Road to #London2012: How Goals can Help and Hinder Olympians

london-2012-olympics-logoIt was time.

As Brent Hayden walked from the ready room to the platform there he reflected on all the work he had done to get to this moment. Back in 2008 he failed to qualify for the men’s 100m freestyle final, but here in London his preparation paid off. In a few moments he would swim with the best in the world for Canada’s first medal ever in this event.

Confidence is critical here. From lane seven he looked across at the competitors beside him and a few doubts entered his mind. They looked strong. Their semi-final times were faster than his.

But before these thoughts could take root he remembered something important: All eight of the finalists had an equal opportunity. Anything could happen. He remembered the pain he had endured to prepare his body for excellence in this moment. He looked up at his fiancée in the stands and connected with all the strength she had provided him. This was his moment. He resolved to give this moment his everything, regardless of outcome. He would finish assured that whatever the result, he would have no regrets. A medal would not define him, his character would. He would still be the same person tomorrow.

As he stepped onto the platform, a calm intense focus settled in. He absorbed the sounds around him, visualized his start, grounded his feet on the platform, and awaited the tone. There were no more thoughts. “ready”….

Brent went on to win the Bronze medal that night. It was an emotional moment for many Canadians watching that night in the Olympics Aquatic Center. The three minutes leading up to Brent’s race reinforced several important performance principles. In today’s post I just want to focus on just one – appropriate goal orientation.

There are three different types of goals useful for high performance:

1. Outcome goals

These are the overall results you want to achieve. For example,

  • To medal in the 100m freestyle at London 2012.

2. Performance goals

Specific milestones that will make it possible for you to achieve your outcome goals. For example,

  • Swim the 100m freestyle in under 43 seconds by June 2012
  • Start reaction time of .02 seconds by January 2012
  • Stroke length of 3m per side by Dec 2011

3. Process goals

What needs to occur in the moment of executing a performance in order to achieve performance goals. For example,

  • Relaxed exhaling entire time head is under water (don’t hold breath)
  • Keeping head aligned with spine during body roll
  • Keeping elbow high during catch phase of stroke

A key distinction between these three types of goals is the degree of control you have in being able to achieve them.

Outcomes goals can be powerful motivators for training and creating a compelling vision for the future. But you can’t control your competitor’s capability or performance. Great performers and coaches know how to use outcome goals to prepare them for competition, but shift focus to performance and process goals in competition.

Performance goals build confidence in competitors and help them shift from hoping they can achieve an outcome goal to believing they can. Athletes have more control over their performance goals than outcomes, but many external factors could influence it. The more prepared an athletes is, the more easily they are able to adapt in the moment to meet the demands of an event. But poor officiating, action of other competitors can still influence your performance.

Process goals enable performers to have the most control moment by moment. These goals enable them to focus on the factors or variables that will influence their performance, and ultimately the outcome of an event or practice. They help develop confidence and a sense of progress when training. These goals are often used to focus an athlete after they lose their focus or composure. It creates a powerful focus in the present.

All three types of goals are critical to the development of a high performance.

Brent Hayden had all three in place, but ultimately his success required him to let go of expectations of a medal in the moment he needed to execute. He remembered what he was capable of in terms of performance, and focused on the process of executing it. Although doubts crept into his head he effectively chose the goal orientation he needed to keep him anchored into the present moment, not future outcomes.

What can we learn from this?

Most of us are familiar with the SMART goals acronym for effective goal setting. While this is a helpful framework, it has its limitations when it comes to creating the appropriate focus moment by moment. What big hairy outrageous goal have you set for yourself or your team? What does the ideal outcome look like? What elements of performance will be required to achieve it? What do you have control over right now to move closer and closer towards that goal?

Although it may seem like a lot of work to break an outcome goal down into the elements that support it, over time it creates a different orientation towards how we manage our focus, time and resources in the present moment. It also can free us from attaching our sense of self-worth with achieving a specific outcome – usually something we do not control.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this may be applicable to:

  • a personal goal you are currently working towards
  • how you managing the expectations of your team
  • how you support coaching clients

In my next post I’ll share a little more about how athletes use four focus styles to ensure they get their mind and body primed for performance. Something we all could use a little more of.

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Russell Hunter