With a new year upon us there has been lots of talk about goals over the past few weeks. After all, it’s about the time of year when many non-athletes have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions. In track and field our year started months ago before the first day of training, but a new calendar year still marks a good time to assess our progress and a last chance to make changes if needed.
As I transition from being an athlete to a coach I have noticed my thoughts on goals make a similar transition. I was quite apathetic towards goal setting as an athlete. I knew what I needed to do, constantly analyzed it, and then made adjustments accordingly. I found having a wish list at the start of the year distracted me from the process to achieve them and therefore focused on what I needed to do.
Now as a coach I am starting to realize the motivational value of goals for certain athletes and focus more on goal setting with my athletes than I did with myself. Yet throughout it all my focus remains on the training process and using the goals to assess whether an athlete understands what they need to do and their capability to actually do it.
A Framework for Goal Setting
Before I talk about how I use goals, it is helpful to discuss the goals themselves first. Not all goals are equal and there are ways to make them more effective. I’ve done various leadership training courses for work over the past few years and goals are one recurring topics. The popular buzzword is SMART goals. This means setting goals that are:
- S – Specific: Simply saying you want to be good is a dream, not a goal. Get down to the details of what you want to achieve.
- M – Measurable: Have a way to determine if you have met the goal. In sports this is quite easy since results are often measurable unless your goal is something broad and vague like “improving technique.”
- A – Attainable: You need to reach for the stars, but at the same time goals need to be realistic. Hold the carrot too far away and it no longer acts as motivation to chase.
- R – Relevant: Make sure your goal is actually relevant to what really matters. Do you want to be a better thrower? Then don’t bother setting goals relating to your marathon personal best.
- T – Time-bound: Set a deadline.
A nice acronym makes for a good presentation, but this exercise also serves a purpose. If your goals meet all of these categories it is much easier to define the process and much easier to measure success after the fact.
Goals from the Coach’s Perspective
How should you then assess your athlete’s goals? As I said goals can be helpful both in defining a process and measuing success. In athletics we rarely have difficulty with the second point as we have a final judge of success in the form of a tape measure, stop watch, or win-loss record. But it is still important that the goals demonstrate whether the athletes knows the process and has self-confidence. Let me give an example.
At our club we have our athletes complete a season-end debriefing where they also give us their goals for the coming year. In reviewing my top youth thrower’s goals I saw she aimed to throw one meter farther in 2015. At age 17 she could just as easily make a 10 meter leap, but this goal didn’t bother me as I know she knows what road she needs to travel down. Last year was proof of this as she set a Swiss age group record. I just care she is doing the right thing in training since the results will come and surprise her. Whether she predicts she our training will take her 1 or 100 steps down that road doesn’t matter to me.
But a low goal still is a sign of work you need to do as a coach since the process is only part of performance. A low goal can be a sign that an athlete does not know the sport well or that they lack self-confidence, both of which are vital to success. For example, someone new to the sport might not know that it is realistic for a beginner to make a 10-meter jump in one year, as is the case here. Or even if they know this they may lack the confidence to think they can actually do it. In both cases I will measure good throws to show an athlete their potential in training and mention how easily a few meters can come. It is a hard and long process, but it is essential for the coach to help with. Athletes must believe in themselves. This can be more powerful than doping.