Most… probably all athletes who’ve achieved anything approaching success will have set goals along the way, but why do we ordinary mortals find it so tough to set and stick to the goals we set for ourselves.
There are a couple of theories as to how and why goal setting works. One, called the Direct Mechanistic view¹, explains that goals direct your attention onto the task at hand, encourage persistence and motivation, and can even help you to develop new strategies for achieving what you’ve set out to achieve.
The Indirect Thought Process view² suggests that setting and achieving goals can help performance by improving confidence, motivation, and overall satisfaction with what you’re doing.
It’s likely a combination of both theories, but I’ve heard about 27 different acronyms that are supposed to help people set “good” goals. Set SMART goals! SMARTER goals! SMARTS GOALS! Whatever your acronym of choice, (if you’re into that sort of thing) there are a few things that you should keep in mind to make goal setting effective.
The gist of the acronyms described above is that goals should be:
SPECIFIC & MEASURABLE.
These two go together as far as I’m concerned. If your goals are too vague, how do you know when you’ve achieved them? Make it something that you can measure objectively, like “I want to deadlift 200kg by the end of march,” rather than “I want to improve my deadlift.” That way, you can track progress, see how you’re doing, and know when you’ve got to where you want to be.
There’s no point in setting a goal that you can’t achieve. That’s obvious. If I set myself a goal of running the 100m in 9.6 seconds, I’m only gonna be disappointed and disheartened when I don’t get anywhere near. In fact, I’ll probably give up and stop trying to get better at running.
Or at least recorded somewhere. The old phrase “Ink it, don’t think it” is perhaps a little outdated in the age of smart phones, but writing your goals down somewhere that you can see them is actually pretty helpful.
If you wake up in the morning and see your goals written on your bedroom wall (or on a poster on your wall, rather than on the actual wall), they’re gonna be fresh in your mind through the day.
Know when you want to achieve your goals by. Set a date and track your progress. Having an end date in mind is a useful motivational tool and you can keep a record of the milestones you’ve achieved along the way, whether that’s part of a daily, weekly, or monthly process.
So, that’s it. Goal setting is really easy, right? So how come so many people manage to screw it up? Here are 5 reasons why goal setting doesn’t work.
1. Setting too many goals.
One mistake that athletes will often make is to set goals in too many different areas. Remember, one of the ways that goals work is by focusing attention on the task at hand. Well if we’re trying to focus attention on 18 different tasks at the same time, that’s a sure-fire way to come unstuck.
There’s no real magic number here. Perhaps having one goal is enough for you, or perhaps you could manage 4 or 5 different goals to work on at the same time, but it’s important to make sure it’s manageable for you and that you identify a few key areas that you want to work on, rather than trying to work on everything at the same time.
Remember though, having too narrow a focus can also be harmful to your performance. Don’t neglect other important aspects of your life at the expense of reaching your sporting goals.
2. Setting inflexible goals.
So you’ve set your SMART goals, you’ve made sure they’re specific and you’ve been keeping track of them, you have a target date in mind for achieving your PB and KAPOW! you get yourself injured. This isn’t a problem if you can adjust your goals accordingly, but sometimes athletes will be so locked in on their goals, that not achieving it by the date set is seen as a failure and can knock motivation or confidence.
Sometimes athletes might be so focused on achieving their goals that they’ll continue to train, even though they should be resting and recovering from injury. The consequences of this are obvious. And it’s not just injuries or illness that can get in the way. Exams, schoolwork, family holidays, cancelled tournaments… the list goes on. So it’s important to make goals realistic in the first place, but also to be comfortable with adjusting them if needed.
3. Focusing on failure not feedback.
Related to the point above, if for whatever reason you don’t achieve what you set out to, it’s important to think about why you didn’t achieve your goal, rather than just on the fact that you didn’t hit the mark. Everyone’s seen the Michael Jordan advert right? The one where he’s all moody and bangs on about how many shots he’s missed and how many games he’s lost, but that that’s why he succeeds?
Yeah you’ve seen it. Anyway, failure can be extremely demotivating, but only if we view it as failure. If we look at it as feedback on our performance, then we can adjust goals accordingly, increase effort, try new strategies, or develop and adapt our existing strategies.
The path to achieving your goals isn’t a straight one. If you get straight to your goal without going off track just a little, your goal is too easy. If you really want to develop, you need to set really challenging goals that are going to test and push you.
4. Too much outcome focus.
Outcome goals are focused (surprisingly enough) on outcomes – winning a medal, or a competition, or even a specific game. The problem with focusing too much on outcome goals is that the outcomes are often uncontrollable. You could run the best race you’ve ever run, do everything right, and yet someone else might just run faster on the day. So if we focus on things that we can’t actually control (like winning), then we’re likely to get more nervous about performing.
Instead, it’s important to focus on the processes. Process goals are focused more on what we’re doing as opposed to why we’re doing it. For example, a basketball player might focus on having quick feet, staying low on defence, and getting a hand in the passing lane (the processes), rather than winning the game.
Focusing on the processes helps keep us concentrated on the task at hand, and can help with our overall performance, increasing the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome – the WIN.
5. Not enough outcome focus!
“Focus on the process, not the outcome. If you focus on the processes, the outcomes will take care of themselves.” In some ways, this is sound advice. As we talked about above, focusing too much on outcomes can cause anxiety and can decrease motivation and confidence if things aren’t going to plan.
However, don’t we need a bit of outcome focus to stay motivated? Don’t we need to keep reminding ourselves why we’re getting up at 6 in the morning to go on that training run, why we’re in the gym for 2 hours after being at work or school all day, or why we’re spending so much time working on quick feet, staying low, and keeping a hand in the passing lane?
Keep your outcome goals in mind and remind yourself what the processes are for! Don’t be afraid to think about what it is you’re trying to achieve.
So there we are. Set SMART goals, or SMARTER goals, or SMARTIES goals if you like, although I might have just made that last one up, I’m not sure. Make sure your goals are specific and measurable, get them written down where you can see them so they’re kept in mind, set a target date, and track your progress.
Focus on a manageable number of goals at once, make them challenging, but make sure you can adjust them when unforeseen circumstances like injury or illness crop up.
Don’t worry if you don’t hit your precise targets. Be like Mike, and view failure as feedback. Make sure to focus on the small things, the processes, but don’t be afraid to keep maybe just one eye on the prize to remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
¹Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
²Burton, D. (1989). Winning isn’t everything: Examining the impact of performance goals on collegiate swimmers’ cognitions and performance. The Sport Psychologist, 3, 105–132.