On Goal Setting

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.


What I’ve Been Reading

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.
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My 2013 Season in Review

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.
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Former Olympic champion Primoz Kozmus is producing hundreds of pounds of force but you wouldn't know it by looking at his face.

The Effortless Throw

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.
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Patient B rated the colonoscopy better than Patient A even though he experienced more overall pain.

The Peak-End Rule

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

Coming soon to Sihlhölzli: the season.

Time to Put the Uniform Back On

After training with Peter on Sunday he asked me what my training plan was leading up to my first competitions over the next two weeks. On Saturday my club will be hosting a small throwing meet in Zurich and next week I will be traveling to Spain for the European Cup Winter Throwing event. I told him that I had no special plan; training will continue as normal. “Why compete then?” he asked.

Coming soon to Sihlhölzli: the season.

Coming soon to Sihlhölzli: the season.

He posed a good question. But I have a better question: “Why not?” I can list a dozen reason why I likely won’t have a good result. Most importantly I plan to do normal training up until and including the day before the competition, I will be throwing alongside six of my youth throwers making it almost impossible to focus on my own throw, I have worked with a coach just a handful of days in the past months, I have not touched a competition weight hammer for more than four weeks, and since we are in the middle of the tax season I’ve been working overtime the past few weeks. But there is still no reason not to compete. My fear of having a bad result next to my name vanished after a few bad seasons throughout my career. Why not compete?
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The Merit Badge for Winter Throwing

The first day of training in the snow each year fills me with the excitement of a schoolboy arriving to the first day of class. The snow mutes the air, leaves a still, peaceful and relaxing silence to train in. I am not alone either. I was excited to see some of my young throwers not only train without complaint in the snow this year, but hit a few personal bests and brag about training in the snow on Facebook. It is a merit badge in winter throwing.


But it gets old. Fast. First is the physical element. I put together some tips for throwing the snow last year, and while it makes things better the weather still drags on you. Walking to retrieve the hammer drains the legs more and more every training. While you may think it would be good to be warmer, the slushy snow is just more slippery with throwing shoes on.
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On the podium after winning the 2012 Swiss Championship.

Meet Recap: Fourth Straight Swiss Championship

Experience is one of the most underrated traits for hammer throwers. You mostly need it when training is going poorly, and at some point that happens for every thrower. My season started off terribly in May and June with marks consistently around just 61 and 62 meters. It was frustrating to hear the officials read off marks that I could have easily achieved six or seven years ago. A few small speed bumps in training set my training down the wrong path and I had to scramble to save the season.
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Right now I try to focus on the hammer's orbit when I visualize.

The Right Picture with the Wrong Light

Right now I don't just visualize my throw, but I try to see the hammer's orbit.

The best set of eyes I get to watch me belong to my training partner Dejan, a masters thrower who returned to the sport two years ago after two decades away. One thing we share in common is that our enthusiasm sometimes make it hard for us to boil down what we see into just a few words. But unlike me, Dejan sometimes produces these little pearls of wisdom that get to the point so well that I leave practice with a smile on my face as if I have found true enlightenment. After talking about visualization earlier this month, he threw this line at me: “Sometimes you have the right picture, but the wrong light.”
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