The first thing that any swimmer thinks about when setting goals is times. Times for the next big qualifier meet, times for season personal best, A times, AA times, AAA times…
Swimmers often forget to think about the other factors that contribute to a successful season, and the younger the swimmer the more useful goals relating to technique, practice, attendance, and behavior can help them grow into a well rounded and more emotionally grounded swimmer. If you have an age group swimmer, consider working with them and their coach on crafting holistic goals for their season. Before we get to goal ideas… some background:
What is an age group swimmer?
An age group swimmer is just what is sounds like – a swimmer that competes in one of four USA Swimming age groups: 10 and under, 11-12, 13-14 and 15 & over (sometimes called “open”). You may see 8 and under and 9-10 broken out in some swim meets (for scoring, placement, and meet/pool records), but USA Swimming qualifying times go by 10 and under – there are no separate milestones for 8 and under swimmers. As it relates to practice groups, most teams consider “age group swimming” as 14 & under, and will separate out anyone above that age into a “senior” swimming category.
Goal Setting Tips:
Before you sit down with a goal sheet and make your swimmer write down goals, have a conversation about why goals are important, and what makes a “good” swim goal. Goals give swimmers (and humans in general) motivation. When achieved, we feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. When we fall short, it lets us know what we need to work on. Make sure your swimmer knows that it’s okay to set a goal and fall short so that they can talk to their coach about why it may have happened, and how they can take different steps to achieve that goal in the future. Unfortunately, failure is a natural part of swimming. The older the swimmer gets, the smaller the increments of time drop they’ll see. This is where it’s useful to train your swimmer(s) to think about goals outside of just times, so that if they fall short of that goal time, they can still measure positive progress by the goals they did achieve. Just like any other goal we set in life, swimming goals should be measurable. Yes, time is the easiest thing to measure, but you can also put measures on technique and mental training. While it’s good to focus on goal setting “do’s”, there are also some “don’ts” – like comparing themselves to other swimmers. “Beat so-and-so in the 50 fly at the next meet” is really not a useful way to measure their success. It may serve as a great motivator (we all have that one person we want to beat), but not a great goal. Encourage your swimmer to focus on themselves, not others.
High school swimming for me was a whole new level of focus and dedication, and it was during this time that I really learned about goal setting beyond times alone. My high school coach worked with us on mental aspects of swimming as well as physical, sometimes even working with a sports psychologist to do visualization for racing and technique improvement. If your swimmer doesn’t have these resources on hand, you can help them do this at home. There are three categories of focus when it comes to goals that I believe are important for swimmers: technique goals, mental/emotional goals, and performance goals, and these can all be applied to both practice and competition.
The great thing about setting goals related to technique is that you don’t have to wait for a meet to achieve these goals – you can work on these every single day in practice. Have your swimmer think about the things in practice they consistently struggle with and start there. How do you know what these things are? Listen to the coach! If you hear the coach shouting “don’t breath every stroke!” at your swimmer all the time, then that’s obviously a weakness they can work on. There are a wide range of technique goals – here a some ideas to get started (notice that these are all measurable):
- On main freestyle set at practice each day, take at least 2 strokes off each turn/wall before breathing.
- Take at least 3 dolphin kicks on freestyle/butterfly off each wall every day at practice
- Do at least 10 freestyle flip turns and 5 backstroke flip turns each day at practice. (For younger swimmers)
- Practice at least 3 breaststroke pullouts at each practice. (For younger swimmers)
- Lead the lane on one least one set each practice or at least 2 days/week at practice.
- Only take X breaths on 50 free (or butterfly) at next meet.
These goals may be a little harder to come up with and follow through with just based on your swimmers personality and the way they process their emotions at a swim meet and during tough practices. Think about the last meet – what were the emotional highs and low? When was the last time they came home and said, “practice was awful today”. Why? What contributed to making these things better or worse for your swimmer? Does your swimmer get sad, or angry when they don’t race the way they’d like? For mental goals, focus more on preparation that reaction. If you prepare for all of the possible ways a meet or practice can go, you can better control the way you react. Some examples:
- Visualize the perfect race at least 3 times during the week prior to the meet
- Write down three alternative reactions to a “bad” race (this is interpretive but most swimmers consider a race bad if they don’t drop time, or get the cut they wanted). For example: “Instead of crying in frustration or throwing my goggles in anger after my race, I will take 10 deep breaths, write down one thing I did well during the race (didn’t breathe off any turns, etc), and go cheer for one teammate.
- Cheering for others is a great way to spread positive energy during a meet. Swimmers feed off the energy around them in practice and at meets. If your whole team is walking around lackluster and mopey – well guess what, that will spread. Set a goal and make a commitment to cheer for at least 3 or 5 of your teammates during the meet or during a test set at practice (and not just your besties).
- Show one act of good sportsmanship at the next meet or at practice (shake the hand of a swimmer from another team after a race or congratulate a teammate on a great set, help a younger swimmer get the correct heat and lane, etc).
Performance goals are the meat of goal setting for most athletes – these can be times, points scored, place finishes at meet or attendance. The bottom line is, at the end of a long swim season if your swimmer hasn’t seen a time improvement, it will be a really difficult for them to not feel like they’ve failed (even though this is probably not the case). This is why I believe it’s so important to set goals in all categories of the sport – so once the sting of a missed cut or personal best wears off, they can step back and see the improvements they’ve made since the start of the season.
When setting performance goals, I believe in short term and long term goals. If your swimmer’s goal is to make a Junior National cut by their championship meet, make sure they don’t set that goal time right out of the gate for the first meet of the season. Remember – the older they get, the harder it will be to see large increments of time drop. Have your swimmer set goals for each meet, and for where they want to be at the end of the season. Some examples:
- Drop 1 second off my 100 free by mid-season.
- Drop time in at least 2 events at the next meet.
- Win high point at mid-season championship.
- Place in top 3/5/10 in at least 1 event each meet.
- Make Junior National cut time by championship meet in X # of events.
- Achieve perfect attendance for X month.
While it may be harder for a young swimmer to grasp the concept of goals than a high school swimmer, talking to them and teaching them at an early age will set them up so that it becomes second nature if they decide to take their swimming career into high school or college.
So what does your swimmer need to set these goals? Honestly – nothing special. In my day job I’m a project manager, so I probably get a little more excited than the average person about creating and filling out templates, but take my word for it – a fancy, organized (and laminated 😳) goal sheet is overkill. I went to all the trouble to make one of these for my daughter and it sat on our computer desk collecting dust. In this case, I think a simple index card does the trick! Pick a period of time (one week or one month) and start with just one goal in each category to start for both practice and the next swim meet. After your swimmer starts to get the hang of it, then have them work on the season long goals.
Parents and coaches remember – goal setting is personal! DO NOT write your swimmer’s goals for them! Guidance is great, but don’t sit there and write what time you think they should be able to go by the next meet or end of the season. You may think you know what your swimmer(s) is capable of (and you may be right), but they have to believe it and believe in themselves for goal setting to be successful. Have them hang their goals somewhere visible – the wall next to their bed, the refrigerator, the desk where they study each day – anywhere they will pay attention. Maybe they have a favorite motivational saying – have them add that at the bottom! Lastly – encourage them to have a discussion about these goals with their coach. If their coach doesn’t know their goals, it will be like coaching with their hands tied behind their back.