I’ve long been fascinated by the way goals can help or hinder performance, right from my early days of competition.  Having a clear objective ‘should’ be a good thing, but it seems to me that this isn’t always the case.  It takes a bit of care to choose the right goals.

Over my winter slalom training I had two goals – to get stronger, and to learn how to do faster ‘sweep’ upstream gates.  So I went to the gym three times a week and lifted weights, and on the water made sure there were plenty of opportunities to develop my sweep technique.   These are process goals – they are within my control and they helped me prioritise my time and attention in training.

Last year the World Masters Games was my main competitive focus, but there’s no equivalent race this year.  Instead, I’ve decided on two goals for this year’s slalom season.  First off, I want to gain promotion from Division 1 to the Premier Division*.  My other competitive goal is to perform at my best at the British Open, and improve on my percentage behind the winner from last year.

I’ve noticed that it doesn’t usually help me to have an outcome-focused goal, like trying to win a race.  Like many people, I find I race better when I’m just thinking about doing my best, having a good run and enjoying the event.  Having important consequences can lead to me feeling more stressed.  Although I can explain the psychology behind this response, it doesn’t make me immune from it!

The trouble is, that’s just situation I find myself in now because of my goal to make Premier division.  In past seasons I didn’t pay too much attention to the points, but now I’m very aware that promotion requires that I earn at least 4750 points from five races. Currently I’ve got 3779 points from 4 races. That means that I can achieve my goal if I place in the top 3 at the next race.  Suddenly the pressure is on!  The risk is that I’ll get too fixed on achieving this result, rather than simply paying attention to the process.  I experienced this racing last weekend at Holme Pierrepoint.  I paddled well enough in Saturday’s race to win with my first run, but couldn’t replicate my form the next day.  Was this because I was tired, or was it because I was starting to try too hard? I was certainly more aware that winning (and earning another 1000 points) was a real possibility.

Competitors in all sports face this challenge.  The golfer facing a simple 1 meter putt to win a major tournament, the rugby player taking a penalty kick in the closing moments of a match, the runner on the start line of a 100 m race waiting for the starting gun after a false start….

So I’ve got an interesting challenge, one that I’ve now made public by writing about it here.  Can I apply all the mental skills I teach athletes? Like developing Mastery Motivation that emphasizes paddling to my own potential rather than comparing myself to others?  Like the ability to stay focused in the present moment and Execute my skills smoothly, rather than letting my attention stray into the future where anxiety lurks?  I’m looking forward to learning how well I can manage myself, because it’s a predicament I’ve been aware of for a long time, and my desire to get to the bottom of it has driven my practice and research as a sport psychologist.

My next slalom race is in Bala at the end of May, but first I’ve got a short trip to Val Sesia to spend some time on proper whitewater rivers. I’m looking forward to this trip a lot, as I didn’t get away on any river trips over the winter.  And much as I like my home course at Lee Valley, it’s not the same as a pristine alpine stream high in the Piedmonte!

Then in June I’m hoping the my book ‘In the Flow’ will be back from the publishers.  If you want to find out more take a look here http://performance.sportscene.tv 

What’s your experience of goals helping or hindering your performance? How have you dealt with the challenge of achieving an important result and dealing with your own or other’s expectations?  Comment here or on the Facebook page 

* In the UK there are 5 divisions for domestic competition. Premier division is essentially the top 70 or so slalom paddlers in the country. Paddlers can go up or down divisions depending on how well they perform.  There’s a sliding scale so the winner gets 1000 points, second place 980, etc.