USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities and play at the college level. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience and dedication, along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community, have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
What are your goals for the upcoming track and field season? Whether you’re looking to shave a few seconds off your 400-meter time or extend your long jump by a couple feet, setting SMART goals — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timed — can help you stay on course for an outstanding season and lead to exciting college opportunities down the line. Here are seven goal-setting tips from Aretha Thurmond, four-time Olympian in the discus.
Set goals within goals
“I never would’ve made the high school, college or Olympic team without setting goals,” said Thurmond, who served as Team USA captain during her last two Olympic Games. “But you need to have layers to your goals. It’s easy to pick a number or a distance, but you need to break it down and make a plan to get there.”
Thurmond, the Managing Director of International and Championship Teams for USA Track & Field, knew she needed to fling the discus 165 feet by her senior year of high school to earn the college and professional opportunities she wanted. But to reach this long-term goal, she set smaller goals for herself along the way.
“165 feet couldn’t be the only goal,” Thurmond said. “I also set numbers I wanted to hit in the weight room and a certain number of meets I wanted to compete in. Goal-setting needs to be continuous — weekly, monthly, yearly and quadrennial.”
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Look to other athletes for motivation
It’s no secret that successful athletes share a common mentality and a hunger for success. While you might not have the chance to rub elbows with Olympians, teammates and other athletes can be a great source of inspiration. Whether your goal is to make the podium or break a record, being around other athletes can help you lock in.
“There’s definitely a shared mentality on the Olympic team and in the Olympic Village,” Thurmond said. “Not only do you want to perform your best, you don’t want to be a distraction to others around you who have worked just as hard to get to that stage. There’s a shared respect. Everyone has the same goal and the same mission.”
Stay active in the offseason
The high school track and field season is less than three months long. With a limited number of meets and opportunities to compete during the season, the way you spend your offseason can be crucial.
“My coach and I always made sure to do extra workouts in the offseason,” Thurmond said.
“We tried to get together once a week in the fall or winter to do some extra throws into a net. I set offseason goals to get a certain number of throws in. I didn’t lift weights in high school, so we looked at other types of training like plyometrics and conditioning.”
In addition to circuit training and throwing into a net, Thurmond stayed sharp in the offseason by playing volleyball and basketball. She credits these sports with helping her avoid injuries and make dramatic improvements in track and field.
“Playing volleyball and basketball definitely helped me make the jump,” Thurmond said. “My background with other sports improved my body awareness and helped me quickly understand when coaches wanted me to make technical changes. For young athletes, playing multiple sports is going to help them have success in whichever sport they choose to focus on.”
Join a club for extra competitive experience
Joining a summer club team is a great way to extend the track and field season and gain additional competitive experience. During her final two years of high school, Thurmond joined a track club in her area.
“The season is so short and my high school didn’t have very many track meets,” Thurmond said. “Doing summer track with a local club lengthened my season and helped me qualify for the Junior Olympics.”
Learn new things at summer camp
Summer is also the perfect time to pick up a few new things at camp. Each year, USA Track & Field holds a variety of youth camps to help young athletes reach their goals in track, field events and cross country. Thurmond had such a good experience at her first camp that she convinced her high school coach to join the following year.
“I started a tradition where my coach ended up taking other athletes to this throwing camp in the Northwest for the next 10 years,” she said. “Setting goals to attend camps and clinics can help you better understand your sport—and it’s important for coaches to learn what the athletes are learning.”
Listen to your body
Setbacks are inevitable at every level. Even something as little as a cold can shut you down for a couple weeks and derail your goals. Thurmond explains that what really matters is your ability to accept adversity and not let the situation overwhelm you.
“You need to let your body heal and recover, pushing it usually makes it worse,” Thurmond said. “Staying hydrated and eating a healthy diet can also help you stay on track with the goals you set. Taking care of my body is one of the reasons I was able to enjoy such a long career.”
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Achieve your goals—and set new ones
Thurmond’s first Olympic Games were definitely her favorite. Thurmond’s experience at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics gave the 19-year-old college sophomore a firsthand perspective on what it takes to reach the top — and stay there.
“We always put a ton of focus on reaching our goals, but it’s easy to overlook how hard it is to stay there,” Thurmond said. “Being in that environment with athletes from around the world was eye-opening for me. I definitely got bit by the Olympic bug. That experience made it worth going to practice and fighting through the pain. It gave me the motivation to finish strong and have a long career.”