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!