Gold Medalists Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky on Setting Goals, Self-Care & Taking the Unexpected in Stride

There are few people more qualified to speak about goal-setting than Olympic Gold Medalists Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky. The path to the Olympics consists of quite literally one huge long-term goal, with many checkpoints and small goals along the way. It takes years and years of planning and organization to set these goals, and dedication, self-discipline and passion to reach them. So in Capital One and Visa’s latest Vision Board-making event, it’s fitting that Simone and Katie were chosen to show their own 2021 vision boards and discuss the complexities behind goal-setting, and what to do when those goalposts move farther away, as was the case with the postponed 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo. As someone with a hefty amount of professional, personal (and sure, athletic) goals myself, I was certainly going to take this opportunity to listen and absorb as much as humanly possible about the tremendous lives of these Olympians, in order to take away bits and pieces to hopefully reach my own goals.

Plus, I’m always down to make a vision board.

Vision boards and goals

A vision board is one of the most aesthetically-pleasing and effective ways to create and find inspiration. Often, they are cork or foam boards with pins and tape featuring words, phrases, images or anything else that might bring about said inspiration. Having something like this hanging in a visible place, like near a bed or desk, can provide not only something fun to look at during 'brain breaks,' but it also serves as a reminder of all the great things you'd like to accomplish. And in a year with so much riding on it, like 2021, there really couldn't be a better time to make one!

A great tip to beginning a vision board is thinking of one word or phrase to center it around. I chose ‘hope’ for mine, cut out of the September 2020 edition of Vogue, and the Olympians chose equally poignant and inspiring words for theirs. Simone discussed how this year has been a big year for ‘growth,’ the word at the center of her vision board. “I feel like there has been a lot of growth this year especially during the pandemic. And not only that, I feel like every day and every year you’re trying to grow and be better as a person as an athlete.” Katie resonated with this point, but her word was in a bit of a different vein, that of ‘love.’ Love is not only the center of her vision board, but a center of her life, when it comes to swimming and interacting with others, as she aims to have love as the “centerpiece” of her life.

As far as goals are concerned, Simone and Katie have been setting and achieving them since they were little. In Simone’s house, goals weren’t a self-taught necessity, but something that was instilled in her by her mother. “My mom has always made me sit down at the beginning of each year and write down my goals so I can keep track of what I want to accomplish that year, in-gym and out-of-gym, and it’s just a great feeling to get those checked off the list,” Simone explained. Having the goals written out physically is one of the proven ways to ensure they can get accomplished. Plus, waking up every day and looking at what you want to achieve provides a wonderful feeling of motivation to begin the day. 

Another aid in reaching goals can be images and photographs, which Katie explained emboldened her in her youth. “I always kept a bulletin board in my room with all my family photos which really inspired me and motivated me everyday to achieve my goals.” These days, though, she’s finding great incentive from the people and things all around her. “Right now, I’m getting a lot of inspiration from the medical and frontline workers really exhibiting incredible unselfishness, and I think we all need to channel that to beat back this pandemic.” True, that.

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Self care and personal growth

One thing that any pro-athlete (Olympian, especially) will tell you is that R & R (rest and recovery) are vital to training and athletic life in general. That, and naps. 

Both Katie and Simone both take self-care and recovery very seriously; for them, it’s just another important part of life, whether it be physical or mental care. Taking time for yourself is just another part of reaching your goals, just going, going, going without end is simply not the move. It’s all about balance.

Simone, self-proclaimed lover of pizza, says that taking time for herself is one of her favorite things to do. “I love Epsom salt baths… hot tubs, massages – that kind of stuff just makes me feel at ease so that I can perform at my best.” Katie loves these, too, but she stressed the importance of TV that will make you laugh, one of her foolproof ways to wind down before bed. 

She also discussed her love of journaling, the mental health care component that can’t be disregarded. Katie doesn’t just journal about her feelings, though; the Olympic distance swimmer also uses it to chronicle many different parts of her life. “I write down all my practices, all my thoughts. In the early days of the pandemic, I was writing down literally everything I was doing, all the different calls and all the different people I was talking to,” she explained. I’m sure many others did the same. Despite the strife that the pandemic brought on, journals from this time period are going to be something vital to look back on, bringing a healthy dose of perspective with each page-turn. 

Journaling truly provides a kind of therapy, too, something that Simone couldn’t do as much once the pandemic began. “I use my journal a lot more to put my thoughts onto paper, and now I feel like therapy helps me with that, but since the pandemic, I haven’t been able to go as often, so I have a couple journals that I’ve been writing in.” 

Then, there’s social media, a piece of our lives that has the capacity to bring both joy and pain. Simone and Katie shared their approaches to using social media. Katie understands the importance of limiting social media use to make ample time for self-care and ‘off’-time. But Katie is still active on all platforms – check out her Tiktok of balancing chocolate milk or her Instagram page, her favorite social media site. When she is logged-on, though, she aims to use her accounts purposefully. Katie uses her screen time mostly to “connect with other people,” and she tries to craft a positive atmosphere by doing “good things with those opportunities.”

Simone also understands that there is time to limit social media usage, although she tends to be on it a bit more often than her co-olympian, as she loves twitter (“I feel like I attend Twitter University”) and has benefited from interacting with the world during the pandemic via Instagram. “I use [Instagram] for a little bit of inspiration, motivational quotes… [I] try to share my life with my fans, with my family that I’m not in touch with too, too often.” As far as self-care goes, though, naps take the cake. Simone stressed how much she loves and appreciates her naps. “Oh my goodness, I feel like without my naps, I wouldn’t reach a lot of my goals.”

On this, both athletes fervently agreed.

Professional goals & social impact

It certainly holds that when asked about professional goal-setting, both Olympians discussed their intentions in making an impact. For the two inspiring women, social impact is just as much a part of their life as any professional goal they may have. As Joi Wade, Youtube personality, entrepreneur and moderator of the event said, you truly “have to make time for the things that matter.” The two gold-medalists are undoubtedly doing that, and more. 

Katie, who used her extra time during the pandemic to finish up her BA at Stanford (she majored in Psychology and Political Science), is looking ahead at a plethora of professional endeavors. She’s considering law or business school sometime down the line, but her main goals at the moment are helping others. “Now that I’ve graduated, I really just want to use my education to help others and try to make a difference… circling back to my love theme at the beginning, my goal is to work to make the world a better place through positive expressions of love and helping others in need,” she says. In recent years, this has included numerous in-person and virtual visits to schools where Katie has encouraged kids to challenge themselves academically and find their passions. Plus, she also believes in the importance of educating the young about the world of STEM, and has helped with many programs that introduce kids to technology and get them excited about careers in tech at a young age.

Katie’s co-olympian shared her love of helping children. Simone has dedicated much of her time to working with kids in the foster care system, as she has had personal experiences in that realm and knows how important such work truly is. “I like to work with foster kids – I like being a voice for the voiceless, and I think they need somebody in their corner who believes in them… I have a passion for them because I used to be a foster kid, so I know exactly how they’re feeling.” These two women are certainly not letting their platform and privilege go to waste, as they both see themselves as agents for change, and are treating their endeavors, off the mat and out of the pool, accordingly.

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Fitness goal-setting… from those who wrote the book

If there’s one area in which Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are experts, it’s athletics. So fittingly, they each had plenty to say on the topic – giving some tips and tricks that even ‘normal’ people (like me) can use to stay motivated with fitness goals. It’s certainly not a walk in the park training 32-34 hours a week, like Simone, or having ten swim practices, three weight sessions and one pilates class per week, as is the case for Katie (Simone vowed never to return to pilates again), so it takes a great amount of self-discipline and organization to keep on track… with a heaping tablespoon of passion thrown in. 

According to Katie, the key to sticking with fitness goals is balance, time management and hard work. She likes to find tangible ways to measure her progress, so training sessions feel productive. “Have something that you can see yourself progressing in, or progressing toward… so for swimming, I can see if I’m getting faster over a season or even over the course of a week,” she explains. In a time-based sport, that can be a foolproof way to track progress, but Katie stresses that it can even just be about feel. Setting small goals is a huge part of this, too. It’s important to know “which practices are your hardest ones, so you can really prioritize your recovery around those, and just having a goal for each workout.” It sounds simple in theory, and maybe it really is. As I’m sure Katie would agree, with the right framework, the impossible may be within reach.

Another important factor in this equation is state-of-mind, says Simone. “Keep an open mind, because it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a long time for us, at least, to see progress toward our goals. Every day can be different, especially in the sport of gymnastics.” Additionally Simone stresses savoring the present. Her vision board features the phrase, ‘enjoy the moment,’ which relates back to the idea of knowing that this time, this now, is special. “Everything you do, you have to take it into perspective and realize that what you’re doing, you won’t be doing forever, especially in gymnastics,” she says.

Looking ahead to Tokyo 

This emphasis on enjoying the moment has become all the more omnipresent due to the pandemic. Neither Simone nor Katie (nor anyone else, really) had any idea that Covid would hit so severely and change human life for months and months. Going into the now 2021 Tokyo Olympics, enjoying the moment is something on both of their minds, as we really never know when life is going to throw major lemons in the face of carefully laid, goal-oriented plans. The two are both looking forward to the games this summer, but stressed how challenging it was to have their years of effort pushed down the line with the vague qualifier of ‘postponed.’

Simone explained that many people don’t realize how training for the Olympics began three years ago, causing the pivot to be a bit more challenging. “It was especially hard because as athletes we have moments when we have to peak and then go down and then peak again, and we were about to peak, and we got told that everything was getting shut down, that the season would be up in the air… so then we had to come down, but we had to stay in shape, so we were kind of at a median.” They had to both live in this limbo-state for months, keeping their goals in mind of course, but not knowing the path to reach them with the same certainty as before. Plus, “it’s not just every four years,” Katie explained. “it really is every day for four years, even longer than that, the years prior to that Olympic cycle still matter, really. So it’s years and years of hard work.” 

That’s the beautiful thing about a passion, though; if you love something enough, you will find a way to keep doing it. This was true during Katie’s quarantine life, when she found sanctuary in her neighbor’s pool where she continued to train for three months. Katie, who has never taken more than two weeks off from swimming, wasn’t about to let the pandemic stop her. “It was really important to stay in the water… to maintain that feel for the water,” she explained. Though the path to the Tokyo games was not as neatly written as it once was, both athletes were able to keep their long-term goal in mind, and now, they’re that much more excited for the summer to-come. For Katie, it’s the Olympic trials in June, and for Simone, it’s a peak in April and May and then another peak in July and August, where she hopes to be ‘near perfection.’ 

And on the subject of the games, everyone wants to know about Simone and Katie’s pre-race/pre-competition rituals. Sadly, neither of them have one to share – in Simone’s eyes, having a pre-competition ritual can over-complicate things. She posed the scenario that if she were to want a banana but be somewhere where she can’t get one, then what? You can’t just accept defeat because there aren’t enough bananas on-hand! But Simone did say that she likes to enjoy the moment before competing in a more unique way. “I like to kind of interact with the crowd, which you don’t see most gymnasts doing - that’s what gets me in the zone.” Plus, both Katie and Simone agree that when you train that intensely for something, you have to just trust your performance and let that trust guide you in the moment. 

But no matter how much one trusts the training, there are always going to be nerves, which both Olympians have embraced along their journeys. “The nerves signal how much you care about what you're about to do and how much you have put in to get to that moment, and you want it to go right, so you get nervous. It's natural,” Katie explains. Simone added to this thought. “If you’re not nervous, you’re not ready.” According to Simone, nerves are one of those things that athletes will feel nostalgic for in the future, so it’s important to reframe the mindset and let them happen; nerves are a good sign!

Though Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are competitors in different sports, their legacies are undoubtedly intertwined. They're women of a similar age who are not only friends but have similar goals: gold-medals, inspiring others and making a positive impact on the world around them. But this similarity hasn’t taken away in any measure the respect they share for each other. Katie admires how Simone inspires young gymnasts to try new moves on the mat, and she hopes she, as a distance swimmer, can do the same. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do, to inspire the next generation of young athletes to not think that anything is impossible.”

With nine gold medals and a love for bringing light and positivity to the world shared between them, I’d say the two are more than well on their way.