Developing proper training habits is more important than setting goals

For youngsters, goal setting is not the Holy Grail that many make it out to be. More important to athletic success is forming proper habits.

One of the most unintentionally funny comments I ever heard from an athlete occurred at the end of a long training set. Breathing heavily, one of my swimmers quipped, "Wow, if I didn't know how to swim, this set would be really hard." It took a beat or two before she realized what she said but by that time her teammates were already howling. Her comment is a good introduction for this article: Obviously knowing how to swim is a prerequisite to performing any kind of swimming workout, just like developing good training habits comes before goal setting can be effective.

Goal setting is an evergreen topic. It shows up in coaching clinics, magazine articles, team meetings, newsletters, almost anywhere you can imagine. It's so pervasive that hardly anyone considers if it's appropriate to foist it upon those who have neither the skills nor the training habits to actually set meaningful goals let alone pursue them effectively. For young athletes, a better strategy would be to focus on cultivating good training habits and putting the goal setting process aside until athletes are ready for it.

Habits describe actions: Eat right, exercise frequently, answer emails. Goals are usually performance based: Throw farther, run faster, lift more. In short, habits are about the action itself, while goals are about the result that the action produces. Habits are long-term behaviors, while effective goals represent desired achievements over a much shorter term.

Habits before goals

Though it takes a long time, successful individuals establish habits that form the foundation of their success. These actions are done regularly and often unconsciously. There is no endpoint or timeframe that limits them, thus they will continue indefinitely unless something causes us to change them.

By themselves, habits can't be described as having a purpose in the same way a goal has a purpose. When coaches speak of process, they're talking about habits like attending training, perfecting skills, or doing any of the dozen behaviors that create an environment where pursuing goals starts to make sense.

At the developmental level forming good training habits is far more important than having youngsters go through a goal setting process. Some examples of goal supporting habits might include attending training physically and mentally ready, having proper equipment, and understanding the what and why of the workout. These are not things youngsters understand immediately or repeat without being reminded; it will take a long time for these behaviors to become habits.

Goals reflect performance aspirations

A goal is a desired outcome of our actions. In sport, goals are often used as motivators. They provide a short-term focus for training efforts.

Completing a cycling century ride (100 miles) is a good example of a performance goal. Riding such a distance takes significant physical preparation. For a recreational rider, training would aim at gradually increasing stamina and cycling skills so that riders could complete the 100 mile distance. More experienced cyclists might have a goal of completing the same ride in a certain amount of time, and their training would focus on extending their current limits on speed and stamina.

Creating habits

For young athletes the most effective developmental strategy is to form good training habits. This will help youngsters stay engaged in the sport longer and increase the chances that they might reach an elite level of performance as they get older. Practitioners can encourage good habit formation by building learning and training environments that support it.

For example, successful athletes tend to their training responsibilities without considering whether they should or not, they just do it. But young athletic careers don't start this way, it takes a while for athletes to get to that point. As they spend more time in the sport, and as trainers provide an attractive environment that athletes want to be in, the habit of attending practice is gradually formed. The habit isn't forced, it's created, helped along by an environment built by coaches who know what they're doing.

Creating habits is hard and takes a long time. But once formed, they will serve the athlete well for the rest of their competitive career and provide a platform where sensible goals can be launched. Without solid training habits to back them up, performance goals have little relevance.

Goal setting is an important component of athletic training. Its effectiveness, however, is limited to athletes who have the skills, habits, and attitudes necessary to understand what setting goals means and how to pursue them. Introducing goal setting to youngsters who lack these attributes is ineffective. Learning first to be an athlete with the skills needed to excel will make future goals much more meaningful and realistic.