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When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Activate

Focus on process actions, instead of desired results, for optimal performance.

Key points

  • Process involves the actions taken to improve and to maximize successful performance and are under the athlete's complete control.
  • Process goals define the detailed steps to be taken to achieve Performance Goals, the specific skills athletes aim to improve.
  • Outcome goals are the results performers seek and serve as a motivator.
  • Total focus on Outcome Goals, instead of process actions, can result in frustration, anxiety, and failure, because we don't control the outcome.

How many times have you heard an athlete or coach say “I (we) just need to trust the process”—or something like that—after a disappointing performance?

Too many times to count.

What does “the process” mean?” Is it just an overused, sports-speak cliche thrown out to appease the media and fans, or is something more to it than that?

“Trusting the process” is something elite athletes actually do.

What it Means

Process involves the committed actions that make the important things happen. In the sport/performance context it’s called competing, training, and practice. The “important things” include the skills, approach, leadership, focus, effort, and the other things that will lead to improved performance. The key to a successful process is in the doing.

Too many athletes and other performers blessed with great natural ability fail to actualize their talent because they get stuck in their failures. They get so caught up in the feelings and thoughts that tag along with failure that they never get to the doing part. They’re too preoccupied with frustration, anger, and disappointment to put their energy to better purpose.

What do elite athletes and performers do in response to failure or success? They activate. They have a “what do I need to do, now” approach and immediately launch into doing the things that will improve and maximize performance. They engage with the playing, training, and practice process, and don’t get caught up in the outcome of their efforts to the point of distraction.

It’s called “process.”

Beware the Goal

There are three general types of goals: Outcome, performance, and process goals.

Outcome Goals are defined by what the athlete wants to achieve. A team’s outcome goal is to win. A hockey player to score a goal. A swimmer to achieve their best time. Outcome goals serve a motivational function. They are the carrot in front of the horse, but doesn’t really address how to get the carrot

Performance Goals are what the person works to improve to reach their outcome goal. For the team it might be the ability to stay focused. The hockey player might choose to sharpen their wrist shot. A swimmer could concentrate on getting better at turns. Performance goals help the individual decide what they need to work on, but do not explain how to work on them.

Process Goals are the specific, detailed, committed actions taken to achieve the performance goals that will maximize the chances of accomplishing outcome goals. The team will practice breathing exercises that improve focus. Hockey players can do 10 repetitions of a wrist shot drill every day. Swimmers might ask coaches for drills to do to improve turns. All these things are tangible, specific actions that can be taken. Process goals explain how to achieve performance goals.

Process goals are where it’s at for successful performance. That’s because they define in detail exactly what to do. They are under your control, while performance goals and outcomes are not. You control whether you do the 10 repetitions of a process goal drill, but that does not guarantee improvement of a skill, or the achievement of an outcome goal because there are many factors out of one’s control that may get in the way of achieving performance goals and, especially, outcome goals.

A high school baseball player can be entirely focused on their hitting drills (process goals) but may or may not achieve the performance goal of improving ability to hit a curve ball, or getting a hit (outcome goal), especially if they happen to be playing the New York Yankees.

Over-focus on an outcome goal can be a source of frustration because it is something not within complete control. Of course, baseball players want a hit! Why else would they be standing in the batter’s box with a wooden stick in their hands? Just wanting a hit, however, won’t make the bat hit the ball. It’s a wish, just like a three-year-old girl desiring to be a princess. Would it not be more productive for the baseball player to focus on watching the ball, and other committed actions (process goals), to hit the ball?

David Udelf, Psy.D.
Is this you, obsessed with a desired outcome instead of the process actions that will get you there.
Source: David Udelf, Psy.D.

Obsessing on outcome goals can lead to frustration, anxiety, rushing, and other things that disrupt optimal performance. It also distracts the athlete from doing those things necessary to properly execute required skills, thus leading to reduced productivity. They end up looking like and acting like Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame—stressed and downtrodden.

Many young athletes fall into the outcome goal trap, and as their failures mount, so do their struggles with increasing stress and anxiety, and diminishing performance. They behave anxiously trying to get the desired outcome and become disconnected from the skills they’ve achieved. They also become overly distressed in the aftermath of failed effort.

The Solution

Activate after a success or failure with a focus on process. What are the committed actions you’re going to take? After the game or competition—win, lose, or tie—identify what is needed to improve (performance goals) and what to do to practice or train to achieve them (process goals). A “to do” list.

During the game focus on the actions to be taken through the duration of practice and competition, not on the obsession for desired outcome.

Take it from performance expert and author Hugh Prather, “to live for results would be to sentence myself to continuous frustration. My only sure reward is in my actions, not from them.”


Prather, H. (1990). Notes to myself: My struggle to become a person. New York, NY: Bantam Books