A rivalry between two athletes or teams can be something truly incredible to witness. Ali vs Frazier. Magic vs Bird. Palmer vs Nicklaus. All of these athletes were incredible to watch on their own, but when they performed in opposition, special things were bound to happen. Read more
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.
I have been reading a lot lately and not just about training. But as with anything, I can always bring the topic back to training. In January, I finished two good non-fiction books: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by psychology professor Sian Beilock. And David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell.
After taking two weeks off at the end of September, I have already jumped back into training for 2014 and the first week is now behind me. During my time off I took some time to reflect on the last season. Whether I make this public or not, this is something I do every year. Some things are more clear in hindsight than they were at the time and everyone must learn from these moments in order to continue to improve in the future.
I had just two goals to start out the season. Unlike many athletes, I do not define my goals in terms of how far I want to throw or what place I want to finish. I simply identify what I need to do to get better and then focus on that. After the 2012 season I was physically in the best shape of my life but I couldn’t translate that into the throw. Therefore my first goal was clear: my technique needed to get better. My only other goal related to my priorities for competitions. Rather than trying to hit a peak for the Swiss Championships, I wanted to shift my peak to the Jeux de la Francophonie this year. Having a later peak allowed me more time to prepare and hopefully reach better performances. With those two goals I started out towards the 2013 season.
First of all as I have said several times over the years in this blog mental toughness is a figment of the imagination. Throwing a bunch of exercises together in a circuit and calling it mental toughness training is just an excuse for doing stupid stuff. Getting tired is not training. Read more
Over the years I have used this blog to discuss the work of coaches, athletes, psychologists, physiologists, biomechanists, and economists. But I have not once discussed the work of a philosopher. Since I have my bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, I have to take the opportunity once it arises. In a New York Times Online piece earlier this month, philosophy professor Barbara Gail Montero dissects the widespread view that thinking about what you are doing while doing it interferes with performance. There are few philosophical topics which relate more directly to hammer throwing.
In many areas, thinking about an action can make its execution worse. As Montero notes, “Start thinking about just how to carry a full glass of water without spilling, and you’ll end up drenched.” But this isn’t the case for all actions. Ordinary actions like carrying water will be easier when you do them without thinking about it. But when you start looking at the actions of experts, or hammer throwers, the just do it approach doesn’t always hold. And, for Montero, this is the area that interests her since she has a forthcoming book on thought and effort in expert action.
I always like to end my training with a good throw. I used to think of this tendancy as a superstition, but recently I have begun to think that it may actually have a real positive affect on my training, both psychological and perhaps also physical.
I’ve had this habit since I started playing other sports as a kid. In basketball, for instance, I inherited my father’s insistence of not leaving the court until I made my last shot. That’s a habit I continue today in pick-up games with friends and have carried into hammer throwing. This habit served a few purposes: it encouraged me to focus on technique if I wanted to ever leave the court and it also left me leaving with a more positive reflection on the game or practice. The same can be said with hammer throwing.
In April I read the New York Times bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow, by the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is a psychologist whose research has focused on topics like the psychology of judgment and decision-making. In particular, he has identified many biases and heuristics that impact the way we think. One such heuristic is the Peak-End Rule. The rule states that how we judge experiences is largely based on how they were at their peak and at their end. For example, how we judge a practice will be affected by how far our furthest throw was and how well it ended. Numerous studies have shown this heuristic affects and will cause people to rate more painful incidents better than less painful ones. Read more
It is interesting to listen to coach’s talk about what they see when observing movement. Are they really seeing what they think they see? Human vision is incredibly acute and at the same time fundamentally flawed. The longer I coach the more I realize that more often than not we see what we think we see rather that exactly what is happening. Whether we recognize it or not we all have a tendency toward a confirmation bias. Read more
Have you ever noticed how athletes and coaches who are successful seem to find a way to get the job done? Winners find a way to win; where others see obstacles they see opportunity. They just seem to have a different worldview; they have a whole different mindset. Read more