Goal setting is a simple and practical mental tool you can use to maintain a high level of motivation in your sports participation. For some very elemental reason, people respond to goals in a very deep and personal way. The experience of setting a goal, working toward a goal, and achieving a goal has a powerful emotional resonance that causes us to continue to strive higher for the goals we set for ourselves.
Goals offer two essential things that fuel your motivation. First, goals provide the destination of where you want to go in your sports participation. This endpoint is important because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re just going to stay where you are. Second, having a place you really want to go doesn’t have a lot of value if you don’t know how to get there. Goals provide the roadmap for getting to your destination.
Set S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Goals
The acronym S.M.A.R.T.E.R. represents the five criteria that you can use to get the most out of your goal setting:
Specific. Your goals should be specific to what you want to accomplish. For example, if you are a lacrosse player, you wouldn’t want a general goal such as “I want to improve my shooting.” Instead, you want to identify what aspects of your stick handling you want to get better at. A more appropriate goal might be: “I want to improve my scoring percentage.” The more specific you can get, the more you can focus on what you need to do in your training to improve that area.
Measurable. “Do your best” goals aren’t very effective because they don’t offer an adequate benchmark to strive for. Instead, you want to set goals that are measurable and objective. For example, if you are a basketball player wanting to improve her free-throw shooting, a measurable goal might be: “My goal is to shoot 50 free throws three times a week for the next four weeks to raise my free-throw percentage from 71 percent to 80 percent.”
Accepted. Ownership of your sport is essential for your athletic success. Ownership is no less important in the goals you set. Goals that are set by parents or coaches will not inspire or motivate you fully because they come from outside of you and you won’t feel real buy-in because they aren’t yours. When you set goals that you believe deeply in, they will be woven into the very fabric of your motivation and you almost have no choice about whether you strive them.
Realistic. If you set goals that are too low, they will have little motivational value because you know you’ll achieve the goal without much effort. You don’t want to set goals that are too high because you’ll know that you can’t achieve them, so you’ll have little incentive to put out any effort. You want to set goals that are both realistic and challenging. Realistic meaning that you can actually achieve them and challenging because your only chance of achieving them is by working really hard.
Time-limited. The best goals are ones in which there is a time limit for their achievement. You will feel highly motivated to put in the time and energy necessary to reach them when you have set a deadline to achieve them. For example, if you’re a cyclist and want to improve your power output, a goal might be: “I’m going to work toward increasing my wattage by five percent by doing 45 minutes of interval training three times a week for the next six weeks.”
Exciting. Your motivation to strive toward your goals is driven by the emotions you associate with those goals. As a result, you want to set goals that inspire and excite you. These emotions can be the deciding factor in whether you achieve your goals when faced with setbacks, failures, disappointment, fatigue, pain, tedium, and the desire to do other more interesting things.
Recorded. You are more likely to stay committed to the pursuit of your goals when you write them down (not just type them into your phone or computer) than if you just think about them. The physical act of writing your goals appears to somehow imprint them more deeply in your psyche. Writing them down also seems to make the goals more tangible and real. The explicitness of writing down your goals seems to create a greater sense of ownership of them that makes you feel more compelled to strive your goals.
There are several other guidelines that can help you set goals that will offer you the maximum benefit.
Focus on the degree of attainment. Goal setting is still an inexact science because it is impossible to set goals that you can be sure you can achieve. Because of this uncertainty in the goal-setting process, your focus when you set and strive for goals should be their degree of attainment, not absolute attainment.
Absolute attainment means accomplishing the goal in its entirety. For example, if you are an equestrian show jumper who has been clearing 3’ fences and you set a goal of clearing 3’ 9” fences within 16 weeks, you must clear at least that height for your goal to have been achieved successfully. Adhering to absolute attainment is a recipe for failure because it leaves only a small window for accomplishing the goal and a very large window for not.
In contrast, degree of attainment emphasizes improvement toward the goal. Returning to the equestrian example, if, after 16 weeks, you have cleared 3’ 3” fences, though your absolute goal wasn’t attained, your improvement would be deemed a success. With degree of attainment, as long as you are showing progress toward a goal, you are on the right track.
Make your goals public. You are more likely to adhere to your goals if you make them public, meaning share them with others, for example, showing them to your coach, family, or friends. Or posting them on your social media. By doing so, not only are you accountable to yourself, but also to everyone with whom you shared them.
Review your goals regularly. Because goal setting is an inexact science, you should view goal setting as a dynamic and ever-evolving process of review, adjustment, and recommitment. You should make it a habit to review your goals monthly and compare them to your actual progress. It can also be helpful to review them with your coaches who can provide useful feedback you can use to make adjustments that will further motivate you to pursue your goals.
Types of Goals to Set
Goal setting involves establishing a series of goals that start big picture and get increasingly specific and actionable.
- Long-term goals: What you ultimately want to achieve in your sport (e.g., win an make your high school team, play in college, win an Olympic gold medal).
- Yearly goals: What you want to achieve this year (e.g., qualifying for a new level of competition such as States or Nationals, a ranking, won-loss record).
- Performance goals: What results you need to achieve your yearly goals (e.g., finish in top 10 to qualify for big competition, achieve certain game statistics).
- Preparation goals: How you need to train and what you need to improve to reach your higher goals (e.g., physical, technical, mental).
- Lifestyle goals: What you need to do in your general lifestyle to reach the above goals (e.g., sleep, eating habits, study habits).
Decide on what you think are reasonable goals using the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. guidelines, as well as the other criteria I described. If you are unsure of the goals to set, I recommend that you sit down with your coaches and prepare your goals collaboratively as they often have experience and perspective on your development that can help you set the best goals that will motivate you most.
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