A few years ago I wrote about the incredible 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 involves milestones along the way. On the flip side, an individual’s expectations for themselves are often unrealistic and often arbitrary, eg. I want to break a minute.
But there’s an aspect of goals / expectations for individuals that is very important. The results are usually under our control. That’s not so when Olympic medals are involved. A medal isn’t just dependent on that nation’s athletes, but also on the other nation’s athletes.
Author Meredith Mitchell describes a ‘need expectation’ as “an emotionally loaded insistence on a particular outcome of an act.” (see link here.) And I doubt there’s a better example of a need expectation than a nation’s medal expectations at the Olympics.
This all came to the forefront for me when I read that the Australian Olympic Committee recently raised their ‘expectations’ for the Australian swim team from 12 Olympic medals to 15. Now, this number of 15 may very well turn out be an accurate prediction. But my problem with it is that 15 isn’t described as a goal, or a prediction. It’s an expectation.
That may not make a big deal to some people, but think of how we use the word “expectation”. A parent expects their children to behave in a certain manner. And if they don’t, then the child has failed and the parent is disappointed in them. Similarly, a boss expects workers to behave and reach certain standards, and if they don’t they can get fired. Expectations create a binary result. You succeed, or you fail. You do well, or you disappoint everyone.
This binary approach to competition is a problem in that results are not always within the control of the athlete. Their own performance is within their control, but winning medals depends upon how all other athletes perform as well. All of the other incredibly hard working and motivated athletes from other countries.
Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say that every Australian swimmer breaks the existing world record at the Olympics. But in every event, others break it by a little bit more. In this situation, expectations would not be met, and every Australian swimmer will be considered to have failed. The nation would be disappointed in them. This would be a massive disservice to these incredible athletes.
Now, let’s look at how another country is handling this.
British Swimming’s head coach for Rio, Bill Furniss, has a totally different approach. In an article in Mail Online (see here), he said, ” We don’t talk about medals, we talk about season’s-best performances or even lifetime-best performances when it counts on the day, and if we can get a high percentage of our team doing that, then the medals will come to us.” He goes even further. “UK Sport set a medal target for each sport. I don’t discuss it with the athletes, I don’t discuss it with the coaches and I am not going to discuss it with you (the media).”
It seems to me that Head Coach Furniss has exactly the right idea in shielding the athletes from the unrealistic nature and pressure of expectations, and is focussed on them performing the very best they can on that one day.
Japan Swimming had a similarly muted view on goals. Head Coach for Rio, Norimasa Hirai, would only say that the team’s goal for Rio is to win multiple gold medals. (In London they won 3 silver and 8 bronze). Although it’s interesting that both Japan Swimming and Japan Sports Agency only refer to goals in terms of gold medals. Apparently silver and bronze aren’t that important.
Regarding one of their best hopes, Rie Kaneto who leads the world rankings in the Women’s 200 BR by almost 2 full seconds, Hirai merely said that her performance was impressive, and that she could shoot for the gold medal at the Olympics.
It’s interesting that I had trouble finding public discussions about Rio goals/expectations for swimming organizations from any other countries. And that’s probably smart of them. For all but a select few countries, the swimming medal count can be expected to be quite low, and will ultimately rely upon the performances of a few individuals. Any stated goals would lack any statistical significance.
British Swimming has the right idea. Prepare the swimmers to perform the best they can on the day that matters. And ignore everything else. This becomes even more important when we consider the elephant in the room: PEDs. We’ve recently heard about state-sponsored cheating in Russia, China has flirted with controversy when they appeared to be hiding 6 positive tests, and individuals keep testing positive. Cheaters will always be there. But a goal to perform the best you possibly can effectively ignores that issue, while an expectation to win medals makes cheaters a factor in your performance.