Last month, we covered an incredibly common challenge faced by young athletes: Performance Anxiety. Today, we’ll address another topic with strong ties to the start of season; a practice that most, if not all, of today’s athletes (and coaches, and caregivers) are familiar with: Goal Setting.
At this point, many of you may already be thinking, “Yawn. I’ve heard about this a hundred times. I’ve done a ton of goal setting exercises. I get it. They’re important. They’ll help my performance. They need to be SMART. Let’s move on.” I assure you; I empathize with this response. This blog is but one of literally millions of articles, books, and workshops devoted to the practice of goal setting. Because we’ve been so inundated with goal setting (on the field, in the classroom, in the workplace, in our personal lives), the practice can feel a bit cliché and overdone.
Here’s the kicker, though: Goals work when effectively set and pursued. Unfortunately, most of us are coming up short, specifically when it comes to effective goal pursuit. The act of setting a goal, alone, does virtually nothing; the massive positive impact that goals can have are only reaped when we craft and follow-through on our goals with effort and intentionality. That is what this blog is devoted to – not just principles of effective goal setting, but those of successful and satisfactory goal pursuit.
8 Tips for Effective Goal setting and Pursuit
With support from nearly four decades of research, the beneficial effect of goal setting on performance is one of the most thoroughly demonstrated findings in psychological literature. The act of setting and striving for goals not only increases our likelihood of success, but is also linked to positive changes in anxiety, confidence, and motivation. By directing attention, mobilizing effort, and increasing persistence in the face of setbacks, effective goal setting and pursuit serves to both enhance our performance and increase our personal satisfaction and fulfillment.
That said: The act of goal setting, alone, does not automatically facilitate performance or increase satisfaction. Goal setting is not a silver bullet. In fact, many of us have likely (and frustratingly) set and subsequently abandoned a number of goals. With that, here are eight tips on how to approach both goal setting and goal pursuit to maximize the likelihood that we reap those research-backed, widely touted benefits of goal setting.
(1) Start With Why
One of the most common reasons we fail to achieve the goals we set is because we have not fully internalized them; since we are often instructed to set goals (by our coach, doctor, manager, etc.), we lack a clear and compelling sense of why the time, thought, and continual effort required of goal pursuit and achievement is worthwhile. Without this understanding, we either lose sight of our goals or give up on them when faced with struggle. Starting with why, and crafting a goal that truly matters to us, is one of the most important features of goal setting.
- Tip: Not sure how to build a goal that “truly matters” to you? Start by identifying your personal values. While a goal is a specific objective or aim of action (lose twenty pounds), a value, is a principle or concept that a person considers chiefly important (health); values serve as our general life compass that guides our decision making. The strongest goals we can set for ourselves are those informed by our values.
(2) Quality Over Quantity
Another reason we fail to see our goals through – on or off the field – is that we set too many of them. Unsurprisingly, setting too many goals not only inefficiently divides our attention, but also can be overwhelming and paralyzing. To be fair, “too many goals” is subjective; some people can effectively manage five goals at a time, while others have far more success focusing their attention on a single goal. Regardless, bear in mind that one or two goals, built intentionally and executed well, outweigh ten half-heartedly pursued goals, every time.
- Tip: Not sure what your “magic number” of goals is? Start with one goal. Once you’re able to take consistent and observable action toward achieving that goal, then – and only if you want to do so – consider adding another.
(3) Build Them Well
This tip is incredibly important and likely the one that you are most familiar with. All goals that stand to be impactful share certain characteristics. While there are number of acronyms that have been crafted to help us remember these traits (SMART, ABCs, WOOP), the list I would consider most thorough and appropriate is:
- Specific: A specific goal focuses exactly on the goal to be achieved; it is clear, direct, and not up for subjective interpretation. “Become a better soccer player,” is not specific.
- Measurable / Observable: We must be able to track our progress on our goals. The best way to ensure our goals are measurable (especially in an athletic context) is to craft goals for which progress can be directly observed (technique improvements, fitness gains, increased success in skill execution, etc.).
- Time Bound: Each goal we set should have a timeframe within which we are striving to achieve it.
- Moderately Difficult: Research suggests that the most effective goals are those we find moderately difficult (though realistic). Stretch yourself a bit!
- Positively Framed: The most effective goals are oriented toward something you want more of or are striving toward as opposed to something you’re avoiding. “Not missing any shots” is negatively framed; “Getting 90% of my shots on goal” is positively framed.
- Flexible: Effective goals leave room for adjustment and possible setback. “Getting 100% of my shots on goal” is, though ambitious, not flexible; 90% leaves room for (unavoidable) human error.
- Tip: Not sure if the goals you’ve drafted check all of these boxes? Ask a coach or caregiver to read through your goals and verify that they meet each criterion.
(4) Mix Them Up
There are a number of different types of goals we can set: personal goals or team goals; practice goals or competition goals; short-term goals or long-term goals. We can set outcome goals (directed toward results, such as winning), performance goals (directed toward personal performance within a team context, like stopping X% of shots), or process goals (directed toward specific behaviors exhibited within performance, such as on-field scanning). Though outcome goals can be detrimental (especially for those that run a bit anxious or perfectionistic), each of these goals have their place and purpose. Research suggests it is most effective for individuals to set a combination of goals (i.e., a long-term performance, competition-oriented goal and a short-term process, training-oriented).
- Tip: Unsure what type of goal would work best for you? Start by setting a long(er)-term performance goal, and one or two short-term process goals that will facilitate it. This approach has been shown to be particularly effective when looking to enhance individual performance.
(5) Write Them Down
A simple tip. Goals are ineffective if they are forgotten, and research suggests that seeing our goals often increases commitment and progress toward them.
- Tip: Write down your goals and display them somewhere you look at daily, like your bathroom mirror or refrigerator.
(6) Build an Action Plan
For most of us, effective goal pursuit (as opposed to goal setting) is the major barrier to goal achievement. In order to achieve our goals, we must set aside time to develop an action plan that will serve to consistently move us toward our goals. What skills do we need to build to raise our pass completion rate to 90%? What actions do we have to take in practice to build those skills? Without an action plan for us to carry-out every day, we simply will not achieve our goals.
- Tip 1: Not sure what kind of actions will move you toward your goal? Ask your coach (or doctor, manager, etc.)! Once you have that information, set one or two, simple, short-term training goals that will promote daily progress toward your overall goal.
- Tip 2: No matter our goals, we will encounter obstacles. The objective is not to avoid setbacks, but to prepare to manage them. To elevate your action plan, draft a contingency plan; brainstorm potential future obstacles, and craft if/then statements for addressing them (“If ______ happens, then I will ______.”).
(7) Identify/Seek Support
No matter how intentionally we craft our goals and construct our action plans, the reality remains that goal pursuit and achievement can be very challenging. One of the best things we can do to increase the likelihood that we will stay committed to our goals is to build a support system that will help us do so; a handful of people who know what we’re striving for, and that we can rely on to celebrate our progress and keep us moving forward when we would rather call it quits.
- Tip: Grab a piece of paper and write down a few names – family, friends, teammates, coaches, colleagues, mentors – that you want as part of your support system. Once you’ve built out your goal and action plan, reach out to them, share your goal(s), your why, the potential obstacles you’ve identified, and ask if they’d be willing to support you in your goal pursuit.
(8) Check-In, Course Correct
If we’ve done all of the work up to this point, our daily course of action is clear; the only thing left is to schedule frequent check-ins to track our progress. If we are moving toward our goals in a timely manner, stay the course. If we realize that we are not doing so, identify the source of the misstep (are we lacking motivation, and needing to reassess our why? Is our action plan poorly constructed?), and course correct. Remember: Obstacles are not a bug of goal pursuit; they are a feature of it. Stay vigilant when it comes to tracking progress, and be ready and willing to take confident action in response to setbacks. In doing so, we will be much more likely to stay committed to, and ultimately achieve, our goals.
Goal setting, pursuit, and achievement is not esoteric; it’s not mystical. It just takes planning, committed action, and follow-through. Armed with these eight tips, you are more than equipped to not only set effective goals, but also pursue and achieve them. All that is left now is to get after it! Whether it’s on the field, at home, or at work, I hope that you make time to put this information into action.
As always, I wish you the best of luck, and look forward to seeing you on the fields!