Goal-Oriented vs. Process-Oriented Training


As coaches, there are several methods we can use to get the most out of our athletes.  I have found that when an athlete begins they are only concerned about how fast they can get, not how to get fast.  Each athlete is motivated by different things and it’s our job to tease that out.

The first question that is inevitably asked of an athlete is, “What are you goals”.  The standard answers of to get faster, stronger, etc are too nebulous in nature to truly use.  It is the job of the coach to transform those into concrete targets.  There are two ways this can be done.  While they tend to be mutually exclusive, they can be used in conjunction with each other to provide a path for the athlete.

To start, you have to establish what motivates your athlete and devise whether a goal or process oriented approach will work best.  To help you determine which approach is best, I have defined each below.  Let’s start with Goal-Oriented.

Goal-oriented training is best for long range goals that can be expensive in nature and have many facets to it.  Multi-year plans culminating in qualifying for Kona is an example.  The athlete has a target goal and that guides the path.  This goal does not have to be a race.  It can be small goals that build upon each other and result in a larger goal.  The path is not set but the end result is.

Note that these goals are very individualized and concrete in nature.  Goals need to be time-limited. There has to be a deadline. You just can’t let the goal go on for years and years.  Having a deadline creates a sense of urgency for the goal and a sense of responsibility to get after it and get it done.  An example of a short term goal would be to go sub 40 in a 10K.  There are many paths there; it’s up to the coach to determine which path to take.

Process-oriented training reflects activities that occur in the process of achieving the long term goal.  With process oriented goals, the exact outcome is less controllable and may be affected by factors beyond your control.  These goals are more “squishy” like I want to improve my 10K speed.  The athlete’s focus is on what they are doing instead of what it will get them.  It requires trust on the athlete’s part that the process will get them there.

It’s important to get the athlete to enjoy the challenge of the training and the goal will take care of itself.  Organized goal setting with the use of short term process goals that lead to a few relatively large controllable long term outcome goals improves your performance and assists in creating optimism and motivation for the process.  Basically, you focus on the building blocks and motivate them through each one.

Unlike running or swimming, there are no set time standards that will qualify you for a World Championship or the Olympic Trials in Triathlon.  Mostly triathletes race against each other and the clock.  This varies greatly over differing terrain, temperature variances and the unpredictability of who shows up on race day.  While it’s nice to have fast times, a 5 hour time in St. Croix requires a different effort than the same time at Eagleman.

It’s vital for a coach to alter time goals to each specific race.  If the athlete is truly set on establishing a goal time, then pick a race that will allow them the best opportunity to accomplish that.  Most athletes have to enjoy the process in order to continue progressing and putting forth an appropriate effort.  While we all like to think of ourselves as 1%ers; the fact is that 99% of us are in the sport for the fun and health benefits of it.  Our achievement is to push our bodies and see what the clock reads when we are done.  In the meantime, it has to remain fun.  That does not mean that all workouts are going to be fun, but when you’re done training for the day and your athlete looks back over the week, it should still be fun.

Next time your athlete says, “I want to get on the podium”, ask them how they want to get there.  Make them be part of the process of training that will allow you to get them there.  Tell them the following: “We are in a sport with many variables.  The only variable you can control is yourself.  This is why process-oriented training is best for triathletes.  Focus on what you are doing and which you cannot control will take care of itself.”  Use both methods to get the most out of your athletes.  Start off with something as small as make one morning swim session this week.  Then use a goal of a specific T-pace.  Eventually you have them build up to an IM swim.