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Using Progress Goal Times to Improve -- September 17, 2010

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, September 17. GOALS give direction. Without goals, you have no plan, no strategy, no drive; you are just swimming laps and just following the swimmers ahead of you. This is no way to improve. If you have a goal, you have an idea of what you are going to work on that day in practice in order to improve at the next meet in order to reach a certain time at the end of the season.

The key to using goals on a daily basis is to understand how to bridge the gap between your current best time and the time you wish to reach. It is not simply a matter of knowing the time you want and "working hard" to get it. As stated in a previous article (see GOALS THAT MOTIVATE, progress goals help you with SMART (i.e. Specific, Measurable, Adjustable, Realistic, and Time-bound) ways you can work daily to reach your performance goals. Progress goals can be made for many areas that affect swimming: technique, race strategy, pace, and also nutrition, stress, time-management, sleep, mental skills, and so on. Progress goals can also be made for swimming times.


Most swimmers who set goals simply pick a time faster than their personal best and then will themselves to reach it once at a swim meet. Goal times will become much more effective with understanding of how the times translate to practice.

Know your times.
First, you need to know your times. I have seen countless swimmers consult the heat sheet to find out their time just before swimming a race. They then, on the spot, make a goal to beat that time during the race. There are three problems with this method.

One problem is that sometimes the heat sheet is wrong. The swimmers then find out they were upset about swimming slower when their coach entered them in a made-up faster time for more competition, or they find out they were ecstatic about a best time when they were entered weeks ago and have actually already since swum faster. Heat sheets are not a reliable source for finding out your best times.

A second problem with this method is that consistently beating the time in the heat sheet during mid-season races is not realistic. Even if the heat sheet shows their best time, the older and faster a swimmer is, the less often best times will occur during the season. There needs to be a recovery and taper period to get the body and mind into peak condition.

A third problem is they have not prepared themselves to beat the time. Picking a time to beat just before racing is like walking through a maze (or from the light switch to your bed) for the first time in the dark. Once you know the maze, your body seems to "know" where to go. Similarly, your body and your mind need to communicate what it feels like to swim certain times. This work takes place in practice first. If you pay attention to your times as you swim sets, you can get a feel for a 30 second 50 freestyle or a 100 backstroke in 1:10. If you need to take out your first 50 of a 100 freestyle in a race in 28, you need to have developed an idea of what that speed feels like.

Set progress goal times for practice meets.
In order to reach your goal times, there needs to be a process of preparation. In addition to end-of-the-season goal times, you also need goal times for the meets leading up to the target meet. Some coaches call these "practice meets" to emphasize their role in preparing swimmers for the target meet.

Your end-of-the-season goal time for the target meet should be realistically faster than your current best time and perhaps reflect a USA Swimming motivational standard (i.e. B, A, AA, etc.) or a qualifying time for a meet. This is your performance goal for the championships.

As mentioned earlier, the older and faster you get, the less likely you will achieve best times during the season. You will generally need the taper and rest to get into peak condition before dropping your time again. So your times for the practice meets should actually be slower than your best time, but faster than what you typically swim. This is to make your goals realistic and motivating. Setting a time slower than your best should not be limiting. If you believe you can better your best time, go for it. Just keep in mind that the mid-season meet goal is the time desired, and you can be satisfied with, as you progress toward a best time at the end of the season.

For instance, say a female swimmer's best time in the 100 backstroke is 1:00. She would like to break a minute at the target meet. During the practice meets she typically swims 1:02. A good practice meet goal would then be low 1:01 so that it is easier to drop below 1:00 at the end of the season.

Set progress goal times for practice sets.
But it doesn't end there. In order to get to 1:01 at the meets, times in practice need to drop as well. Perhaps this hypothetical swimmer usually paces 100 backstrokes in practice at 1:06. With a little more rest, she drops to 1:04. Goal times for practice might then be 1:04-1:05, and low 1:03 with more rest. By consistently paying attention to times in practice, your body starts to "know" what it feels like to swim a certain pace.

In order to make these drops in practice, progress goals in areas other than time need to be met. Changes in technique might be necessary. More rest or more carbs might be needed. Positive self-talk or a willingness to challenge oneself might need work.

Progress is not all about times.
The emphasis thus far has been to show how times can be used to improve during practice and mid-season meets in pursuit of the desired best time. However, it is important to keep in mind that times are only one marker for improvement, and there will be days when the goal times just will not happen. It in no way means the drop to a best time will not happen either; swimmers often perform much better than expected in the right conditions. In other words, you might not reach your practice goals times or your meet goal times, but with a little more rest, or with other responsibilities set aside for the "big meet," or with the excitement of the championship, you might still reach your end of the season goal. Never count yourself out; just use goals to help motivate you on your way.

Also keep in mind that improvement is not always indicated by time. Other markers for improvement can be measured with your progress goals apart from times. When there are changes in race strategy or technique, it is expected to swim slower at first because of the thought involved in making the changes. Once the changes become automatic, then the times will start to drop again. Therefore, slower times, but better technique, also indicates improvement toward a drop at the end of the season. Define for yourself (with the help of your coach) what indicates improvement in a specific race. Perhaps it is keeping your breathing pattern the whole way on butterfly or freestyle. Perhaps it is hitting the wall on an extended stroke for butterfly or breaststroke. Perhaps it is speeding up your rotation on backstroke or freestyle. Whatever it is, improvement in technique, race strategy, attitude, and other physical and mental areas will ultimately result in a time drop.

Again, use goals to motivate, and do not let them discourage you. If the times do not seem to be there, focus on where you are improving. Maybe you are lifting heavier weights, throwing heavier medicine balls, using more resistant stretch cords, or other indications of increased strength. Or you might be using the same weight, but performing more repetitions or throwing the medicine ball farther. You might be running faster or longer. Or you might be more flexible. If you were to rate your practices for effort with 10 meaning you had full focus and determination throughout, you might find you can give yourself at least an 8 for most practices as opposed to previously around a 5 of 6. These specific and measurable training goals can help remove the focus from time and put it on improvement. When the championship meet arrives, you can tell yourself you are working harder, and you are stronger, and more flexible, so you're going to be fast.

Sometimes you might need to take the pressure off dropping time. When it comes down to it, swimming is about putting 100 percent of your effort into a race so that when it is over, you know you could not have done one thing more, regardless of what the clock says. If you can do that, you will experience success.

Refocus on improvement and adjust goals when needed.
"There are no failures - just experiences and your reactions to them." ~ Tom Krause

Failure and success are perceptions based on whether we fell short or exceeded our expectations. This is one reason to have realistic expectations; it ensures success is possible. But we can fail to reach even realistic expectations. Your work all season long is to increase the likelihood of success at the end, but even with the best preparation, there is no guarantee.

After the target meet focus on what you did well and where you can improve. Maybe you reached all your goals. Congratulations. You still need to figure out what you did well, and where you can improve. Maybe you were disappointed with your times. Refocus on what you did well and where you can improve. You might have actually swum faster, but had a few little mistakes that meant the faster speed did not show in your time. You might have improved in most or all of your progress goals, but did not have enough time in one season for it to come together at the championships; maybe one more season will allow that happen.

What did you learn this season or from past seasons that will lead to time drops in the future? Swimmers often swim seven or more events at championships. Did you learn to bounce back from discouragement and step up again? This builds resilience, and that will lead to success in swimming and in life. Did you get faster in some races, but feel failure due to not dropping your time in a specific event? Drops in other events frequently foreshadow a drop in your special event. Maybe there was simply too much pressure on one event.

From this evaluation, you can adjust your progress goals for the upcoming season. Take pride in what you did well, and use the areas in need of improvement to reformulate specific and measurable progress goals.

As swimmers, we want to get faster, and it is only with perspective that I can say this: a tough and positive attitude and outlook developed in pursuit of reaching your full potential is a truer marker of success as a swimmer than the final best time in your personal record book. Remember goals give direction. They are meant to motivate. They are not the marker of success or failure as a swimmer, only markers of improvement and what to do next. There is so much more to swimming than the time on the clock. Use your goals as a tool to improve daily, and you will leave this sport with the perception of having succeeded.

Tonya Nascimento is a doctorate student in the sport psychology program at Florida State University. She was a competitive swimmer for 20 years, during which she swam for FSU. She also coached Maverick Aquatics for eight years and the Niceville High School swim team for four years.


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