Goal-setting is a big part of athlete strategy and deserves a whole chapter dedicated to the skill. We use the term ‘skill’ as it is something that can be learned and improved upon. We address this further in the sections below.
We all know the value of having a direction and something to aim for. The same is true of sports people of all levels. Be it aspiring amateurs or Olympic athletes.
In having an objective, it helps to keep athletes focused and motivated in all area. This can be from athletic performance to personal attitude to specific skills. Importantly, it helps athletes understand what they are trying to achieve, in the long and short term.
Research has found that in having tangible targets, athletes can boost their motivation and commitment. They can also improve their personal performance, increase their confidence and reduce levels of anxiety. It may even assist with managing pain effectively.
Therefore, it’s important to have a variety of complimentary goals. Some with short-term wins, others with a long-term focus.
The different type of goals
But before getting to the task of goal-setting, it’s important to outline the different types of goals and their individual strengths, and the timescales we might expect to achieve them in.
We might easily define these as:
- Outcome – these can be long or short-term, but they consistently look at the final result of a competition or match you’re working towards. These are the focal point for many athletes, that help get them out of bed and into painfully early training sessions any time of year. This could be taking part in a championship event or another large feat. It is often the ultimate motivation to ‘keep going’ even through the most gruelling of training programmes. Some coaches may suggest you aim your sights high, that might even make you question if you can achieve it. You can!
It’s advisable to have one, maybe two of these long term aims, which may take months or even years to achieve.
- Performance – these may be viewed as intermediate goals, the sort you can achieve in a matter of weeks or months. These should support your overall long-term objective in some way. So, if your goal is to make the championships, a performance goals might be to reach a certain standard or time to aim for.
- Process – these may be viewed as short-term targets that helps you get there. These can be flexible to adapt to your changing schedule. For instance, running around X park every day this week, or trying out a new exercise in training. These can be easily formed and achieved, usually in practice sessions or even in competitions. They focus on the ‘here and now’ whilst strategically supporting the overall ambition of the long-term outcome goal. These can be as little as a few days, to a few weeks to achieve.
How do you recognise success in goal-setting?
The key to success is setting clear targets that are achievable, and at the same time challenging and engaging. It’s important for athletes to stretch themselves in their objectives. As an athlete develops their skill in goal-setting, the more accurate they will become in setting great, individualised targets. This will demand a strong commitment with a rewarding pay off.
A sports coach should aid the athlete in recognising the types of goals that they may want to set; not only to improve their performance but their motivation too.
In psychological skills training the focus is often on developing an individual’s skill in setting process and performance objectives, rather than the actual outcome targets themselves. As a sports coach will reinforce – winning isn’t everything – it’s just a part of the journey in unlocking human potential.
Goal setting – where to begin?
Since all goals should ideally feed into each other, it’s sometimes easier to start with a long-term vision and work backwards.
So, if the overall goal is to win a major championship (outcome goal), then the target might be to raise your game and performance, perhaps to reach a specific milestone in say less than 30 seconds (performance goal). This is then supported with practical steps to get there – be this through using resistance bands or intensifying your morning strength workouts (process goal). This is personal to you as an athlete.
Each goal will require its own targets that can be measured. Specifically, goals should not be easily influenced by anyone else, and true to the personal needs and requirements of the athlete.
It’s important to remember that the goals serve you and no-one else. As such, during the goal setting process, remember that it’s you who gets to write your own definition of success. Make sure it’s challenging but achievable, since you are the only judge of the results. Achievable goal-setting is an important point, as you don’t want to become disinterested or disheartened. Even outcome goals should seem achievable, even if only remotely!
While it’s useful to work with a coach in this process, the goals should always be set by the individual. This makes them more likely to be kept too.
The number of targets set can vary from athlete to athlete. Mix it up – aim for a combination of long and short-term goals to keep motivated.
When thinking about goal-setting, there should be a number of attitude-related goals too. For instance, showing up to practice and training on time. Or perhaps creating a respectful environment for others to flourish in. These can be easily tracked and praised which in turn help to build motivation.
Finally, it may seem obvious, but your objectives should always be towards improvement.
A good way to structure an effective goal-setting programme is to think about your pros and cons. One sports psychology technique often used in goal setting with athletes is performance profiling. This is designed for an athlete to easily identify and assess their own personal strengths and weaknesses. This helps to highlight the areas for focus, and can enhance communication between the coach and athlete.
But some personal judgement needs to come into this too. If goals aren’t getting you out of bed in the morning, then it’s time to change them! So change them!!
It’s also important to remember time constraints top. Set yourself realistic times in which you can achieve these goals, as milestones to work towards, whilst allowing for some flexibility along the way
A common question that athletes often ask in goal setting is how they should express their goals? Since goals are personal ambitions, they should be devised by individuals with support from their sports coach.
A way to help remember and stick to goal-setting is by committing them to ink. Write them down and share them with your sports coach. Psychological skills training suggests you are more likely to uphold them in doing so.
How to keep the momentum?
So now that goal-setting is complete, how can you keep motivated? How can an athlete maintain their enthusiasm for goals, especially those that are long-term?
The best way is to repeatedly monitor goals and your progress towards them. Remember that process goals can be tweaked at any time to redirect your focus. This is especially useful if you find that existing objectives aren’t working.
Think back to life without goals in your previous training programme. It might seem as if you lacked clarity or direction. It’s important to remember the benefits and focus that these now bring.
One way to monitor goals is to review performance statistics and skill tests, as well as personal scores kept by coaches. This will help you understand if you’re on track for success. It can also highlight areas where tweaks might need to be made. That’s ok too!
Often overlooked is the skill of competing itself, so consider whether or not to include some ‘B’ competition outcome targets before your main ‘A’ game in your long term plan.
How do you regain focus?
Of course, it’s human nature to go through highs and lows, peaks and troughs. As such, goals can unravel at times, or motivation may wane.
The first step is recognising this. In doing so, you can re-address your status and how you plan to reignite your goals.
You may wonder how to maintain your psychological skills training for sport? It’s important to go back to the original objectives set and understand why they were chosen. It’s also ok to admit that some of these might have been unrealistic. Or perhaps there were too many long-term or short-term targets that became too distracting. It’s OK to readdress the balance if so.
There is no harm in taking time to stop to reflect. In this process think about the consequences of loss or absence if the objective was removed. How might they be replaced? What do you need to do to get back on track? If your objectives have shifted, how might you revise your original vision to reflect this?
Goal-setting is imperative to the success of any athlete serious about their sport. The process will help athletes understand where they are and where they want to be. And importantly, it will provide tangible steps on how to get there.
Outcome, performance and process goals with long and short-term timings should be considered, and committed to in writing.
Done correctly, goal-setting is a tried and tested strategy for motivation and for success. But it requires commitment, self-awareness and self-monitoring to see real results.