How to Set Goals Like Olympic Champion Nathan Adrian

Ready to take your goals in the pool to the next level? Here’s how Olympic champion Nathan Adrian sets goals and what you can learn from him.

Nathan Adrian is one of the greatest American sprint freestylers of all time.

Winner of the 100m freestyle at the London Olympics, a four-time Olympian, five-time Olympic gold medalist, cancer survivor, and one of the nicest all-around guys on the pool deck, Adrian was almost unbelievably consistent during his decade-plus international swim career.

Especially when the pressure was on.

Part of this was because of Adrian’s approach to goal setting.

Instead of the standard outcome-based goals, like a specific time, place, or personal best time, Adrian would focus on process-based goals.

Like improving a specific part of his race. The start. Underwaters. That patented “quick breath” technique that ensures a straight body-line in the water more often at top speed.

Instead of focusing on “numerical” goals, Adrian would break down his ideal race and focus on improving it piece by piece.

In this article, we will look more at Adrian’s process-based approach to becoming a faster swimmer, some of the research around process goals, and what swimmers and coaches can learn from one of the best sprint freestylers to ever do it.

Let’s dive in.

How Nathan Adrian Uses Goals to Train and Swim Fast

During the run-up to the Rio Olympics in 2016, where Adrian would win four medals, including two gold medals, he was asked about his goals for his main event, the 100m freestyle.

His answer:

“There’s certain people who gravitate towards different techniques of goal setting,” said Adrian. “I’m not a guy who sets numerical goals. That’s not something that works for me really well. It’s about executing the race that I’ve planned for the entire year.”


“For instance, if you asked me what I am working on now, it’s going to be working on my dive into my dolphin kicks and maintaining momentum into my swim,” says Adrian. “Through those micro-goals the entire race comes together at the end of the year.”

If you’ve read my content across the chlorinated interwebs, whether here on SwimSwam or on my site,, you know I am down with process-based goals.

And here’s why:

Process goals give you control.

The exact time and placing you swim on race day comes down to a lot of things going right. Some of which may not be in your control.

Process goals remove a lot of the uncertainty around outcomes, giving you increased control of your performance.

For example:

  • You can control how many starts you do this week to improve time off the blocks.
  • You can control how many dolphin kicks you do off each wall at practice.
  • You can control the effort you give during the main set.
  • You can control whether you do the assigned dryland workout each day.

Process goals remove a lot of the anxiety that comes from not feeling in control and even help you be more persistent in training.

A study that examined a group of swimmers using different goal setting strategies showed that short-term goals that were process-based encouraged more persistence and helped swimmers become more aware of what was under their control (Weinberg, 2009).

Process goals encourage you to walk the talk.

Swimmers all have goals in the water. Some bigger than others.

And a common problem with swimmers who rely heavily on outcome goals for daily motivation and focus is that they never feel like the champion swimmer they want to become one day (if they achieve the outcome goal, that is).

Process goals encourage swimmers to train and live the behaviors and mindset of a champion swimmer on a daily basis.

Instead of being that champion swimmer one day down the road, process goals immerse you in the habits and behaviors of a champion swimmer today.

Process goals supercharge confidence.

Again, outcome-heavy goals aren’t a given. Something comes up on race day: you get sick, a competitor lights it up, the pool conditions are hot garbage, tech suit rips while you launch yourself off the blocks.

Placing our confidence on the shoulders of things we don’t control leaves our ability to build sustain authentic confidence shaky.

Ultimately, being focused on a killer process allows you to excel daily, laying the foundation for genuine confidence that you can use to surf to excellence on race day.

Each day, when he walked on the pool deck, Adrian was focused on “being the best version of me possible.”

Process goals clarify what needs to be done.

Outcome goals are crucial and can be hyper-motivating, whether that’s in having a goal time as your smartphone background or the times of competitors next to your alarm clock, or even goal times scrawled in code on your kickboard (as Katie Ledecky did while preparing for her record-busting performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics).

That said, process goals encourage you to be more present and clearer about what must be done each day at the pool.

Without process goals, daily effort and training can become ambiguous, particularly as outcome goals (the shiny PB or gold medal) is often so far off in the distance that our focus and energy can start to waver.

Adrian made a point to write down his goals each week to clarify the work to be done at the pool and build momentum over the course of the season.

Research with swimmers shows that this type of short-term process focus can greatly impact swimming performance.

A study with Portuguese swimmers published in the Journal of Human Kinetics found that a process-based goal-setting program that included weekly goals significantly increased performance (Simoes et al., 2012).

Wrapping Things Up

Hey, look–this article isn’t about throwing shade on outcome goals.

Ultimately, they are the North Star for all the process goals.

And they are a huge part of what motivates us to head down to the pool, stride across a chilly and tiled pool deck at 5:47am to get after a two-hour swim workout while the rest of the world sleeps.

Both outcome and process goals belong in your goal-setting toolkit.

But spending more time building and executing an awesome process is what makes those outcome goals more likely.

This week, as you are staring down a full slate of workouts, write out some process goals to help you build confidence, increase training performance, and yes, bolster your chances of success on race day.

See you in the water!


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer, author, swim coach, and certified personal trainer. He’s the author of YourSwimBook, a ten-month logbook for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, anecdotes, and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level in the pool?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.




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3 months ago

Those are some wicked triceps

3 months ago

Step 1: Be Nathan Adrian

3 months ago

Dressel made the transition easier in the late 2010s but not having Adrian captain the American sprint squad these days bums me out 🙁

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer, swim coach, and best-selling author. His writing has been featured on USA Swimming, US Masters Swimming, NBC Sports Universal, the Olympic Channel, and much more. He has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 …

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