In the sport of swimming—winning can be described as a matter of pain.

Practices = Pain. Competition = Pain.

To be faster, it is an undisputed fact that swimmers need to learn to be uncomfortable in practice. They know that they will need to practice faster and harder today than they did yesterday.   This is an accepted, but not easily participated in reality that constantly pushes the boundary of improvement to the next level-and along with it the boundary of pain management. Pain often becomes a problematic part of the process.

Most athletes aren’t afraid of being successful or of failing.  But often along the pursuit of success they can develop a fearof how much that success or failure will ultimately hurt.  It is the fear of the process to become better that often is the biggest impediment to personal improvement.

“It’s all in your head…and body.”

Breaking through the pain barrier is a mental challenge. The brain’s self-preservation instinct generally does not embrace discomfort.  Physiologically athletic pain has a lot to do with lactic acid build up—the body hates it and in protest, the agony begins.  Proper training involves conditioning the body to become better at managing lactic acid as well as mentally managing the fear of feeling that effort. 

Many elite athletes in all sporting disciplines are finding success in overcoming fear of pain in training by using a technique called “micro goal setting”.  

What is “micro-goal setting”?

  • Micro goal setting involves breaking down practice and larger “sets” or distances into a series of smaller more digestible sets with mini-goals to accomplish to create virtual finish linesand victories in the mind of the athlete.

Fear and anxiety come from strong emotional source triggers.  For an athlete the source trigger is often competition, or race type challenges.   Setting micro-goals within the practice environment that mimic these types of triggering events is essential for overcoming the actual performance pain as well as the anticipation fearof that pain. 

Why does micro-goal setting work?

  • There are neurobiological reasons why goal setting works, mainly because it activates the brain’s limbic system which has direct access to the raw emotional power that is in us, but is triggered under specific conditions, (i.e. championship meets, etc).
  • Goal setting creates an artificial deadline that has similar conditions that create the heightened sense of fear, and this allows an athlete to mimic the real event.  An example would be having a practice where swimmers must stand up and race their best event all out from a dive for time—and then repeat the swim four times with four minutes rest AND be within 5 seconds of their best time—OR faster than their best time with fins on, etc.
  • Instead of becoming buried, and possibly shutting down under the enormity of an entire workout—thistype ofchallenge sets up a “micro goal” to just focus on four 50s from a dive and address the heighted anxiety or fear that comes with the challenge.  Tackling the fear of pain in a managed challenge and then repeating the event several times sets up a conquerable environment.  The end result–createsnewfound confidence and removal of the fear impediment.

Why writing down micro-goals and accomplishments aids in changing the brain’s perception.

  • When a micro-goal challenge and results are written down, themicro-victory isfurther cemented into the mind as the newly acquired standard for successful pain processing. The result is a positive one, and the task accomplishable, thus any future fear factor is removed or greatly diminished as the brain becomes conditioned to handling the formerly triggering events.  Physically writing down the goals and the accomplishments transforms what was intangible, into the tangible.  The micro-goal becomes a visual aid that reinforces a positive trigger for approaching pain in training and competition.

When coaches and athletes work together in this way, the athlete can effectively re-write how they respond to pain challenges in practice and conquer their fears at the big competitions successfully.

4 essential elements to Micro-Goal setting:

  1. The goal must be challenging.  To be effective, it needs to be as hard as the athlete can mentally commit to.

                Example: go your best race from a dive in practice with fins for time.

  • The goal needs to be specific.  The goal is not to “do your best” but rather to have a specific time/distance/ effort in mind.

Example:  be at or better than your best time on a dive race in practice with fins.

  • Completion of the goal needs to be imminent.  Shorten the timeline to get to the micro-goal.  In otherwords, don’t set a “micro-goal” to accomplish by next season.  Micro-goals need to be weekly and monthly.   Allow a self-imposed deadline to feel urgent so the athlete can tackle the fear factor and experience the effectiveness.

Example:  this week we will have a test set—best event from a dive with fins-at or better than best time.

  • Craft the goal as a target you are heading towards.  All action is geared as approaching the goal as opposed to looking backwards at where you started from.  In a nutshell—don’t measure how far you’ve come–as the bar standard.  Look forward and set sights on the new standard.

By using micro-goal setting an athlete puts motivation back under their own control, which helps to endure the daily grind and conquer the competitive pain required for personal victory.  The Ultimate Swim Log and Goal Planner has an area for “Micro-Goal setting” each week.  Challenge yourself or your athletes to include some this new training this season.

Aimee Schmitt is the author of The Ultimate Swim Log and Goal Planner, and a former USA Swimming National Team Member, Stanford NCAA Championship team member, and avid believer in goal planning. 

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