Goals are Great. Expectations? Not so much…

It’s a well known and accepted fact that goal setting can be helpful in every aspect of life (see excellent link here.)  After all, a goal helps to inspire, direct and plan towards a desirable result. The problem is that an expectation can seem very much like a goal.  When a swimmer says, “I want to go under a minute for the 100,” this can be either a goal or an expectation, depending upon the situation.

So what is the difference between a goal and an expectation? Well, it turns out the difference is big enough, but the impact of them is like night and day.

Blogger Carol Bainbridge described a goal very nicely. “A goal is something that we want enough that we make an effort to reach it.”  For our purposes, this can involve virtually any aspect of swimming (race results / times, stroke improvements, improved training habits, etc). But as the definition implies, we have to work towards it.  Without work, it’s just a fantasy.

The key aspects of a good goal are:

  • It involves a long enough time frame that the result of effort can make a difference. Typically this ranges from many months to years.
  • It is aggressive but within the realm of possibility. (A Novice swimmer wanting to make the National team by the end of the year is not a goal. That’s a dream.)
  • It is discussed with the coach so that together they can create a plan to achieve that goal. As an example, the plan may require the swimmer to attend more practices, train harder, pay more attention to technique, or even adopt better sleep / eating habits. Milestones can be created to track progress.
  • It is  defined by the swimmer and not by the parent. This should be obvious. The swimmer is the one who will put in the effort to achieve the goal. What the parent wants is completely irrelevant.

In other words, goals initiate a process that lead to better results. Even if a goal isn’t ultimately met, the process itself produces beneficial results in the pool, and for life in general.

Expectations turn out to be quite different. Author Meredith Mitchell nicely describes a ‘need expectation’ as “an emotionally loaded insistence on a particular outcome of an act.” (see link here.)  The key here is that emotions and not preparation or reason are involved.

The key aspects of an expectation are:

  • It is restricted to short horizons, usually the next big meet, or the next race.
  • It has little bearing on reality, often encompassing round numbers (such as breaking a minute)
  • It ignores training, attendance, technique, focus and pretty much every other form of preparation for swimming a great race. Race plans are forgotten.
  • It involves no prior discussions with the coach
  • It often involves parental input

This last point is very frustrating to me, as I often overhear parents at swim meets talk to their kids before a race – “You can break a minute if you try really hard!”  That’s all it takes for a race plan to disappear and be replaced with an expectation.

In other words, an expectation is a blind, emotional wish for a specific outcome. This reduces the race to either a complete success or a complete failure.  There is no mechanism to learn and improve based on the actual race performance.

Let’s think about ‘breaking a minute’ as an example. As a goal, the coach gets involved early on in the season, and a plan is put forward towards achieving it. Milestones are created and tracked. The process itself results in a better swimmer no matter what happens.

As an expectation, ‘breaking a minute’ is an emotional need. It ignores all training and preparation. And more importantly, it distracts the swimmer from thinking about the actual plan for the race. Gone are thoughts about starts and turns, how hard to take it out, how to adjust to competitors. It’s all about the final time.

So what do i do when a swimmer brings me a pre-race expectation? Rightly or wrongly, here’s what I say.

“Never think about time.  Think about the race plan, and about what it takes to do the little things correctly. Visualize it all before the start. Then race. If you do it all correctly, you’ll do a great time.”

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3 comments

  1. […] Goals are Great. Expectations? Not so much… […]

  2. […] few older swimmers went into the races with truly unrealistic expectations (see post about expectations here), that were realistically impossible, and then they had trouble managing their emotions and […]

  3. […] difference in impact on an athlete between having an expectation, and setting a goal (see here).  Setting and working toward an achievable goal can be a powerful tool for an athlete, and often […]

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