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Climbing the Mountain

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Since last writing, I attended our first pre-worlds training camp out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. It was the first time Team USA was together! Our team is quite the mix of both veteran athletes and newbies, it will be a fantastic event!

As World Championships is drawing closer, I feel like this is an important time to talk about goal setting and its importance and how I use it in my daily life. I believe that we all have goals in our lives, whether it's personal goals, athletic goals or professional goals. However, very rarely do we spend the time to actually write these goals down. There was a longitudinal study conducted by the USOC on emerging to elite athletes investigating effects of goal setting. Guess what they found:

Athletes with defined goals (that is, thought out and written down in positive language) showed a 3% to 5% performance improvement over athletes without defined goals over a 1 to 4 year period.

Think about that for a moment. For any athlete, regardless of your sport, who wouldn't want a 3-5% performance improvement?

Goals that focus on process, rather than outcome are more likely to come true. So what is the difference between the two? Outcome goals are more like the big picture dream. For example, an outcome goal might be to represent Team USA in London 2012. This type of goal is important to have in mind, but in and of itself, it is not enough. Outcome goals, such as this one, are oftentimes so big that it is easy to feel defeated by it before you even start. Outcome goals are important to push us to new heights.

Goals allow us all to have something to measure our progress against. This means we can gauge if our actions are in alignment reaching that target. Goals help to maintain focus. Without goals, you train, workout, or do things with very little purpose and then you get to the end of life and ask yourself, what did I accomplish?

A common visual image when thinking about goals is that of a mountain. Perhaps the outcome goal is to climb the mountain, but it takes a lot of smaller process goals in order to achieve that feat. These process goals include the physical training and mental preparation for such a task. Process goals are specific, measurable attainable, realistic and timely. For example, a process goal in this scenario might be: To run 10 miles in under an hour at 5,000 feet of elevation within three months. A common acronym for process goals is SMART. The question of, what can I accomplish today towards my bigger outcome goal is answered by a process goal.

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Attainable
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Timely


Breaking this down further, to be specific means that the goal you write should answer the question of what do you want to happen? What are you going to do? It is important to use action verbs such as run, lift, perform, shoot, organize, produce, use, create etc.


This means there is some way built into the goal to know whether you have achieved it or not. Goals that are not measurable are not really helpful goals. For example, "I want to be a better swimmer" is a poorly written goal because there is no clear understanding of what a better swimmer actually is. A far better goal might be, "to swim the 100 yard breast stroke in 1:15 or better. Something to remember is that time is not the only way to make goals measurable. Other ways to measure can include place of finish, number of something (such as shots made). Think about your sport and the different ways you can make something measurable.


If your goals are too far out of your reach, it is easy to get discouraged and to stop committing to the goal. Therefore, a goal needs to have just the right amount of stretch meaning you aren't there yet, but it is just outside of your grasp. You still feel like you can do it, and it will need a real commitment from you. In my experience, working with a mentor or coach to find this balance of attainability is very helpful. We all need to have some successes as this helps us to stay motivated.


This is similar to a goal being attainable. It means that your goal is do-able, by you. It means that in order to achieve your goal the required skills are available to you or perhaps you have some of them already.


Having a timeframe for the goal really helps to keep you focused on it. The timeframe might be for next week, for next practice, in six months—it all depends. Without a timeframe, not only is it easy to forget about your goal, but there is also no sense of urgency to get it done.

For goals to be effective, they need to be used properly. Just having the goals is not enough; put them in a place where you will see them every day. Daily reminder and system for you to check to make sure you are on the right track. For me, my athletic goals are in my bathroom on the mirror, additionally, I carry with me a laminated index card with my time goals for my events, and personal bests to serve as a reminder.

Revisit your goals regularly. Goal setting should not be an annual thing that gets forgotten about. It ought to be something that you continually revisit, that you discuss with your coach multiple times throughout the season—at the end of each practice or workout, ask yourself, did I work towards my goal(s) today?

Something new that I'm trying for myself is to have a SMART goal for my specific practice session. I realized I was really good at having long-term outcome goals and process goals for the season and for specific competitions, but not very disciplined at doing that in practice too.

I hope you can use some of these goal setting tips and tricks in your own life or as you prepare for your next competition!


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