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How setting the tiniest goals helped John Naber win gold at the Olympics: Tiny goals bring Olympic golds

Swimmers diving off the blocks
Tiny goals bring Olympic golds

Sports performers logically set challenging, specific goals to stretch them towards success. The research to date argues in their favour (Kremer et al., 2019). But what if setting teeny tiny goals helps along the way too? We can all learn a wonderful lesson from one of the most famous examples of a systematic goal-setting procedure, taking off in Munich in 1972 and landing in Olympic gold in 1976 at Montreal.

One man, Joh Naber, sat at home on his living room floor watching Mark Spitz win seven gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. A dream sparked to life for John when he thought how amazing it would be a world champion in Olympic competition. There was, however, one substantial problem. His personal best time in the 100 m back stroke was 59.5. The current Olympic champion went 56.3 and probably it might need a time of 55.5 to win gold in 1976 in Montreal, which meant he was over four seconds off the pace. Dropping four seconds for anyone who competes in these types of events knows how insurmountable this challenge can seem (Naber, 2005).

So, John had to think small, tiny, in fact. He began by breaking down the task into years. He had four years to the Olympics in Montreal, so he needed to improve by one second each year, which seemed much more manageable than the four seconds. Acknowledging that most swimmers train for ten or eleven months a year, he needed to improve by 1/10 of a second for each month. Training for six days each week meant he needed to improve by 1/300 of a second a day. And because he trained twice a day (2 hours morning and evening), it meant only about 1/1200 of a second of improvement every hour. What does 1/1200 of a second mean in real terms? To give you a concrete example, when we blink, from the time the eyelid moves to the time the eyelids close is 5/1200 of a second.

The insurmountable goal at the beginning became a believable and achievable goal standing on the pool deck. In 1976, John Naber won gold in the 100 m backstroke. But he did not stop there. He also won three other golds and a silver medal, breaking four world records along the way. The example John Naber shared with us emphasises how we ought to consider the stepping stones along the way to our success. As the old saying goes – don’t count the time, make the time count. We can all figure a way out for ourselves and sometimes that help comes at the end of our own arms, sometimes it comes from the good people around us. Whatever way we look at pursuing success, little goals, even teeny tiny goals, are goals, too. It seems success comes in cans, not can’ts (Kremer et al., 2019).


Naber, J. (2005). Awaken the Olympian within: Stories from American’s greatest Olympic motivators. Griffin Publishing Group.

Kremer, J., Moran, A. P., & Kearney, C. J. (2019). Pure sport: Sport psychology in action. Taylor and Francis.

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