Playing the song for her was his goal, and it was achieved before the woman died.

The painter

The paintings happened too. And, a photo of one of them is hanging on the wall here in my real office.

And me

Getting to where I could sprint again was a very long process. It would have been so easy to give it away. I am not an elite athlete. I have nothing but a personal agenda with my sprinting. In those days I did not even know if I would turn out to be very good at it. At the time I was diagnosed I had not been training long enough to know.

Here I was starting again being less fit than I had ever been at anytime in my life. I could not walk without my heart rate accelerating over 200bpm let alone sprint and I had no leg muscles left to speak of.

My first strategy was to not think about it at all. If I thought about where I had been I felt depressed and had a sense of loss. If I thought about where I was and how I looked I got embarrassed. If I thought about the long-term goal I felt hopeless.

So instead of thinking, I took action. Everyday I did something toward my goal. At first it was all about getting my metabolism stabilised. I educated myself about the condition, I followed my doctor's instruction, I did only what work I absolutely had to do (most of that was teaching and there are some very funny stories about that time). I reflected upon and reinterpreted some of the events I had experienced before being diagnosed - like sprinting poorly at the Optus Grand Prix. I had to rewrite a lot of these memories in light of what I now knew. I had to literally rebuild the conditioning of my heart and my muscles.

When the time came I began celebrating changes in my condition. I looked for all forms of evidence that I was getting well again. I celebrated the day I could jog slowly for one minute while my heart rate remained under 160 - and when it actually started to recover when I stopped running - until then it would just zoom higher and higher for a few minutes. You'd think I'd won a gold medal the day I joined the squad for a run at the Long Reef golf course and I did not have to stop.

Along with Mel, I too spent a lot of time in the pool. And then, of course, there was the return to the track and the ever so slow return to sprinting. It was 8 months between my diagnosis and the first 100m sprint at the speed I had achieved before getting ill.

Today, I am happy to say I am healthier, stronger and faster than I was before at any previous time in my life. I have had several PBs (personal bests) over every distance in training. I am stable on medication and get regular blood tests. I did run in the World Track and Field Championships in 2001. I made the semi-final and ran 15th fastest over 100m. I ran in the World Master's Games a year later and made the final with the 7th fastest time. Now it is 2003 and I am preparing for the next World Championships in Puerto Rico. If you stop all action you will never know what might have been.

When life exerts itself on your goal pursuits perhaps these stories will keep you on track too!





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