Creating Powerful Goals


A lot has been written about goal setting. There are books, blogs, and educational courses completely dedicated to the topic. There are lots of theories and lots of tactics out there preaching “silver bullet” solutions to becoming better at setting and achieving goals. It seems however that the key to success actually lies in the detail and rigour individuals put in designing their goals. More specifically it seems that the secret sauce to goal achievement may lie in how we structure and socialize our goals.

Understanding the Composition of Goals
We look at high performers (in sport and in life) as cereal goal breakers, but really what these people seem to be great at is breaking down their goals into smaller chunks. After all, the best way to build a house is to start with a sound plan and no capable home builder would swing a hammer before they’ve built and signed off on a sound plan. Your goals should be treated with the same level of detail before any action is taken.

So let’s start by breaking down the anatomy of goals. Sport Psychologists would argue that the success of your goals comes down to one concept, and two main ingredients. The concept is motivation and the ingredients are are intensity and direction.

Establishing these two ingredients is the key to accomplishment in sports and in life and both concepts are highly linked to one another.

  1. Intensity – what do I want to do, what am I passionate about running towards
  2. Direction – where you are going,  the clearer this is the better.

Typically with athletes, intensity is not the issue, they are properly energized for the task at hand. Instead the challenge lies in the direction of their goals which requires proper planning. Legendary Manchester United Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson sums up the importance of direction, “You might be the captain of the fastest ship in the ocean, but that doesn’t really matter if you don’t know where you are going.”

Sport Psychologists also agree that procrastination usually the leading indicator of a goal without direction. When we don’t trust our action plan, it becomes difficult to assign energy to it, therefore we delay action, attempting to buy time and gather more information.

So how do athletes get the direction right? It’s starts by bringing more structure to the goals set as well as being thoughtful in the “types” of goals set.

Structuring Goals
One of the most popular goal structures is the SMART method of goal setting. SMART stands for “specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timeline”. Athletes should pull apart their goals and question whether they are specific enough, if they have a measurable outcome, are achievable, realistic and have a clear timeline to them. If an athlete answers “no” to any of these questions, they should revisit the specific details of their of the goals.

Another important component of goal structure is the type of goals selected. Let’s consider two types of goals: outcome goals and process goals. Outcome goals are results based (winning the game, loosing 15 pounds, etc.) and while they are more closely linked to what we actually want to achieve with our goals, they are also often largely out of our control and therefore not great contributors to motivation. Research has shown that a focus on process goals (100 free throws per day, or going to the gym 3 days in a week) lead to significantly higher instances of success. These types of goals are highly within our control and typically (but not always) result in great outcome goals.

Control is the key to goals. When you feel in control, it’s much easier to motivate yourself.

Socializing Goals
It seems that another important ingredient for successful goal completion involves sharing and creating a social accountability with what it is you’re hoping to achieve. For most people socializing involves three things – writing goals down, revisiting them consistently and sharing them with others.

For the last two years, PGA Golfer Justin Thomas (Ranked 4th in the world at the time of this writing) has taken to social media to share his written down goals. These goals were written down in the notes section on his cellphone, giving him easy access to them at all times. Many of Justin’s goals would have seemed well out of reach at the start of the year, however Thomas has shown an incredible ability to achieve the majority of the goals he sets. His formula: he writes them down, shares them with his team, and revisits them all the time. While many the goals the Justin has shared online tend to be outcome goals, he has also talked at length about the process goals he completes daily to get there.

Sharing goals with others is an important step in the process too. Whether it is with friends, family, coaches, teammates or strangers, declaring goals creates a social contract between the athlete and others, driving an expectation of action and holding the goal setter accountable to this action.

The idea of socializing goals is perhaps best captured by this quote from three time Olympic medalist in swimming Gary Hall:
“The two most important parts of setting goals are that you write them down and that you put them someplace where you can see them every day. I usually recommend the bathroom mirror or refrigerator door, two places I know you will always look. When I was 16 years old, training for my first Olympic games, my coach wrote all of my goal times down on the top of the kickboard I was using every day in practice. I couldn’t escape them, but the result, after executing the plan, was that I made the Olympic team.”

What Does it Mean for Athletes
Athletes need to invest time in their goal setting equal to their ambition – in other words, big and audacious goals will require lots of time and attention.

If you feel yourself “procrastinating” on the path to your goals, stop and reflect on the direction of your goals. Ask yourself are these goals clear enough? Do I have the correct structure in place to work towards my goals? By being disciplined on the structure and socialization components of goals, athletes at any level can set themselves up to achieve whatever they are striving for.

So start designing your goals with the proper structure, declare them, share them, and revisit them often!
Happy Goal Setting!

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