Goals that Motivate

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, September 10. CHLORINE runs in your veins; it's your perfume. You are a competitive swimmer, and perhaps you have been as long as you can remember. Perhaps your friends make jokes about how you were born in the pool, already knowing how to swim. If you are honest with yourself, perhaps sometimes you are still just doing it because it's what you have always done. Or maybe you still genuinely have the passion and drive for it, but the seasons are just so long and grueling that your motivation wanes. It is natural in a lifelong sport as challenging as swimming to sometimes feel a bit lackadaisical about practice.

The best way to get going again is to invigorate your goals. You have probably heard about goal-setting as long as you have been swimming. The thing is, you set goals every day without thinking about it. When you write to-do lists, you are setting goals. When you decide on a time to get your homework done so you can watch your favorite television show, you are setting a goal. When you visualize yourself doing something different from the way it just happened, you are setting a goal for the next time that situation occurs. The key to increasing your motivation is to be purposeful, methodical, and have a plan about your goals, and to set goals that really mean something to you.

Getting Started
What do you want to get out of your swimming? This is the distant outcome you hope comes of your swimming. It might be getting a scholarship to swim in college. It might be making Junior Nationals or Senior Nationals. Whatever it is, it feels a long way off at this point. This is your long-term goal, and although it can provide sporadic motivation during months and years of training, it can also fail to motivate due to our tendency to believe we can "work hard tomorrow."

However, your long-term goal is a good place to start when setting your goals. Write down 2-3 long-term goals. Now take a look at these goals. Are they based on winning or improving your times? Goals based on winning are outcome goals. Goals based on improving your times are performance goals. Because winning depends on how others perform, and improving your time depends only on you, it is better to set performance goals. These goals are under your control.

Now pick a goal and think about the steps needed to get there. If you want to make a certain meet, you will need to know the qualifying time, or if qualifying is based on your performance, it will help to know the average times that made it for the last few years. Using this number, you can ascertain how much you will need to drop from your current time.

This is where many swimmers who set goals stop. The problem is that if dropping time is the only indicator of improvement, then it is very easy to get discouraged. No swimmer drops time every meet, and there are likely seasons when you might not drop at all in certain events. This is why progress goals are important.

Progress goals are the steps it takes to get to your performance and outcome goals. They are markers of your progress toward these goals. They include nutrition, sleep, technique, race strategy, attitude, practice test sets, practice habits, and a myriad of other factors that affect your swimming. Improving in these areas will increase your chances of dropping time, and give you a much clearer indication of what you can be doing day to day. Having a clear plan and focus for what to work on each practice helps alleviate repetitiveness and infuses your practice with enthusiasm and meaning.

Imagine and Commit
Goals are most motivating if you are very clear about what you want to accomplish. Your goals should be clear enough to visualize, to imagine yourself achieving them. Vague goals do not give you direction. For example, perhaps your goal is to get faster in breaststroke. As you are about to start on a breaststroke set in practice, does this motivate you? It is not clear enough to combat fatigue or help you conquer those unwanted thoughts to slow down and take it easy.

Effective goals fit the SMART criteria. They are Specific, Measurable, Adjustable, Realistic, and Time-oriented.

Specific: To be specific, there needs to be a distance and a goal-time. Progress goals should include goal times for practice, for mid-season meets, and also specific plans for pacing, strategy, and changes in technique.

Measurable: When goals are measurable you can easily answer the question, "Did you achieve your goal?" If your goal is simply to "work harder" or "swim faster" it becomes difficult to answer that question. Event times are easy to measure, but they are not the only marker of improvement. Timing the breakout or the first 50 split might be needed. Perhaps the goal is fewer strokes per length or a longer breakout, coming up at a measurable distance from the wall. Your goal may be to hold your breath into and out of turns on freestyle or to breathe every other on butterfly.

Adjustable: There will be days when things just are not going well. Perhaps you are sick, overwhelmed, under-rested, or just plain "off." Some athletes do not like to set goals because goals actually discourage them when they don't make it. Goals need to be flexible. Understand that not every day is a steady progression forward toward the destination. The journey is full of obstacles, but each one makes you a mentally tougher swimmer, one who can overcome in order to succeed. You might try setting three goals: one that would be "awesome," one that is "good," and one that is "acceptable" should unforeseen things happen.

Realistic: We would all like to make the Olympic team, but it is realistic for only a few. Your goal needs to be within reach according to your ability. It is a good idea to communicate with your coach about this. If your goals are unrealistic, you will not believe you can reach them, or be needlessly discouraged when you inevitably fall short. On the other hand, if your goals are too easily attainable, then they will also not motivate you to reach within yourself for that something more. Realistic goals should be challenging enough to require extra effort but close enough within range that you can imagine yourself already there.

Time-bound: This is the deadline. By when are you going to reach this goal? Each progress goal needs its own deadline leading up to the performance goal deadline at the end of the season. Although this deadline is adjustable, it is important to keep you on track and motivated daily.

If you set effective, SMART goals, you will be able to imagine yourself reaching them. In fact, just before every practice, you might spend a few minutes imagining yourself swimming the stroke with correct technique, hitting the wall, and looking up to see your goal time on the clock.

Once you are clear on what you want, write it down. Post these goals where you will see them: on your swim locker, in your swim bag, on the mirror in your bathroom, or on the wall above your bed. You could even have the goals you want to work on that day on the pool deck where you can see them. Just write them on index cards and laminate them or put them in Ziploc bags. Writing it down helps solidify your quest. As you write, commit to putting in the effort needed to achieve these goals. Posting them gives you visual reminders of your commitment.

Affirm and Act
One trick to helping yourself achieve these goals is to repeat positive affirmations to yourself as if you have already achieved them. For example, if your goal time is 23.87 in the 50 freestyle, you might say, "I swim the 50 free in 23.87." You might also say to yourself, "I speed up into turns," "I hold my breath off walls and into finishes," and "I have an extremely fast start" or "I get off the blocks very quickly." These affirmations, repeated in the present tense, trick your mind into believing it is true, thereby whisking away mental limitations and allowing your body to perform in congruence with your beliefs.

Imagining clearly the outcome, committing in writing, and affirming your ability leads to goals that better motivate your actions. To reach your goals, you need to show up to practice with a clear idea of what you will work on that day and physically put in the work.

At the close of the season or whenever a deadline for reaching a goal passes, take some time to evaluate how you did. What did you do well? What can be improved? Make sure you pay attention to the outstanding parts as well as the areas to work on. Try not to singularly focus on the "bad" parts. However it turns out, it is important to feel the emotions first and let them go, and then evaluate your meet and your season. If you did well or you did not, then you need to know the exact reasons why. These reasons help you shape your goals for the next season. If you are not sure what you did well or where you need to improve, talk to your coach. However it turns out, use the outcome to set new goals and re-motivate yourself. Every practice and every meet is one step closer to the next championships! It will be here before you know it.

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.