Rethinking Goal-Setting for Swimmers

by Justine Schluntz 10

January 02nd, 2017 Club, College, Lifestyle

We’re often told that goal-setting in swimming is a must, but sometimes members of the swimming community too narrowly define what a “good” goal is.

Most of the time, preseason goal-setting meetings between swimmers and coaches result in goals to achieve specific times. These times may be qualifying times for a certain meet, record-breaking times, or simply personal bests.

If set correctly, this type of goal is a classic “SMART” goal (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) and is perfect for some swimmers. It’s also easy for coaches – the measurable nature makes it easier to assess and adjust as the season goes on.

But the best coaches realize that goal setting should not be applied in a one-size fits all approach. Rather, coaches should help their swimmers set goals that complement the athletes’ individual personalities. And for some swimmers, goals to swim specific times are more harmful than beneficial.

When Goal-Setting Goes Wrong

If you’ve been around the sport long enough, you’ve seen that swimmer who gets too caught up in times. For this swimmer, every suboptimal race result and every split in practice turn into numbers spinning through his head, piling on pressure and casting doubt on his ability to reach his goal time. The goal time becomes a threatening barrier that must be overcome to avoid failure, rather than an exciting target to reach for.

Though that may seem like a subtle change, it’s disastrous to some swimmers who, in many cases, lose their love for swimming and leave the sport altogether. In worse situations, it can lead to eating disorders and other psychological difficulties.

Unfortunately, in the past many would respond by saying those swimmers should just toughen up, or that they’re not cut out for the sport. Fortunately, the swimming community is learning to address mental health struggles in healthier ways. And, while it’s true that a session or two with a sports psychologist would probably help in this scenario, it’s also true that there are simple changes a coach can make for those swimmers who need to learn to let go, but don’t know how.

How Coaches Can Adjust

Coaches – this is where it’s your job to help. If you notice that you have an athlete who seems to focus so much on the times that she loses perspective and focus, take her attention off the times. Don’t give her a choice!

Stop giving her times in practice, stop encouraging her to set goal times before the season, and help the parents understand that they shouldn’t focus solely on times either (especially in-season!). Instead, encourage the swimmer (and the parents) to focus on the process. Force the swimmer to think about something else, in order to take her mind off that number that’s turned into such a burden.

Doing this is simple, so I encourage you to try it, even if you’re doubtful. If you think you have swimmers who collapse under the pressure of time-based goals, change how you work with those swimmers to set pre-season goals. Rather than encouraging goals for specific times at the end of the season, suggest more process-oriented goals.

Here are a few examples:

  • Take 8 kicks off each wall for fly and back during practice
  • Maintain a certain turnover rate for all race-pace swimming (both in practice and at meets)
  • Don’t breathe off walls in freestyle
  • Be better about staying hydrated through the day
  • Stop voicing negativity during practice
  • Smile after every race

If you have more ideas for process-oriented goals, or if you’ve benefited from changing your goal-setting strategy, please share in the comments below!

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4 years ago

I have found that kids are more likely to cry if the fail at achieving a time goal. I have always been a fan of process and technique goals. The times will follow from there.

I also heard Nick Saban doesn’t discuss goals related to football victories. Works for Alabama.

4 years ago

Give me a break! Children need to learn how to fail in order to be able to cope with disappointments later in life. You can’t win everything. By coddling them with false goals you are doing them a grave disservice.

NM Coach
Reply to  Justine Schluntz
4 years ago

Justine, you swam for two coaches that were COMMITTED to the process! I believe you swam with Tim for about 7 years and then Frank Busch for 4 more. That’s 11 years of consistency to sticking with the process…I would say that your results under both coaches back up your statement!

Justine Schluntz
Reply to  NM Coach
4 years ago

Very true. I was very lucky!

Rusty Shackleford
Reply to  Alan
4 years ago

A few studies have been floated that sports don’t build character, and only have a limited impact on a child’s preparedness for the real world. People fail all the time in specific goal setting and process goal setting. The difference is learning to fail better (i.e. Through a process) which helps children develop.

Reply to  Alan
4 years ago

I agree with you, but that is not what He is saying. Im afraid you missed a very important line in this article which was, “In worse situations, it can lead to eating disorders and other psychological difficulties.” If a coach knows their swimmer is struggling with, or on the edge of developing eating disorders and/or mental health issues, watching the swimmer struggle through and doing Nothing is a disservice. It’s not coddling, it’s taking care of a serious mental disorder that could become life-threatening. The swimmer can learn from this, but sometimes people need a helping hand in learning that lesson, this is all the coach is trying to do.

wet book
Reply to  Alan
4 years ago

Thanks drumpf. Great insight.

4 years ago

I am having a really hard time with this article. Yes, I know that “time-only” goals can be dangerous. And yes, I understand that mental and food related diseases exist. To tie the two together directly, as if to say that no other factors are or can be involved, is a bit of a stretch. Can having a time based goal (along with a failure) help lead to distress? Of course. The same way a car accident, or a bad relationship could lead to the same disorder. Do we stop riding in cars and dating? Probably not any time soon.

I really want to believe that there aren’t any coaches out there still encouraging these “time-only” goals- but maybe that’s… Read more »

Justine Schluntz
Reply to  Austin
4 years ago

Austin – I don’t think there’s much we disagree on. I’m not suggesting we dismiss all time-oriented goals, and I certainly don’t think all time-based goals are inherently bad. I simply want to point out to coaches that, for swimmers who seem to have trouble with time-based goals (whether simply because it’s not the best motivator for their personality or because of deeper issues), there is another option. It sounds like you’re a good coach and have it right with your swimmers – some have timed-based goals; others don’t. That’s exactly what I’m suggesting in the article. Unfortunately, not all coaches out there realize time-based goals are not a necessity for every swimmer.