Why use Goal Setting?
People tend to equate goal setting with motivation, and tougher goals with higher levels of motivation, but that’s a simplistic view that can lead to ineffective goal setting, anxiety and problems with confidence. On the other hand, effective goal setting can help swimmers:
- Focus on the right things at the right time;
- Become more confident; and
- Identify the steps that you need to take on your performance ‘journey’.
For me, goal setting isn’t really about figuring out where you want to get to. You probably have some idea of that, whether you deliberately set goals or not. It’s more about how you get there.
I guess this highlights that having goals (or perhaps dreams) and using goal setting as a technique are not quite the same thing.
It’s useful to have an idea of where you want to get to, or what you want to achieve in the longer term. It’s not essential, however. You may enjoy the journey, and by engaging fully with that journey you might end up at an attractive destination!
Ideally, however, you’ll achieve a balance between both, and goal setting can help with this.
When should I set goals?
Goal setting is certainly not a one-off, or once a season activity. I think of it as part of a continual process or cycle of review, goal setting, preparation and performance. All the time you are gaining new information about your performance, each time you train or compete, and this information can help you to get better at setting goals.
You can start setting goals at any point, but it makes sense to have a regular review of your goals, perhaps after each of your main meets – which may come at the end of a cycle or season. I’d always recommend reviewing your performance first, as this will help you to set more effective goals.
Training or Practice Goals versus Competition Goals
Goal setting isn’t just for competition either. You can, and indeed should, use goal setting in practice, to help ensure that you are doing the things in practice to achieve the competition goals that you have set. So your training goals should be linked to your competition goals, either directly (for example relating to a specific portion of your race) or indirectly (for example the percentage of training sessions you commit to).
Types of Goal
There are different types of goals; relating Outcome, Performance and Process; and each has its place. However, as you’ll learn some are more helpful than others.
Outcome goals relate to things like your placing in a race, ranking, or qualification for a team. Outcome goals are useful and important, because really they are why you get up early in the morning, or hurt yourself in practice. However, setting outcome goals alone can be dangerous and lead to anxiety, stress and problems with confidence because you cannot control outcomes. No matter how well you swim, someone might go faster.
In swimming, Performance Goals pretty much equate to your time. This is the ‘how well have I done overall?’, question. In practice, it might be your average time on a test set, for example, how far you’ve swum this week or how many sessions you’ve swum.
Performance goals are better for your, say, end of season goals, than outcomes, because you can control those. So, if you want to qualify for a championships or team, it’s better to focus on the time that you need to do.
Process goals are the components of your performance. In competition then, if you want to break 60 seconds for 100 metres, what are the critical aspects of the swim?
If performance goals are WHAT you want to achieve, process goals are the HOW you will go about achieving them.
Why are process goals so important?
They help you to focus on the things that will make the biggest difference to your performance
Focusing on process goals help to stop you from thinking about unhelpful things such as your competitors
Process goals help you to feel more in control of your performance – and therefore more confident and less anxious
What types of process goals are there?
Physical – These include effort level in race, but also things like physical preparation (warming up, eating, drinking)
Tactical – This might be how you pace the race – your race plan – but it might also include actually having a race plan or sticking to it!
Technical – From start to finish, what are the key technical points that will help you achieve your desired level of performance?
Mental – This might relate to your attitude on the day, maintaining positive thoughts, using techniques such as mental rehearsal or self talk
How should I structure my goals?
I don’t like to be too prescriptive about how you should go about structuring your goals, how much detail should go into them and so on. If you have a go you will find your level, and you will find out what works for you.
However, there are some important things to consider.
First, goals that are written down tend to be achieved more than those that are not
Second, goals that are shared tend to be achieved more than those that are not
So, I’d suggest writing your goals down and sharing them (with your coach, for example).
SMART Goal Setting
Third, good goals tend to have certain things in common. There are different versions of this, but think about whether your goals are SMART. That is:
Specific – For example, rather than “improve my turns”, what do you want to improve about them?
Measurable – This is easy for performance goals, but can be less easy for process goals. If you really can’t measure them, perhaps you could set yourself a scoring system (e.g. for your attitude)
Achievable – Goals should be tough, or they’re not motivating, but not out of reach, or they are equally useless
Relevant – Try to focus on the 3-5 things that are going to make the biggest difference, rather than having a whole bucket load of trivial goals
Time-bound – if you are trying to qualify for a team, this might be decided for you, but in most cases, you need to think about when you want to achieve the goal by (and set stepping stones)
Even though I’ve kept this brief, there’s a lot to take in. Start by looking at whether you are setting outcome, performance or process goals. Never set outcome goals without performance goals, and set process goals for every performance goal that you have. If I was forced to choose one type of goal to set, I’d go for process goals every time.
As for the mechanics of goal setting (SMART), have a go. Don’t sweat over how good they are. Get into the habit of setting them and get better from there.