Article image

by Marty Munson

January 18, 2019

To get better, stronger, and faster, your goal-setting strategy might need a tune-up

Win at Nationals. Hit your splits. Get to practice more often. Enjoy it more. No matter what you’re aiming for in 2019, you can increase the chance you’ll really nail it if you know these truths about the goal-setting process.

A huge part of hitting your goals is setting good ones following the SMART acronym: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. It’s not “I want to get faster” but “I want my 100 time to get one second faster by Oct. 1,” and then making a plan for how you’ll do that (get to practice five days a week instead of three, for example).

But there’s more to it than that. Scientists who research goal setting (and achieving) have discovered some surprising nuances that can also keep you on or throw you off track.

Beware the “Do Your Best” Goal

If you decide your goal is to do your best at every practice and every meet, you might not actually do it, says Robert Weinberg, who researches sports psychology and performance and is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Miami University in Ohio.

The theory makes sense. You never fail because you can always say you did your best, but it also makes it harder to succeed. You can perform poorly and still shrug it off by saying, “Well, I did my best,” Weinberg says.

If you set a more measurable goal, not only do you know when you get to it, but you know when you didn’t, so you can analyze what happened and figure out how to perform better next time.

Don’t Lowball Yourself

Goals have to be attainable, but too easy of a “get” lets you slack. It sounds like a relief, but actually saps your motivation. So this year, reach. A review of more than 200 studies found that the higher your goal, the better you’ll perform (up to a point, of course; goals still need to be attainable).

Create Process and Outcome Goals

You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: “Win the 200 butterfly at Nationals” is an admirable goal. But it can’t be your whole goal. “It’s limited because you don’t have full control over it,” Weinberg says. “You can’t control how the other competitors swim.”

But you do have power over how to systematically work toward getting your time down to one that you think will make you a contender. Decide, for instance, what you’ll change about your stroke, your turns, and your dryland routine, and ask yourself when you’ll implement what it takes to make those changes.

Give Yourself Some If/Thens

One of the essential benefits of goals is that they keep you focused on the choices you need to make (no to the snooze button) in order to achieve them (yes to consistent morning practice and improved 50 time). That said, some days your mind is going to get in the way and try to convince you that it’s OK to sleep in “just this once,” or that it’s better to stay at home and tidy up at noon on a Saturday instead of going to practice.

If you know you have some vulnerable spots that threaten your goals, use the research findings of Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at New York University, and make some if/then statements. For

instance, if going to Saturday practice is important in getting the race times you want, he says, then decide ahead of time what you’ll say to yourself when something threatens to throw that off. Then rehearse it. It might go like this: “If I feel lazy at 11:30 on Saturday morning, then I will pack my things and head to the pool.” People who gave themselves some of these if/thens were more likely to meet their goals than people who didn’t think through how to handle obstacles.

Keep It to Yourself

Posting audacious goals on social media doesn’t work for everyone, Gollwitzer found. “As soon as you publicize that intention, there is apparently a feeling that you have moved closer to realizing it,” he says, even though all you’ve done is posted on Facebook. Basically, you get a premature feeling of success.

Consider Making Subjective Goals

These are less about time and more about quality of life. “These are a lot trickier, but they’re important,” Weinberg says. And these aren’t just for Masters swimmers.

When college athletes were asked to rate how important various goals were to them, according to a study published in 1993 in The Sport Psychologist, a whopping 20 percent said their number one goal was to have fun. Not get a scholarship. Not win a championship. Have fun.

To set some goals about that, figure out what fun looks like for you. Does it mean getting to practice early so you can chat with your lanemates? Not take it personally when your coach is having a grumpy day? Figuring it out helps you make it happen.

Write It Down. Or Not.

Weinberg’s been looking under every scientific rock for evidence that supports the idea that writing down your goals makes you more likely to achieve them. So far, he and his research team have found nothing to suggest that pen to paper or fingers to keyboard produces superior performance results. If you think the process of committing them to paper or cyberspace helps, do it. But if it’s not your game, don’t feel obligated. Just get in the pool and head for what you want.


  • Technique and Training


  • Mental Training