Imagination, belief and energy are precious resources that need to be carefully nurtured when high performance is the goal. At the same time, saddling someone with an unattainable target because you don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm risks a catastrophic failure that can destroy self-confidence and trust in the coach.

An ambitious but naïve performer setting an unrealistic goal for themselves is commonplace: a direct report applies for a role where they are unlikely to be the successful candidate; an individual you coach sets a performance target for themselves based on their best year ever when headwinds are coming on strong; or your team is running a pilot project that’s very unlikely to get the green light to proceed.

How can you communicate belief in the performer, while at the same time protecting them from experiencing what could be a devastating setback?

A moment of insight

One such moment for me happened over 20 years ago when I was working as a swimming coach in Thousand Oaks, California. I was coaching an adult swimming group – or as we called them, “Masters Swimmers” – to prepare them for the first competition of the summer.

Masters swimming competitions are interesting events: the beer tent opening is as big a deal as the performances in the pool. But, make no mistake, the performances matter to the athletes.

“I immediately realized I had made a mistake”

I was doing some goal-setting work with an athlete who had recently taken up the sport and asked her what she thought would be a good goal time for her 100-meter freestyle. Her answer was completely unrealistic, so I suggested a much more attainable goal. The smile vanished from her face, her shoulders slumped, and I immediately realized I had made a mistake.

In my well-intentioned effort to save this performer from disappointment, I had limited what she could imagine for herself, communicated a lack of belief in her capabilities and cut off a key source of energy.

Don’t fear negative emotion

In that moment, my gut reaction was to spare this person from setting herself up for failure. What I’ve learned is exceptional coaches know that negative emotion is an inherent part of the journey of growth and development. Progress isn’t linear.

When people are testing their limits and doing things that they’ve never done before they will experience setbacks from time to time. And when those setbacks occur, they will experience negative emotions such as frustration or disappointment. But people can survive frustration and disappointment.

On the other hand, if you encourage them to set safe goals that you know they will achieve, you limit the powerful “pull forward” that comes with imagining what might be possible.

Frame a range of outcomes

While negative emotion is a powerful tool, the coach still needs to prevent a devastating failure. Where I suggested a new goal in place of the one my swimmer had set, I could have included it in a range of possible outcomes that framed a realistic performance as a level of success.

In practice, this looks like a series of goals that includes the most ideal outcome and also a few other outcomes that are more realistic and attainable.

  • Goal “A” might represent a nearly perfect result where they execute flawlessly and all the breaks fall their way.
  • Goal “B” might represent a good result where they execute relatively well, but not perfectly, and 50% of the breaks fall their way.
  • And finally, Goal “C” might represent a result they can live with where they make a few execution mistakes and experience some bad luck in the process.

Framing targets in this manner helps performers to dream about what might be possible while at the same time preparing them for when the ideal outcome does not occur. This approach is also a useful way to help a perfectionist objectively assess their performances.

“Perfectionists often evaluate any imperfect performance as failure”

Perfectionists often evaluate any imperfect performance as failure. By working with the performer to set a range of target outcomes in advance, the coach is then in a position to help them evaluate their performance against objective criteria.

This often results in the perfectionist being forced to admit that their “failure” was in fact a “good performance” or at worst “one they can live with.”

Blend empathy and accountability

If the performer doesn’t achieve their ideal outcome, help them harness the negative emotion and use it to fuel growth rather than rushing in to try to make them feel better.

Do this by first allowing them to sit with the emotion of the moment. Be there to help them process the experience by providing a listening ear. And then, when the performer seems ready, ask them for their thoughts on how to move forward. And then work with them to create a plan to increase the likelihood of an improved result next time.

Re-writing history

If I could go back in time and revisit that moment on the pool deck when that athlete suggested an unrealistic goal, what would I do?

I would have accepted that negative emotion is a natural part of the growth process. And rather than trying to shield them from the possibility of failure, I would have allowed them to dream about what might be possible.

I would have helped them set a range of goals. And if they failed to achieve their ideal outcome, I would have helped them process the disappointment and then channel that energy into the process of getting better.

Of course it was that moment of less than stellar coaching, and the resulting disappointment I felt with myself, that ultimately helped me find a better way forward.