Team Goal Setting: The Coach’s Role by Megan Neyer (1997)


I am going to talk today about goal setting. I am going to talk about foundations of goal setting both in terms of how to do it well and areas where we can improve. We are going to talk about the coach as the goal facilitator and group goal setting exercises.

I have a comic strip here. One guy says, “You need some direction in your life.” The second guy says, “Yea, I know.” The first guy says, “Well you need to set yourself some goals. Try making a list.” That’s what we are going to talk about today.

You might remember Michael Johnson from last summer at the Olympics. He said his goal was to win the gold medal in the 200 and 400 so he wrote it down. The more you can get people to publicly disclose what they want to achieve, the greater probability they will. Get them to speak about it and get them to write it down. It tends to increase their commitment to accomplishing their goals.

Tiger Woods: we was figuring out the trajectory of the different golf clubs when he was 5 years old. I am not necessarily a complete advocate of training kids from the womb, but clearly he was starting to think about it very early.

An important concept of goal setting: One of the things you want goals to be is specific. If there is any one area where athletes tend to fall down it is this one. They may say, “I want to win the Jefferson County Invitational” but they tend not to be real specific on a day to day basis, behaviorally, about what they need to do. It is very easy to say this is something I want to do someday down the road when I am some age but it is much more difficult on a day to day basis to be committed to the behaviors that you can measure in order for you to make that goal.

Positives: This has to do with how you say things. One of the problems we have with athletes is they tend to talk about what they don’t want to do instead of what they do want to do. Positive means to say what you do want to do. In diving, if I were to get up there and say, “I don’t want to wipe out on this dive,” well the possibility is pretty good that I will because that is where the focus is.

Realistic: This is one of the toughest challenges you have as a coach. How do you work with your athletes and get them to be realistic about their goals without bursting any bubbles that they have. I am very much an advocate of setting high, challenging goals, but I am sure all of you in this room have had the experience of working with kids who say they want to go to the Olympics or they want to win certain competitions that you think the only possibility for success is if everyone in the pool dies. There is a delicate balance between what you as the coach who is providing the necessary feedback and getting the swimmer to be more realistic. The best way to facilitate realistic goals is to make sure they are gradual. Let’s say somebody wants to win the Olympics, you need to talk about right now, the next three months of training.

Important to the Athlete: Goals must belong to the athlete. Not Mom and Dad, or the coach, or anyone else. You might be surprised at the number of athletes I work with who tell me what they want to do is what their parents, or their coach, or their teammates want to do.

Under Your Control: The athlete does not have control of officials, weather, other athletes, or anything else. We find that athletes are often distracted by other things that they have no control over. Their energy is not going to the right places. Winning is a very simple concept, it comes down to efficiency. Who is the most efficient in that pool? I didn’t say, “Who doesn’t make any mistakes?” Who is the most efficient psychologically, physically, emotionally? He is able to take all the energy he has and put into that moment. That’s the challenge.

Performance Related: Very often we hear our athletes saying they want to win this or that but when you ask them what they want to do when they get up on the block they may give you a time — outcome oriented goals are very important, they get us directed — but what is the process, what do they want to be focusing on in that race? If they do two specific things during the race, try to make them behavioral like focusing on the start and turns, then that race will be successful for them. Try to get them to be performance oriented rather than outcome oriented at the moment of the race.

Feedback: Who are they getting feedback from? Hopefully they are getting feedback from themselves, particularly as the athlete gets older and has more ability to reflect on their performance. Also, from the coach. It can also include parents, peers, physiologists, ect..

Reward System: Obviously, when people achieve a goal we assume that the reward is inherent. One of the things I have found with athletes is experience with delayed gratification, which is common in swimming. There is so much rigor in the sport with day to day training that there isn’t a consistent reward system. In order to stay mental up throughout the season is to develop a reward system. One of the things I have admired most about coaches is they have always found motivational ways to do get out swims and things like that. Those kind of things are critical to keeping athletes.

On the back of the handout, I’ve given you a small space, I’d like you to make the space a little bigger when you hand them out to the kids, but I did this for the purpose of overheads and being able to talk about it, is getting them to figure out what their goals are in the short range, on a daily or weekly basis to the midrange over several months and long range. This is where your outcome oriented goals are going to be in your long range. Or even in your mid range you may have some outcome oriented goals. Action means behaviorally, specifically what I need to do.

I think swimmers have done a good job keeping training logs. I know a lot of coaches have the athletes write out the sets for the day and the times for those sets and those kind of things. So swimmers have a longer history of recording on a day to day basis, what they have done. Again make sure that athletes come in that day to practice and say if I were to accomplish one thing today what would that be? What do I want to focus on today?

One of the other areas that I have had coaches ask me about is how to get the kids to use their brains in practice. One thing I talk to them about is transformation rituals. What that means is what will take their brains out of school and into the pool. What are they going to do? It might be focusing on the action of actually changing out of their clothes into their suit and going through a very short mental routine of what it will take for them to get into the pool that day. It can be anything, it could be the process of untying shoes, it can be whatever you want it to be. It needs to be something that cues them that they are out of school, we are away from home and we are in the pool and that’s where I want your energy. I know that is a tough one for teenagers.

People — who are the people that will help me accomplish this goal? Hopefully, they will list you, the coach. But, who are the other people? Nutritionists, Exercise Physiologists, Weight Trainers, Parents, Friends.

Requirements: this means four different things. What Do I need to know — knowledge? What do I need to be able to do? What do I need to be willing to risk? In diving that tends to be pretty easy, my life because I’m diving 10 meter.

Social support, what do I need? What are the requirements of those four areas? Knowledge, skill , risk taking, social support. What are the requirements?

Barriers. This is one area athletes don’t pay attention to ahead of time. What is going to get in my way? The reason I have them talk about barriers is because it gets them in the mode of troubleshooting. Well, I don’t know how to do a flip turn. That’s a problem, it’s hard to swim a 1500 if you can’t do a flip turn. Or at least it takes a whole lot longer. I don’t know strategy. I don’t how to handle the situation. Those kind of things. Figure out what it is they don’t know and go from there. Skill, what aren’t they able to do? What skills do they need to develop to be faster?

Risk taking. I talk about this a lot with young athletes, usually teenagers and young adults I work with at Georgia Tech. We talk about the risks in terms of they think they are doing themselves a service by hanging out with their friends, being up really late on the weekends, drinking, those kinds of things. They may have to risk that they are not going to be the center or Mr. or Miss Popularity. They are making choices that sling them out of the center of their peer group. So the risk really might include putting their ego on the line.

We talk about things like fear of success and fear of failure. One of the reasons people tend to be afraid to fail is the same reason we all have. We are all ego dependent. If we weren’t we wouldn’t be walking around everyday. We are all protecting ourselves daily. Some times people will sacrifice themselves through the standpoint of ego defending. “I probably would have accomplished this goal of winning the ACC Championship except that I didn’t go to all the practices and I wasn’t committed. If I had been, I probably would have won.” You have probably heard this before. But when you try to hold someone accountable for this on a day to day basis, it’s tough, you get a lot of excuses. I know this is a frustrating thing for coaches to work with this ego defensiveness.

I try to talk to them about what is really worse? Never knowing or knowing. That’s what it comes down to. For a lot of people, they would rather not know what they might have been able to be. I tell people that it takes greater courage to know. Maybe you want to win the Olympics, and that will never happen. But it is better to know than not know. Now this is not a short conversation, generally.

Back to risk taking behavior. My risk is that I’m going to be in pain from a lot of training. Swimming is definitely not for the weak at heart or body.

Social support, what barriers might I have in regard to social support. Maybe my parents are really supportive, maybe they aren’t. Maybe my friends are, maybe they’re not. What areas of social support may be lacking in order for you to accomplish things.

There was a recent research study from Australia, about rowers, who appeared in the World Championships. They were trying to figure out what factors came together to be predictive of outcome, in terms of who made the World Championship Team, who did well, all those kinds of things. They did the whole physiological testing, some psychological stuff, all sorts of different things including technique. The one factor it came down to was whether the parents were supportive or not. This is a reality in our society. We joked a bit about parents. I know some parents are a significant challenge. But they are critical entities. Coaches are only second in terms of importance to an athletes life. Second to parents. For those people with disengaged parents I’ll bet you that you are the number one person in their life in terms of guiding them. Not to put any pressure on you.

Rewards. That means extrinsic or intrinsic or external or internal. Extrinsically what reward might I get for this long term goal? I might get a gold medal, free dinner. Internally, I try to get my athletes to think about what they will experience internally when they achieve their goal. What will this mean? Our world is fraught with examples of people who have accomplished their highest level of expectation, who are unhappy or dissatisfied because they had an expectation of how they were going to feel and that feeling was not met when the actual event happened. So I try to have athletes think about what it will mean to them on a internal level. You may or may not wind up on the cover for USA Today or Time or a Swimming Magazine. So I get them to focus on what it will really mean to them.

If there was one area where Coaches can really help a great deal with their athletes in setting more effective goals, it would be getting them to set more specific goals.

I try to get swimmers to focus on, “what do you think this is going to mean for you on an internal level?” You may or may not end up on the cover of a magazine so it is important to focus on what it means internally.

So those are the things where coaches can really help their athletes to do more effective goal setting. Keep them specific. Behaviorally on a day to day basis they need to ask themselves what they expect to accomplish. I hear a lot of athletes say, “I want to work harder.” What does that mean? They cannot answer because ‘harder” is an abstract concept. Be specific and talk in terms that can be measured. You can ask them, “How am I going to know that you did that?”

Exercises you can do with your team: I have the athletes come into the room and I stand in front and say, “Throw your goals at me. As a team, what do you want to accomplish?” I use a flip chart and write down their ideas. I do not make judgments and I do not want teammates making judgments. I usually get at least 20 team goals in a session like this. After we have all the ideas I post the pages from the flip chart on the walls so everyone can see them. I always number the goals for reference. I have the athletes write down their top three priorities and they do it by number. They list their top priority and give it a three, then their second priority is scored as a 2, and the third priority is scored a 1. I take a summary sheet with just the numbers of the goals listed on it, 1 through 20 and after each number I give the priority score each athlete as given to it. After I have written down everyone’s priority scores I total them up and find the top five goals. After that I go to a clean page and rewrite the top five goals.

Here is another way to develop team goals: I take six or eight pages from a flip chart and tape them together on the floor so I have a huge writing area. I have one of the swimmers volunteer to lay down on the piece of paper and then I have several of the swimmers draw an outline of the person using magic markers. The outlined person gets up and then all the swimmers write goals on the paper within the outline. One of the interesting things is that they tend to write goals relating to body parts near that body part. It isn’t necessary that that happens but it is interesting just to note. Then the swimmers place a 3 by their top priority, a 2 by their second, and a 1 by their third. Then we score it and pick out the top 5.

When I first heard about this way of goal setting I was skeptical but I hadn’t observed the process. Now I think the activity based exercises are good for team building. They all say they want to support each other and they want to communicate but they don’t do it well. Activity based exercises like this help them support each other and communicate. The body outline makes it very tangible. It ends up being a pretty powerful for them.

The next step is to have a discussion about how they are going to achieve these goals. I ask the questions, “How? What?” “How many are you going to do? How are you going to hold each other accountable to this? One of the things you have to navigate is that essentially swimming is an individual sport and people have their own agendas apart from the team. The reason I begin this discussion is to start putting into perspective what it is they want to accomplish as compared to the team’s expectations. I get them talking about that. What can you expect from your teammates?

Another issue that comes up is something someone does that team members hate but never indicate to the individual. If there is enough time on the day you do this exercise I have them have one on one discussions about what they expect from each other and what they do not want, particularly in pre competition situations. You have many different types in pre competition, some are outward, some are withdrawn, some can be catty. Some like to cheer and say good job to everyone even though some hate it when they know they didn’t do well and someone says ,”Hey, good job.” The discussions help them learn about what helps them facilitate competing at their best.

When you are most effective is when you are most efficient and you haven’t wasted energy on different stuff.

How do you begin these discussions? Let the athletes generate as much of the discussion as possible. They listen to you all the time. Let them generate and create ownership of these goals. It allows you to be a point of reference to give advice.

Post the goals where they can be viewed often. Get the athletes to do it. If the coach does the work it can prevent the athletes from taking ownership. Sometimes coaches do too much.

About once a month, or whenever it seems appropriate for you team, touch base with them about the goals. Ask them how they are doing. And if you are not doing well then talk about support and expectations or other factors. Often times they write out goals at the beginning of the year and then forget about them. The coach needs to help them follow up.

So, coaches need to help swimmers be specific in goal setting and facilitate the process, and following up.

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