FINA World Championships in Barcelona have just finished, and it’s a great time to talk about some aspects of success of a phenomenal 16-year-old Lithuanian swimmer Rūta Meilutytė, who has just broke world records in 100 m and 50 m breaststroke events and won gold and silver medals. I will not talk about her exceptional athleticism that is obvious, about her training routine that I am not aware of, or about her exemplary commitment and discipline that has been repeatedly noted by her coach. I will talk about another aspect that repeatedly catches my eye when reading, listening to or watching the news.
|Rūta Meilutytė and her coach Jon Rudd
What always struck me most since we started hearing about Rūta’s success in the international swimming pools was her and her coach’s quotes in the media. The quotes that always reflected a healthy approach to athlete development and competition. Here’s what I mean.
Before the Olympics
When a 14-year-old Rūta started smashing Lithuanian records in tens and was said to be “rewriting the Lithuanian swimming history”, it was still hard to foresee an Olympic medal, especially the gold one. However, the media always expects:
Q: Not too young to put a medal around your neck?
A: Someday. Now I’m not thinking about it.
In your face media! Rūta is not clinging on the idea of a medal. How did that end? In a medal!
After a golden swim Rūta’s coach Jon Rudd reveals what they focused on instead of thinking about medals.
We didn’t realistically know what she would do… We concentrated on her training process and she is amazing at that.
The following Rūta’s quote reflects how focusing on the process (preparation and execution) rather than outcome (medal) is related with performance and athlete satisfaction.
For the first time in my career I am fully satisfied with my swim – sprint, turns, pace. For this reason I would be just as happy with the last place as I am now happy with the first.
World Championship 2013
And so Rūta is in the World championship in Barcelona, and has some pretty sound personal goals.
My biggest goal is to prove that I’m the best not to others but to myself. I always set the goal to prove something to myself with good results, to develop as fast as possible.
Rūta is now one of the favourites, the pressure is on, and the competition is tough. Here is what Jon Rudd has to say.
We are not thinking about the competitors, only about our own swim. I think we can focus better than most of competitors. Rūta is able to focus only on her lane: between the two lines is her part of water, and that’s where she will race according to her rules. Others can do what they want. We have our plan and we will swim according to it.
The strategy of focusing on own performance rather than getting distracted by competition seems to work as Rūta sets the world record in 100 m breaststroke event and takes gold. The media however does not rest and pressure for more medals continues. When asked whether Rūta is also set to win gold in a 50 m distance, Jon Rudd responds:
I am certain she will improve her personal best
In your face again media! Even though you’re concerned with medals, Jon remains focused on Rūta’s personal performance. Guess what? Another world record and silver in the final!
The following quotes summarise very well what has been said earlier and reflect the essence of the Rudd & Rūta tandem’s approach.
What are my plans? To do everything I can. It doesn’t matter whether I am the first or last. If I know I gave all my strength, I don’t care about the place. – Rūta Meilutytė
We’re never gonna target medals, we’re always gonna target personal improvement – Jon Rudd
Clearly they are focused not on the outcomes (winning, medals) but on the process of improving personal performance. Paradoxically, this approach seems to be fruitful in terms of medals and records. Why?
Task orientation will take you further
It is evident in the previously discussed quotes that Rūta and Jon are very task oriented. Task oriented individuals tend to focus on learning, improvement and task mastery. Therefore, task orientation is related to individuals exhibiting high effort in the process of preparation for achievement, lower anxiety, better coping strategies and more satisfaction of the activity itself. Briefly, task orientation is good for performance and enjoyment. Jon as a coach is fostering task-involving motivational climate and even guarding it from intrusion of ego-oriented outsiders, e.g. media. All is great here, but what is this ego orientation?
Ego oriented individuals tend to focus on the outcome (outperforming other individuals, winning a medal), compare themselves to others, and be sensitive to public evaluation. Therefore, ego orientation may be related to higher anxiety and poor focus. Is ego orientation bad for performance? Not if task orientation is also high. Ego orientation may be very important for motivation. In fact, elite athletes tend to have both high task and ego orientations. I sense that Yuliya Yefimova got very angry when her fresh world record was broken on the same day in the semi-final by Rūta Meilutytė and, therefore, took that gold from Rūta in the final. I’m pretty sure, Rūta was also very motivated by the idea of a world record, gold medal or the title “best breaststroker in the world”. It seems, however, that she maintains the balance between task and ego, and continues to focus on what really matters – the process and personal performance.
Performance and process goals will help you excel
From the broader motivational orientations let’s move on to a more specific subject – goals. Rūta and Jon always emphasise that their goal is personal improvement and that their focus is on the process and not the outcome. Let’s see what’s good about that.
Setting goals help athletes stay focused, sustain motivation and mobilise effort to achieve them. Three key types of goals are: outcome, performance and process. Outcome goals refer to desired end result (winning, achieving world record, beating that opponent) and as you may notice are somehow related to ego orientation. Are outcome goals bad? No, they can be excellent long-term goals that motivate athletes to work harder. However, they are not entirely under your control, for example, your winning depends on your opponents, referees, environmental conditions and so on. Therefore, outcome goals alone are not very effective.
Let’s say your outcome goal is to win gold in a specific race. What can you do to get closer to your goal? You can set a performance goal. Performance goals are to do with personal performance and are, therefore, fully under your control. Ok, so you want to improve your personal best by 0.5 seconds. This goal will keep you focused on practice! Hey, but it’s still not clear what to do to achieve it. Now you need to set some process goals. Process goals are to do with techniques and strategies necessary to perform well. Let’s say you want to maintain your arm speed and stroke rate at the last lap of the race. This goal will help you focus on execution and not get distracted by opponents in other lanes.
Ok, so you had a nice set of goals, you prepared and performed according to the plan and improved personal best by 0.5 seconds. However, that was not enough to win a gold medal. Nevertheless, you’re satisfied that you did everything you could do, and motivated to set new higher goals that will bring you closer to the gold in the next race.
It is a great idea to focus on personal performance and strategies of improving it, and set goals accordingly. You can really only control your own performance, and only your own performance can bring you wins, medals and records. Why bother with or get stressed about something you cannot control? Don’t waste your energy and go on to become the best you can be. Don’t forget to enjoy the process!
In terms of Rūta’s future, Jon Rudd has said:
I don‘t know how long she will remain hungry for victories and determined to train hard She can swim well as much as she wants
And really, motivation is a tricky subject. What if you are the best in the world, hold all the medals and all the records? What’s next? How long will you keep going? You’ll have to find your own meaning in what you do.