GOAL BIG OR GO HOME
Brian Siemann has some big goals for his racing season in the upcoming year -- medaling in the 800 meters and 400 meters at the World ParaAthletics Championships in London in July; running a sub-1:32 marathon; and beating his competitors off the start line in all his races.
The 27-year-old Savoy man also has detailed plans for how he’ll meet those goals. He and the other members of the University of Illinois wheelchair track team complete a detailed goal-setting exercise each fall with Coach Adam Bleakney, who helps them choose goals that are achievable but that will also challenge and stretch each athlete.
Bleakney has developed a spreadsheet over the years that he uses. Each athlete chooses three overall goals, such as running a sub-two-hour marathon or qualifying for a national team. They also choose three goals related to technical skills or fitness -- for example, increasing their top racing speed on the track, climbing the hill on St. Mary’s Road at 10 mph or improving their cornering efficiency. Finally, they select three daily goals that will help them get the most out of their workouts, such as improving their nutrition or making their stroke more efficient.
Bleakney’s spreadsheet also includes sections for the athletes to list their strengths and weaknesses and rate their perceived ability on a number of things, such as speed, endurance, starts, climbing, descending and pushing in rainy conditions. After the athletes have filled out the spreadsheet, Bleakney gives them his feedback and then meets with each of them for a discussion on their goals and the processes that will help them reach those goals.
“Having a coach gives you the opportunity to have someone who is an expert and knows whether something you said is realistic,” Siemann said. “Adam never says, ‘That’s a bad goal.’ He might tinker and adjust it according to what he thinks your abilities are, but no goal is ever a bad goal. You’ll make steps toward achieving that goal. He’s very honest and open about that. It’s helpful in looking at the big picture and what you can feasibly accomplish in a year’s time frame.”
Bleakney said freshmen with no experience with goal-setting often set vague goals and have no idea how they will reach those goals. Sometimes they’ll choose a big goal that will take a few years to reach. Bleakney helps the athlete focus on interim goals they must accomplish in order to achieve their ultimate goal.
“I don’t want to defuse their enthusiasm but I make sure they recognize the distance from where they are now to where they need to be,” he said. “There’s a sizable amount of work and intensity to make the incremental gains that are the difference between not making it to the podium and medaling.”
Siemann’s goals have progressed over the years from making it onto a national team to medaling in the Paralympics. He said the smaller, incremental goals he’s set with Bleakney have “snowballed up to the big goals.”
Bleakney also helps Siemann and the other athletes create specific training plans to reach their goals. For example, Siemann has been working on his starts for some time. When he first set the goal of improving his starts, he told Bleakney he’d do so by practicing them a lot. Bleakney said that wasn’t specific enough and pushed him to consider whether he just needed to practice the first few strokes off the line or more.
“That got me thinking about it. I thought about myself as a racer. It was only my first five strokes. Once I get moving, I’m really good,” Siemann said. “By identifying where I needed the most improvement, we created that step together.”
Siemann also set a goal of improving his speed endurance in order to reach his sub-1:32 marathon goal. To improve, he is taking his turn pulling at the front of a pack of racers closer to the end of a long practice session, rather than earlier in the practice as was his habit. It will help him keep up his speed when he is fatigued.
One of Siemann’s daily goals is to stay completely focused and keep from getting distracted during a workout. He had a relatively easy workout last week and he might have been tempted to breeze through it, but he challenged himself to stay focused.
“I don’t think I’d be able to be where I am or be able to accurately reflect on my performance if I didn’t have goals and didn’t have the experience of setting goals,” he said.
“It’s so applicable in so many facets of everyday life outside of athletics,” he continued. “It allows you to be really introspective and allows you to evaluate what works and what doesn’t so you can improve.”
Bleakney stresses to his team members that they must enjoy the process of working toward their goals.
“It’s not the fact that you achieve the goal but that you pursue achieving it,” he said. “Whether you achieve your ultimate goal, you train for it. Each and every day, you apply yourself absolutely to moving from the point where you started. It’s really how you change as a person and what has the process meant to you.”
Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.
Photo: Training is essential for Paralympian Brian Siemann, 27, who took fourth place in the T52/53 800-meter race and fifth in the T53 400 meters in Rio. Photo provided by Brian Siemann.