Several years ago, a sport psychologist told me to go into my room and take down my goal times. My goals had become an unhealthy obsession that had blinded me to any progress and even limited my achievements. All of my attention was on the end result instead of creating a process to get there. I was setting a goal and setting my limitations. Throughout the past few years, I have rebuilt my process and created a better goal setting system that has allowed me to put a road map to success on my wall instead. It allowed me to reach higher levels of achievement and enjoy the process so much more. I want to challenge you to put a new system in place that allows for endless potential and constant growth! (I lay out this system in terms of swimming, but this process can be applied to anybody and anything.)
Goal setting is a practice nearly everyone does. However, it is not always the most efficient system for reaching your potential and it can have a limiting effect. Done incorrectly, you'll never be able to reach past your goal.
Setting goals can be like saying “I’m going to bake a cake” and then just working really hard to mix together ingredients without any idea of how to actually reach your goal. Without a recipe or plan, you’ll never get there.
By setting goals, we also can find ourselves falling into the trap of “if I achieve X, then I will be happy” which prevents us from creating a process that allows for growth and enjoyment throughout the whole journey.
The first step is to create goal levels:
Start with a dream goal and set this one really high! Even if you don’t totally believe that you could achieve it someday. For most, this will be to swim in the Olympics. For some, it could just be to be healthy and happy. Ask yourself why your swimming and what would be the ultimate achievement. Be sure not to limit yourself! You’re capable of more than you think.
Next, are long-term goals. Start to make a list of the goals that you’ll have to achieve in order to get to your dream goal. These are your stepping-stones to guide you along the way. For example, most people will follow along a path of Junior Olympics, Sectionals, Junior Nationals, Nationals, Olympic Trials, etc. or something similar. Also, the USA Swimming Motivational Times can be a great guide for age group swimmers.
Each long-term goal should have a list of short-term goals as progress markers. This includes time and technique goals that must be achieved at the next swim meet to get closer and closer to your long-term goals. These goals still take time and work to achieve and must be applied over time for mastery. Even the "training meets" where you're racing tired, talk to your coach about setting a creative goal . My favorite would be to try and negative split my 400 or hold a certain breathing pattern.
Micro-goals are my favorite and the type of goals that separate out the good from the great. These mini-goals allow you to get the most out of each day and practice by having 1-3 things that you’re focusing on in each set in practice. They can be splits, technique, diet, sleep, dryland, or mindset based goals so that you start each day with intention and end each day with a feeling that you got everything out of the day that you possibly could. Try to hold slightly faster times throughout a set than you might have been able to do last week or streamline off your walls a little bit farther. They don't have to be huge improvements; inch by inch, everything's a cinch!
By the time you’ve drawn this roadmap and really laid out the steps that you need to take to achieve that dream goal, it doesn’t seem so difficult any more. Your goals flow from one to the next and you have the opportunity to continuously move forward through each step. Your focus is on the progress and you can celebrate victories almost every day. This allows you to enjoy the journey and stay constantly motivated!
Each goal must follow the 3 P’s:
Powerful: Set your goals high! You’re capable of so much more than you think! Reach one notch higher than you normally would with everything from dream goals to micro goals. Start out a set or a race just a little bit faster than you think you can hold. You’ll surprise yourself often!
Personal: Keep your goals in your lane! Don’t base your goals off of what anybody else is doing. You can’t control them and you don’t know how they’re going to do. Stay focused on what you can control. It’s great to work off of other people in races to push you and be competitive, but focus on you.
Positive: Focus on what you want to achieve and not what you don’t want to achieve. If I tell you to focus on not false starting, what are you picturing? Your brain doesn’t pay any attention to the word “don’t” or “no” so you picture yourself false starting. Instead flip everything around to a positive and visualize yourself starting perfectly. When you’re at a barrier, instead of thinking “break 1:00”, think “go a :59”, etc.
Following these goal-setting steps will lead you to success. You’ll find yourself progressing through your roadmap without much resistance. So stop setting goals and create a goal system!
When I was 17, I made my first National Team in the pool. I got to travel to Rome, Italy to compete in the World Championships. Up until that point, my main focus had only been open water. While lining up on a beach and getting ready to duke it out with a bunch of women over the course of a 6.2 mile race will definitely get your blood pumping, it was a very different kind of nervous compared to pool racing. There were rarely any spectators or screaming fans, so I was just focused on my performance. When I switched over to the pool, I was still nervous about the performance aspect, but there were a few variables that I wasn’t prepared for.
off guard. They were chanting her name and with every scream of “Frederica! Frederica!” I had a little voice in my head say “You don’t belong here,” and “You’re not good enough”. I clumsily removed my sweats and went up to my block. A cameraman put the lens right in my face for a moment before moving around me to put it on Frederica. We waited a few minutes for the fans to quiet before being able to hear the whistles that told me to step up. It’s a miracle that I stayed on the block with how badly I was shaking. When I went down to take my mark, the shaking only intensified. At that point, even before the beep, I was exhausted. I was physically and mentally spent. After the race, which didn’t go well, I vowed to figure out a system to never let it happen again. Here are 3 of the things that I do right before a race to control my nerves.
Have a Mantra
The right words can transform your psyche and unleash a more powerful swimmer. Mantras can center you so that you have a phrase to hold onto when your mind starts to race to keep you focused and strong. A few examples that I have used are “I can do this”, “I am a champion”, and “This is my time to shine”. Find one that works for you and begin to practice it! One fun trick I’ve also learned is to write my mantra on my foot so that when I bend down to take my mark on my start, the last thing I see before I dive in the pool is “I’m a superstar”.
Try out these techniques at your next swim meet and see how your mental process changes. The nervous energy won’t be gone; it’ll just be focused and reserved for when you actually need it in your race. Good Luck!
When I was little, I was always convinced that Olympians had super powers. They seemed to emit a light, a presence, that was full of confidence and strength that I thought could only be explained by some kind of nuclear incident. I even dressed up as my favorite super hero, Summer Sanders, for Halloween 4 years in a row. In my mind, Olympians were about as similar to me as someone from planet Krypton.
I often get asked what the secret is to becoming an Olympian. It’s like people think that I’m going to pull out some top-secret file folder that will tell them the secret formula to becoming fast and strong. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer as easy as eating a PB&J every day. I don’t have an answer at all besides hard work, dedication, and an unwavering belief in yourself.
I’ve spent enough time now with Olympians from many generations and many different sports to tell you that when we all get together, the biggest similarity is a passion for our sport, a powerful belief in that we are strong enough to handle anything thrown our way, and a gratitude for the opportunities we’ve had.
These attributes weren’t born into us; it comes from thousands of hours of practice where we learned that no matter how much it hurts or how hard it gets, we survive and thrive. We come out of that 12,000-meter practice a stronger person. We come out of that horrible race full of mistakes a smarter person. And we come out of injury, exhaustion, and pain a better person. Through the constant struggle, our passion only deepens and our love for our sport grows. Failure is only fuel to the fire.
Chloe Sutton - Sharing my experience of 20 years of competitive swimming including 8 years on the National Team and 2 Olympic Games.