Coaches' Corner: Setting Goals, Part 1

The course in Ghent, Belgium (Photo: © B. Kitch) 
As we begin the new year, many of us begin to set specific performance goals or focus more intently on the goals we have already set for ourselves. In pursuing your individual goals it is helpful to think about the best way to maximize those goals, while placing them in perspective, and thinking about them within the optimal framework.

In setting goals, many people approach them with the wrong framework. They set their goals based on the performances and/or level of their peers, rather than basing the goals purely upon themselves and their own capabilities.

In coaching, I always try to get the athletes to focus on themselves. The goal as an athlete, then, is to make yourself 1% better everyday. I find that by first by focusing on themselves and second by focusing on step-by-step, systematic improvement one day at a time, athletes are better able to move toward their potential without too many outside limitations. If you focus on getting better relative to yourself, in order to make sure you are better tomorrow than you were yesterday, you will be working toward achieving your full potential.

This works well for those less talented people or middle of the road people who don't have the same physiological/natural gifts as some teammates or competitors. Sometimes coaches err in developing less talented athletes by creating an environment in which less talented athletes are treated as inferior. Although having a hierarchy of performance within a team is important, it is also important to reward athletes for doing their best. Ultimately, each athlete has a different ceiling on his/her maximum ability, and the key is to get each athlete to reach his/her potential. So, even though many coaches want to reward performance based on an absolute scale in order to get athletes performing at a more objective 'championship level,' they should also reward athletes for getting better every day, even if they aren't yet fast on the absolute scale. In this way, the coach will hold everyone to the same, achievable, objective standard, regardless of ability.

The same things also apply to push the most talented athletes. If there is one athlete who is far and away more talented than his/her teammates, the coach needs to push that athlete to get better every day. Defeating teammates is not an acceptable form of success–only personal improvement earns praise.

The skeptic might say that this coaching philosophy is problematic, due to relative levels of work. The fact is, lower performing athletes are sometimes 'lower performing' because they don't work as hard as the top athletes, and the top athletes are the 'top athletes' because they work harder. This means that, at first, it may be easy for athletes who haven't been working as hard to improve, while the top athletes might really struggle to improve. This is inevitably true to an extent, but it will quickly be remedied if the philosophy is applied as it will force everyone to get better. If everyone improves, it will eventually be equally hard to improve because everyone will be approaching their physiological limits, which can of course, be increased over time through smart training.

In order to effectively use this model, a coach must have a strong sense of his/her athletes. The coach must be able to tell when an athlete is pushing up against physiological limits, and approaching maximum potential. As I've said before, coaching is more an art than a science.

How can you apply this to coaching a team or a crew? Use a Speed Coach on the water and focus on achieving a certain speed, rather than focusing on beating an opponent, whose speed you have no ability to control. Be as objective as possible. You can only control how fast you go and how close you get to your own capabilities, but you can't control what your maximum potential is. What do you do if you have to race someone who is just faster and/or more talented than you? If you simply have two boats next to each other every day, without objective data from a Speed Coach or some other means of determining/tracking absolute speed, both boats may be slow in absolute terms or in terms of what you are maximally capable of–beating one boat in practice may give the other crew the false sense that it is fast. Both boats may be limiting themselves, whereas training alone, with high expectations and a talented coach could potentially lead to a higher optimum performance. It could also have the opposite effect, as training partners and competitors can help push us to levels we might not reach otherwise, but it is important to find a balance. Ultimately, a mix of both is probably the best strategy for reaching one's best. That is, using objective data and focusing on individual potential independent of others, while also using training partners and competitors as targets to help motivate and drive toward further accomplishments and increased speed.

Setting Goals, Part 2 coming up on Friday of this week.

-Justin and the RR Team

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