By Jeff Arbogast
Setting goals in athletic performance is not a new concept at all, but it is a practice that is now receiving much attention at all levels, from youth athletics to the Olympic level. Coaches and athletes talk about goal setting, but few athletes seem to develop a plan for establishing, attacking and renewing goals, skills that ultimately determine not only the degree but the speed of athletic improvement.
These goals not only relate to the common concepts of performance, but also to the very process of getting to the end result – hence the terms 'performance' and 'process' goals.
Performance goals are common. There is performance risk, reward and a constant learning process. Early athletes used their speed, endurance and athletic ability to pursue a goal . . . hunting down food. If successful, they reached their goal and dragged prey back to camp, learning a little bit more each time they achieved their reward. If they were unsuccessful, they gained a little more motivation for the next hunt, re-established their goals and became more earnest in their attempts. Today’s athletes follow a similar outline as they look to improve their performances. Motivations change but the process is remarkably similar.
Youth athletes feel a need to improve for a variety of reasons. Parents, peers, team and self all evaluate performances, and an athlete mired in mediocrity or resting on a plateau of effort becomes noticeable. Very few athletes desire to stay static in their development, but very few also know how to establish goals that are challenging but attainable. Improvement will satisfy those people who evaluate them, but most importantly, it will satisfy the competitive athlete within.
Where to start on the road to setting goals? Just like establishing a route for a hike, a flight plan or a cross-country road trip, athletes must know their starting point. Where are they now and where do they want to go? As the driving route may involve travel over rough terrain, so might athletic goals, but they will adapt and overcome the challenges.
First, help establish an athlete’s current level ability. What is the athlete’s current and true personal record or personal best? Once a starting point is established, the goals can be attainable.
Coaches can then evaluate an athlete’s current level of ability and help to set attainable goals. To a competitive athlete, the sky may seem to be the limit in setting goals, but a coach can help temper that enthusiasm with reality and make the ultimate goals reachable. A coach is also able to evaluate potential for short and long-term improvement, critical in establishing intermediate goals as well as the long-range plan of success.
As a coach, help decide on a performance goal that is long-term and realistic. But setting a long-range mark is only half the plan. Any goal setting intended to succeed has intermediary goals that are 'stair-step' and attainable at various points in a training cycle. The positive motivation received for hitting these intermediary goals goes a long way in ensuring an athlete’s potential to hit the long-range goal. These goals should be established after looking at competitive opportunities, training plans and potential.
After each performance goal is reached, the best part of goal setting arrives. Parents may also get involved at this step, because with attainment of a goal comes reward – a movie, a special dinner, a treat, or mention in a local publication. Nothing helps the long-term goal more than reward for hitting the intermediary steps.
Any long-term goal should have three to five intermediary goals, rewards and re-evaluations before the final test. Once the long-term goal is attained, an athlete gets the ultimate reward for hitting the final goal. The final reward may be a trip to a regional or national competition, a long-desired non-athletic possession, or any other positive motivator. But, it should be commensurate with the effort given. A large goal requires a large motivator.
Intermediate goals need to be stair-step in nature, paralleling the way a youth athlete develops. Coaches and athletes should recognize that many training cycles are not linear but instead incorporate training plateaus. The athlete needs to be able to spend a training period after hitting an intermediary goal preparing for the next one. It is unrealistic to expect weekly personal records and linear development if the athlete truly desires long-range improvement.
After hitting an intermediary goal, the athlete should be rewarded and then brought into the new training cycle with a new intermediary goal as the focus. A training period after each intermediary goal also helps develop a competitive attitude. It also makes the performances special and lessens the chances that competition becomes a boring event. Over-competing can lead to staleness and loss of focus. Remember, a hungry dog fights harder.
After each stair-step performance goal is hit, spend time in re-evaluation. Was the intermediary goal too easy? Or, was the goal unrealistic? Is it possible to move up the timeframe of the long-term goal or increase the challenge, or should the athlete reconsider the long-term goal and increase chances of success by being more realistic? Coaches have the experience necessary to help athletes with these questions that should be answered after each stair-step is reached.
Pitfalls in goal-setting include a variety of mistakes an athlete and a coach can make right from the outset. If the end goal is unrealistic, even intermediary goals will be difficult and the goal-setting loses effectiveness as the athlete becomes frustrated.
If there is no communication between coach, parents and athlete, the goals become quiet and move to the back of the mind. No one achieves goals alone. High goals require a good support system. Parents and coaches need to be aware of the goals and help reinforce them along the way. A lack of belief in the athlete will also kill any chances of hitting a long-range goal. Every member of the support system should be convinced in ultimate success, so the coach needs to be particularly thorough in determining ability. Parents need to be extremely careful in addressing the issue positively. And the athlete needs to be as dedicated and sincere as possible.
Process goals are often ignored, but they are the fundamentals on which performance goals are set. It is impossible to set performance goals and expect to achieve them without knowing to how attain the end result. A process goal outlines the training steps necessary for achieving ultimate success. Process goals are established in training theory as well as recovery concepts such as rest and diet. Again, these goals involve coaches with training issues; and parents as they assist in monitoring recovery, rest and dietary needs.
Process goals do not necessarily include measured efforts. It matters little the specific outcome of a session. What is most critical is that the athlete attended each workout, gave the best effort he or she could and remembered all the peripherals throughout the week (e.g., remembering equipment, setting an alarm clock for workouts, staying hydrated). Just as in performance goals, the process goals should also have small rewards built in at intermediary steps.
Effective goal-setting in youth athletics includes the following points:
Communication between athlete, coach and parents.
Coaches assist athletes in determining which goals are realistic and parents will help with enthusiasm and reward.
Set attainable long range goals.
Long-range goals require an athlete’s belief in them. If a goal is established due to outside pressure or factors beyond an athlete’s control, he or she has no ownership over it and no personal belief in success.
Establish stair-step intermediary goals and specific rewards.
Goal setting should be like climbing a set of stairs. After hitting each step, a specific reward needs to be received. But, realize additional training will be necessary to get to the next step.
Develop process goals as well as performance goals.
It is important to have a standard mark or time for which to shoot. Assist the athlete in developing the goals necessary to get there. The process has to be rewarded as well as it is the building block of improvement.
Re-evaluate goals along the way.
Coaches can provide an outside perspective and take a hard look at the goals at every intermediary step. Are they too easy? Are they out of reach and frustrating? Keep goals attainable even if they are very small steps.
Surround the process with positives.
Parents, coaches and peers should be supportive of each goal.
Goal setting can release the potential an athlete has by providing a plan of process and performance goals that are realistic and attainable. A goal set by a determined athlete becomes just another stair step leading to the ultimate pinnacle of personal athletic achievement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Arbogast has been the boys and girls cross country coach at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, for the past 31 years and the boys and girls track teams for 29 years. He has led his teams to 10 state championships and annually has one of the nation’s top cross country programs. He has served on the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee since 2003 and currently serves as chair.