Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Specific Goals Get Results by Mike Sherwood

Sports research shows that setting goals is the most effective way to improve athletic performance. Cross country running competition lends itself perfectly to goal setting because the outcome measure is an available number and not as dependent on the performance of competitors or teammates as other sports. Beyond improving performance, setting specific performance goals benefits coaches and runners of all skill levels in many ways.

Of course, we want all cross country runners to strive to improve their times, regardless of skill or ranking on the team and whether or not their efforts count toward team competition. With large team sizes, relatively few runners contribute to the team score and many runners’ result can get lost. When each runner runs to meet performance goals, each can feel he or she has a purpose for participating in cross country. In addition to instilling purpose, when runners themselves set these goals, they feel more personal responsibility for their performance. When runners review race goals with their coaches, the interaction connects them with the coach and each runner knows that the coach cares about and recognizes their efforts. When the runner determines a specific goal for the upcoming meet, focus improves and training energizes. When a runner meets his or her set goal, hard work seems worth it! By setting challenging but achievable goals, runners succeed, feel more confident and approach training and racing with enthusiasm. Runners with positive attitudes stay engaged the entire season, and are more likely to remain in cross country throughout high school.

Coaches and teams also benefit when goals guide training. First and foremost, both individual and team performance improves. Goals are not just for the fastest runners. Setting and achieving goals for all runners creates an atmosphere of success that increases morale and motivation throughout the team, all season long. Having every member on the team set a goal at every race insures interaction between coach and runner every week. This way, coaches let their team know that every runner and every race matters to them. You can, design a training program around reaching for goals and this focus increases coach/runner involvement, allows you to teach kids how to set goals, and encourages celebrating the accomplishments of the team, as a whole and as individuals. A few words about goal-setting: Frequently, teams use “do your best” goals. Research demonstrates that these don’t work as well as specific achievable goals based on past performances on specific courses. . Interestingly enough, coaches often need to rein in kids’ very aggressive, often unrealistic goals. Effective goals should be only 5%-15% percent better than past performances so that athletes are 90% likely to reach their new goals. It’s the specificity and attainability that makes goals effective

While many of these benefits are understood by coaches, few teams have the bandwidth to set goals systematically. I’ve interviewed many cross country coaches and the most common reason, even for small teams, is that setting specific goals for all runners and races can overwhelm a coach’s time and attention. To set appropriate goals, the runner and coach need to have easy access to past performances on all courses, then a way to set and review goals efficiently. There are many ways to solve this (and yes, XCStats is one). The benefits are compelling.

Mike Sherwood

Mike Sherwood is the creator of, a site designed for high school cross country teams for keeping stats, identifying improvements and managing the process of creating and reviewing goals. XCStats was developed through Mike’s work with his kids’ cross country team at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose and is available to all California high schools.

You can read more about goal setting by downloading a chapter on the subject from Sport Psychology for Coaches, excerpted with permission from Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL and provided courtesy of XCStats.

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