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Are You Setting Goals or Are You Goal Setting?

The off and early seasons are fitting times to implement a Goal Setting System that will help identify performance targets and define success in the season ahead. This is reflected in the amount of content currently being written and shared on the subject. There is so much content out there offering instruction and individual approaches for setting goals - set SMART goals, set tiered goals, set training goals, set race goals… Regardless of what it is called, goal identification and selection barely scratch the surface of what a true Goal Setting System can do for your performance.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I needed a goal, so I signed up for a race”? While signing up for an endurance event is admirable, the race itself is not exactly a clearly defined or controllable goal (as evidenced by the 2020 season). Race registration is simply part of the first step in Goal Setting, defined as a larger and more impactful process for performance; a process which is being left in the shadows as we read about all of the wonderful and effective ways to set goals. Goal Setting is not simply about the goals we set, it is how we use and interact with those goals throughout the season.

A deeper understanding of Goal Setting as a process can provide an elevated experience of our training and performance outcomes over an extended period of time. How our goals relate to one another in structure and placement within the season is often overlooked. A strong goal setting system connects our goals to our desired outcomes in a way that has them build to, lead to, and strengthen one another as the season progresses. Goal Setting is also strongly connected to motivation and helps reveal our true priorities and focus our attention in a way that contributes directly to race-specific outcomes.

There are three primary types of goals that are commonly used in performance psychology: Outcome Goals, Performance Goals and Process Goals. Let’s explore these three and how they can be established to create a structure for achieving improved performance.

Outcome Goals, often associated with racing outcomes, give us a long-term focus and something to work toward in the future. When we break down Outcome Goals, they are the goals that we have the least direct influence over and are the least adaptable to changes in environments and conditions. The ever-changing landscape of races in 2020 clearly illustrates the dangers around only setting Outcome Goals: success in achieving an Outcome Goal often relies on numerous factors that are outside of our control. How can one complete the goal of competing in a race when the race is unable to take place?

Performance Goals are built within both the domain of racing and training. These goals are more adaptable and are influenced by our actions and efforts to a greater extent than Outcome Goals. Finishing a 70.3 bike split in under 3 hours, breaking 1min 30sec on an 800, or decreasing a 1000m split time in the pool are all examples of Performance Goals. These goals generally rely less on the actions of those around us and have some flexibility built into their structure. Compare this to Outcome Goals, where in many cases the (uncontrollable) environment or circumstances contribute directly to the likelihood of success. While they are more adaptable, Performance Goals are often of secondary importance when compared to the greater Outcome Goal.

Process Goals are often skill specific and are almost entirely dependent on our own behaviors. They are easily adapted to various situations, workouts, and environments. Hitting all of the prescribed workouts over a given period of time, improving targeted aspects of technique, and working on mindset and mental skills are all examples of Process Goals. These goals set the foundations for success in achieving Performance and Outcome Goals and are often most powerful when intentionally linked directly to other Process Goals, Performance Goals and Outcome Goals. Hitting all of the prescribed swim workouts will increase the likelihood of improving technique, which in turn increases the likelihood of improving a 1000m split time. Improving sustained 1000m speed in the pool increases the likelihood of a strong swim performance on race day, which improves the chances of a higher placement in a race.

Hopefully, a system of Goal Setting is starting to take shape in your mind. Being that they form the foundation for other successes, setting a larger number of Process Goals throughout the season is beneficial. These goals provide a continuous source of acknowledgement and progress, and they help build self-efficacy in the skill-specific tasks that ultimately lead to performance success. In terms of numbers, Performance Goals come next. Hitting our Performance Goals in training often results in race-specific progress and helps keep us motivated and engaged in our workouts. Outcome Goals make up the shortest section of the list. Having too many Outcome Goals may lead to a lack of focus, which can find its way into our individual workouts and potentially undermine daily motivations for training. Structuring goals in this way gives purpose to our daily training, our training cycles and our season. Regardless of whether races occur, we can look back and see all that has been accomplished, and we can look ahead to see all that we still have to work toward.

A strong Goal Setting System is something that we work through as we move through our training and racing seasons. It is a continuous process. We set some goals, particularly the Outcome Goals, early in the process. As we progress through the season, the more task and skill-focused Process and Performance Goals help evaluate progress, maintain motivation, and provide a structure to keep setting and striving toward new goals and higher performance outcomes. Evaluation and goal adaptation are the focus throughout the season with the ultimate goal-setting goal of mastery of the system itself and a new relationship with our goals as we reach new levels of performance and enjoyment in the sport we love.


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