Leadership Lanes by Toni Armstrong (A Multi-Part Series Sponsored by Swimming World)
“The best thing about the future
is that it comes only one day at a time”
– Abraham Lincoln
The 2010 Maryland State Short Course Championship Meet had an outbreak of stomach virus affecting so many swimmers that the CDC became involved. Kids were puking on the deck left and right creating a hopeless and apocalyptic atmosphere. Everyone felt that participation in the meet would likely end in a less desirable evening in the bathroom, and this left a vast majority of swimmers and coaches concluding their 2010 season feeling like failures. The 2010 Men’s D1 NCAA’s suffered the same fate.
What if I were to tell you that goals were to blame for this feeling of failure and not the virus? That setting goals fosters a fixed mindset where goals are your sole motivation and accomplishing them defines your talent and self-worth; that goals are psychologically damaging to your motivation, confidence, and definition of self-worth. What if I were to tell you to burn your goal sheets?
Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has spent her career researching motivation, personality, and social development as well as teaching courses in these fields. One of her main research projects charted the reactions of 10-year-old students who failed an exam loaded with questions well above their intellect. Few students responded by saying, “I love challenges.” Most responded by either hunting out students that performed worse—to justify their intellect—or acknowledging that they “would probably cheat on the next exam.”
In an interview in 2012 with James Morehead, Dweck states, “I was fascinated by how people cope with failure or obstacles. I was curious about why some students love challenge, and other who may be equally talented, shy away from challenges—play it safe.”
Dweck theorizes that the 10-year-olds in her study highlight the two main developmental mindsets, which she defines as a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, a student believes that their basic abilities (intellect and talent) are fixed traits that have a glass ceiling. An exam is a measuring stick of their intelligence and defines their self-worth. In a growth mindset, a student recognizes that knowledge and intellect can be developed, a test is only a challenge, and effort and difficulty are a means to learning. Failure is not traumatic, but simply a learning experience because their self-worth is defined by their process (effort, hard work, persistence) and not their performance.
Using long-term goals as the motivation and purpose for participation, teaches an athlete to value performance over process and fosters a fixed mindset. It creates a test for athletes to define their experience, intellect, talent, and self-worth. The standard procedure of setting long-term goals leaves athletes of all abilities with an unhealthy sense of self and is to blame for their struggles with retirement and transition into life after athletics.
An awareness of post-Olympic depression is developing around the world with athletes like Michael Phelps and Sasha Cohen sharing their stories, but this isn’t just a problem at the Olympic level, this is an issue for all athletes.
In an article published by USA Swimming in January 2018, recently retired swimmer Felicia Lee discusses her career and the challenging nature of retirement. She admits to being disappointed with the way her career ended saying, “Sure those (results), of course, were nice, but I left the sport with a lot more than I realized: a strong sense of self, work ethic, and go-get it attitude, priceless memories in a countless number of states and countries around the world, and above all, friendships that are unlike anything else.”
It was only through time and reflection that Lee was able to redefine her self-worth, find value in the process, and establish her identity outside of athletics.
Our psychological bias is to blame for why we continue to use the damaging procedure of setting goals in athletics. We hear about a handful of Olympians setting and achieving their goals and we start to believe that there is a direct correlation between the goal setting process and the results. Just this year, Michael Phelps’ goal sheet from the age of 10 made major headlines when it was leaked. We start to believe that if we do what the Olympians did, we will also reach success, and that we will only reach success if we do what the Olympians did. There is an entire market that uses this psychological bias for financial gain. Who do we want to speak at our coaching conferences, and whom do we want to learn from? The outliers of course, because we think that this will increase our odds of becoming one too.
In reality, there is no correlation between practice times and meet times, procedures and performance. This is because there are an infinite number of variables in play—psychology, personality, genetics and circumstances being a huge portion of them. Even Olympic siblings like Kleet and Kalyn Keller, or Morgan and Paul Hamm, didn’t reach success the same way. If Michael Phelps never met Bob Bowman, would he still have been the greatest Olympian of all time? Ultimately, nothing is achievable until it is achieved, and nothing was achieved because you wished for it to happen on a piece of paper.
There is even a double standard in regards to goal setting: 99% success is considered a failure, and 100% success is selling yourself short. The rare athletes who retire on top, like USA Swimmer Maya Dirado (who won 3 relay medals and a gold in the 200 backstroke during her first and last Olympic team in Rio), are criticized because “they failed to recognize their true potential and could have achieved so much more.”
The double standard of goal setting is paralyzing: you either set your sights too high or too low. It puts the athlete in a consistent state of failure where success is short lived and anticlimactic. It defines your limitations, keeps you focused on the uncontrollable performance instead of the controllable process and ultimately defines your experience instead of allowing the experience to define itself. Long-term goals are psychologically damaging and an unsustainable form of motivation.
Setting a long-term goal of reaching the Olympic level will end in failure for 99.9866% of club swimmers (USA Swimming had 336,026 registered swimmers in 2016 with only 45 making the Olympic Team). We need to stop developing standard procedures that follow the example of outliers, and stop preparing all athletes for the professional level. Long term goals need to be eliminated and instead we need to teach athletes to value the process and develop a growth mindset. We need to change the culture of our programs to find motivation through growth, hard work, perseverance and developing adversity instead of seeking medals and specific performance. As Dr. Dweck suggests, we can start by praising our athletes for process skills—effort, strategy, perseverance, improvement, focus, etc.—and encouraging our struggling athletes with words like “not yet.” This isn’t to say that all athletes deserve a participation ribbon, but rather that taking care of the controllable today will take care of the mental health of our athletes and the uncontrollable performances of tomorrow.
Another suggestion is to switch from long term goals to long term intentions. Goals are rigid, unforgiving, and uncontrollable, but a broad and generic intention is a plan that can easily change based on the variables—IE my intention is to attend and race my best at the championship meet. Having a flexible intention will help athletes develop a mindset to thrive in the face of adversity.
Medium and short-term goals should instead become daily process-oriented intentions—ie I’m going to streamline past the flags on every wall today, I am going to be the first person in the water today, I’m going to compliment my team mates today. This will not only create happier and more successful athletes (who retire at an appropriate time with a sense of fulfillment), but teaches mindfulness and the value of being present. Ultimately, developing a growth mindset through these practices instills a better sense of self and self-worth for all people.
As you approach your next season, consider getting rid of your goal sheets, and instead focus on actionable tasks that can be executed on a daily basis and will correlate to success. Teach your athletes to value a growth mindset and find value in daily achievements. And finally, check back here and read more articles in our miniseries “Leadership Lanes” as we will be continuing to challenge your standard way of thinking and coaching.
To learn more about Toni Armstrong please visit www.baltimoreleadership.com – Leadership mentor and owner of a leadership development company centered out of Baltimore, MD
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.