Pete Phillips is currently the head coach of Burke Mountain Academy. Phillips has decades of experience coaching juniors at many of the top clubs in the country. In addition to his scholastic coaching duties, Philips leads annual spring trips to Norway and Sweden.
Sensible goals are powerful motivating factors for any serious athlete. They are tools in the kit. To get the most use from goals they need to become a conscious part of training, and in exactly the same sense a carpenter knows which tool to use for what, it is handy to know the goals and when and where to put them to work.
In recent years I have been impressed with how clear goals are a help in steadying an athlete on course. Just as kids go from toy hammers to ones with more authority, so should goals be learned, understood and controlled. Knowing how to order the progression can avoid smashed thumbs and bruised egos.
Many of the thoughts here are stated perfectly in a small book called Cross Country Skiing for Youth. It has been compiled by a collection of Swedish coaches that share expertise from the club level to the National Team. There is a wealth of knowledge there and the fact that it is focused on XC skiing athletes from 13 -18 makes it uniquely valuable. I have quoted the book when there is a direct translation and give credit to it for stating well many of my own feelings about the job of coaching juniors. Thoughts and experiences from a long time in the game are finding voice and new sets of lenses through which to observe.
Something to consider in the practice of goal setting is when should we put it to work. The evidence from the field suggests early specialization in a sport can be a mistake; some lengthy studies show kids who specialize early and focus on one sport with lofty goals have a higher rate of early burn out and more frequently fail to reach their full potential than their peers who take a more generalist path.
In cross country skiing the mean best time to start narrowing in seems to be around 16 – 17 years of age. This does not exclude kids being in love with skiing long before that, nor continuing to play soccer, lacrosse, tennis, or run as important parts of their lives after that time. What it means is that certain goals have been defined for one sport and that other sports will begin to play the role of positive diversions, and sources of complementary training. Goal setting doesn’t really need to be specific until kids contemplate picking a single sport as a focus. A careful look at goals then can be helpful in making that decision, and should become a regular part of training planning thereafter.
In setting the stage for a discussion of goals the book provides a reminder to coaches:
It is easy for us to focus a little too much on competition and results as a measure of how we are doing. It can happen that both coaches and athletes lay out training so that results and speeds are as good as possible NOW. The risk is that we may hurry things too much and the foundation for later and more important training and competition is incomplete and unsteady. To help kids develop solidly and without stress, realistic and complete goal setting is a tool; a tool that can provide an assurance that the athletes are progressing and that the training we lay out is working.
Building a broad and solid foundation for our skiers is a conscious decision. It requires encouraging patience and seeing skiing as a long term endeavor. We try to train the athletes as though each was planning to be in the game for a long time and had high hopes for the future. This demands of us that our own goals are realistic and tailored to each individual’s needs and that in turn requires that communication between athletes and coaches is open and frequent.
Let’s have a look at an approach to goals and goal setting for athletes from 15 – 19 years of age.
We use and define three kinds of goals; result goals, performance goals and process goals. We set up result goals when we have in our sights a specific placing in a competition or being selected for an elite team based on season results. This type of goal implies some comparison with other athletes. A performance goal focuses only on an individual’s performance. For example it could be to be stronger in poling, to develop a better V2, to be quicker off the line in sprinting, or to better manage pre-race jitters. Process goals deal with the path to a given performance goal; perhaps laying in an extra strength session each week, working on reaction speed with mock starts, or getting the tendency to be nervous out on the table and talking it over with a coach. Performance and process goals deal with creating a strategy for being able to develop as a skier. They are goals over which the athlete can have direct control and they complement each other well.
In many ways the trickiest and easiest goal to misuse is the first and in too many cases the only one that young athletes have. A result goal is inviting and can be deeply motivating, which is good. However, focus only on results can have a negative influence. Result goals are dependent also on how other athletes perform and an individual has no control over that; if one of our athletes has the race of her life, but doesn’t reach the desired result because one or two of the competitors also lay down good ones she can become discouraged in spite of the fact that she has never skied so well. The feeling creeps in that she can’t win no matter how hard she works and suddenly a dark cloud comes on to the horizon. Self-confidence has been shaken and we, as coaches, and the athlete have a new and powerfully negative force with which to contend.
It is hard to say we can ever completely avoid this, but laying down an understanding of how goals fit into a bigger picture can help. Keeping result goals from floating around vaguely in the distance is the task. They need to be seen as the island just off shore and the focus needs to be on the best path to the beach, to the best jumping off place for the final swim.
From the point of view of the coach these are great tools in the process of developing an athlete’s ownership of participation. Performance goals come into play when the team comprised of Coach and athlete identify specific elements of technique and/or fitness, and other aspects of preparedness that need work. It could be core strength or improving the shift of gears from double pole to double pole kick. “In order for me to be in the running to make the JO team what I need to do now is _____” This takes a result goal and puts it in terms of the present and in terms the athlete can control. A beauty of performance goals is that they are often quantifiable. We can see them get closer, be achieved, and we can realistically raise the bar on the next ones.
Once we have determined both Result and Performance goals we move to where the oar hits the water, to how we proceed today in order to take charge of our journey and increase our chances of reaching the hoped for result. “If the end goal is the JO team then I have to speed up in double poling. To do that, one thing that has to happen is to be stronger in the core. I will add a specific strength session to each week and see if I can’t better my time poling up X hill by ten seconds before the snow flies. Today I’ll get the base time and I’ll go for it.”
With only results as goals it is hard to influence and direct our situation in a specific manner and it is easy to lose the way. Performance and Process goals are something we can direct and control and it is up to us whether or not we reach them. Through these goals an athlete develops and sees progress that measurably moves him/her closer to the desired result.
A tool to help athletes identify performance and process goals is a practice we call a Demand and Capacity (DC) Analysis. It is an excellent exercise for kids who are considering or who have made the choice to be an xc skier in earnest. The DC Analysis is a writing and reflecting exercise. There are numerous specific parts to it but in essence what it does is ask an athlete to analyze what the sport demands from him if he is to reach his result goal and then to analyze his capacity to meet those demands. These analyses frequently point directly at performance and process goals (see Addenda below for a sample DC Analysis).
We put the Demand and Capacity analysis to work two or three times a year. In some cases with a more mature and experienced athlete it can be useful for the coach to do a DC Analysis as well, and then to discuss and build on the comparison. This can be helpful for both athlete and coach in reviewing work up to a given point and in laying out the plan for the future.
Cross Country Skiing for Youth has a section after each discussion that is called “Tips!” and the one following the discussion on goals has a simple and valuable little piece of advice:
Helping kids to identify and train away their weaknesses often becomes the responsibility of the coach. As humans we naturally want to do more of what we do well. It is more fun. Don’t be frustrated or annoyed with kids if they tend to skip over working on their weaknesses. If we take the time and if we develop creative ways to work on flaws the improvement is quickly measurable and skill, strength and self-confidence increase.
Considering that in light of goal setting has the coach helping the athlete zoom in on the underpinnings of good performance, on identifying performance goals and then further in on the process goals. It is a huge boon to the development of an athlete and an individual. Regardless of results, if a kid learns that skill and finds the self confidence and optimistic realism that go with it they walk away a winner.
Addenda: 1. Sample XC Demand and Capacity Analysis Exercise and 2. Example of an actual Capacity Analysis from 2010.
1. XC Demand Analysis, Personal Capacity Analysis, and Goal Setting
I. Sport Demands
Most sports demand something from each of the following main areas:
- Physical ability
- Psychological capacity
- Social skill
For example, the demand analysis of a team sport, for example hockey, with emphasis on the most important areas for an individual player, might look like:
- Physical demands: All five of the above (#1, a-e)
- Spatial orientation
- Eye-hand coordination
- Reaction speed
- Psychological ability
- Will power
- Social skill
From your own experience make a demand analysis for cross-country skiing.
- Physical demands
- Technical preparation and readiness
- Tactical prep and readiness
- Psychological demands
- Social skills
II. Personal Capacity Analysis or “CA”
Definition: A capacity analysis is a process of map making. It is the careful assessment of the level of an athlete’s development in the areas of the chosen sport’s demands, and the subsequent identification and course setting toward goals.
The athlete’s CA of him/herself is extremely useful to both coach and athlete. For the individual athlete a CA can provide a marker on what first and foremost needs work in order to more completely meet the given Demands of the chosen sport. For the coach capacity analysis is essential to training planning. The athlete should do an individual analysis before discussing that of the coach. Capacity analysis should precede important coach/athlete planning sessions.
Looking at your demand analysis for xc skiing, and using some of the experiences from recent races, and fall training do a personal individual capacity analysis that will help steer the next training block.
Take time to look at each of the six areas below. Some will be more appropriate to xc than others but this is your Capacity Analysis of yourself.
- Physical ability
- Psychological capacity
- Social skill
III. Goal Setting
With the XC Demand Analysis and your own Capacity Analysis in mind do another round of goal setting for this year. You should divide the goals into a) Result goals, b) Performance goals, and c) Process goals. Finish with a paragraph summing it up, and in which you consider your stake in the sport; your willingness to risk in participation and your willingness to cooperate in the efforts. Make some specific plans for the month of December.
2. An example of one athlete’s Capacity Analysis:
I. Capacity Analysis
- Physical Analysis
- Aerobic Endurance: I have a good amount of aerobic endurance. I’m able to push my body for an extended period of time at high rpms. I feel like I have a good base of endurance for this year.
- Strength: Strength is something that I’ve worked on quite a lot this fall, and so I have a good amount of it. I have a lot to use, but I need to use more of it.
- Flexibility: I have a low range of flexibility where I should have more. I need to work on being more flexible because if I do this then I will in turn be able to use more of my strength that is just sitting there. I need to be more mobile and flexible to extend farther out over my skis.
- Explosiveness: I think I am fairly explosive. I definitely could do more work with it though. Spenst hop is something that I do fairly well, but I think I could do more and get better.
- Speed: On an average day I can be fairly speedy. As a rule though, I haven’t been the best sprinter while skiing. Running I can be fast, but I need to find how to transfer that onto the skis.
- Coordination: I need to spend more time looking at video of myself against better skiers. If I do this and then sleep on it/go work out afterwards I feel that I’ll be able to have an image in my head and get my timing a little bit better than it is right now. My arms need to slow their tempo down so that I can ski bigger and get farther over my skis so that I can crunch more. In the skate race I think I was doing this a lot better than I had been in the past. It’s coming along I think.
- Technique: Kind of the same as coordination; I need to get my timing a little better/get my hips forward more/extend my arms down the trail and not up/crunch more. All of this will make my skiing more efficient and therefore faster.
- Tactics: I think that I’m a good tactical skier in the longer distance races. In sprints I feel like I tend to get a little jittery and just fall in behind people. I need to learn how to make quick decisions about passing or letting up at a certain point to become a better sprinter.
- Physiological Capacity: My ability to deal with pain is high. I don’t have a hard time staying at race pace for an extended period of time when I am prepared for it. As we’ve talked about, I need to get my head wrapped around the race part better though. I get caught up in results and this affects my skiing in the wrong ways sometimes.
- Social Skills: My social skills with the team are pretty good. I feel like I get along with most everyone. Obviously there are people that I can become annoyed with, but I do my best to overlook it. I think I do a good job of keeping the joking around to time when we are not working out, but I think that as the race season approaches it will be a good idea to tone it down a bit and try to be seen as more of a team leader. I’ll be on time and prepared with what I need to do.
Goals: Results Goals- I want solid performances at Nationals in Rumford in early January. “X” tells me that I better be going for the Scandinavian Team and I will, but I won’t be upset if I don’t make the team. That could be more of a realistic goal for next year, given that I stay healthy. I am hopeful to make the Junior Nationals team for New England, and with that comes good, consistent performances at the Eastern Cups and Super Tour.
Performance Goals: I want to be a bigger skier by the middle of the year. I plan on working on extending my arms down the trail, and skiing loosely (esp. classic). I want to crunch more while I am skiing both techniques of course. Also I want to work on tempo and explosiveness as well as balance, because all of these together will make me a more efficient skier/faster skier.
Process Goals: At times where I have the opportunity to stretch I will take the time to do so. I have a limited range of movement in my upper body especially, and I’ll be more powerful if I can use the muscle up there. On training skis I will balance on one ski as I go down a hill with my hips forward for as long as I can so that I become balanced and can glide more while V2ing and V2alternating. I will do this on both legs equally so that I am not going to favor one side. I will also V1 on each side equally when we are doing training skis so that energy can be evenly used when I am tired in a race. I will swing my arms more than necessary in both skate and classic techniques to get myself used to staying loose and throwing myself down the trail.
If I take my Goals to heart and really try to put into action my process goals I feel like I have a good season ahead of me. I, along with my parents, have put too much on the line for me to come to this school and learn to my fullest potential for me not to try my hardest. I am willing to take a huge risk to achieve the mental and physical goals that I have set for myself this year and for the years to come, and I have a large stake in the sport as a result of that. I am willing to put in my full effort to reach my potential. For the next training block I’ll be focused on preparing for Nationals by immersing myself in my process goals as well as staying healthy and stress free. That means getting my work done on time and getting enough sleep at night.