Skip to Content
goal setting

The Power of Goal-Setting

By pshychologist Karen Lo

Goal-setting can not only improve your skills and technique, it can also enhance your mental toughness.

In competitive sports, it has been argued that athletic success depends largely on two factors: An athlete’s skill, and his or her motivation. Goal-setting, often underestimated, is a powerful technique that is found to increase both of these facets. Most people have goals of their own — lose five pounds, run a marathon, get fitter, become a successful basketball coach. These goals all seem realistic and achievable. Why then do people fail, or take so long to reach their goals? The struggles most people have with goal- setting is not about identifying goals they have, but more about setting them in such a way that the goals direct their attention and increase their motivation incentives.

Goal-setting can not only improve your skills and technique, it can also enhance your mental toughness.

Defining Goals

First, it is important to know what types of goals there are. The following are key categories of sport-related goals:

a) Outcome goals: These are the goals that focus on results, including winning a race, beating an opponent, getting into the semi-finals of a game. These goals do not only depend on the athlete, but also his or her opponents’ performances. Therefore, these kinds of goals are not entirely controllable.

b) Performance goals: These goals help an athlete achieve his or her own standards of performance, and depend solely on the athlete’s ability. If one can only do 10 reps of chin-ups at the gym in the first week, one’s performance goal may be to do 15 reps in the second week.

c) Process goals: Action goals that athletes follow in order to perform well. These goals also depend on the athlete’s own ability. For example, a basketball player’s process goal may involve staying low every time he dribbles the ball. A runner may set a process goal to keep his chest up to slightly lead the way whenever he finds himself slumping over during the run.

The S.M.A.R.T. Analogy

The S.M.A.R.T. acronym is a good memory aid for athletes to remember the characteristics of effective goals:

Specific: What is your end-goal and what are the steps you are willing to take in order to achieve it? Being selected to participate at the UTMB® Finals in Chamonix is a clear mark of success, but this long-term goal alone is not sufficient. Be specific: ‘I will attend all four running practices a week, and a gym session every Saturday, so that I can achieve a personal best in six months.’ Putting it this way will allow you to create a more concrete plan to achieve your end-goal.

Measurable: In order for goals to be measurable, athletes must establish a baseline and a target (a finish) so that they can calculate their progress. For example, completing this year’s TransLantau100 by UTMB® under 24h is a measurable goal. Running two marathons a year, gaining seven pounds, making five saves in a game, are also clearly measurable.

Adjustable: Goals need to be flexible so that they can be adjusted when necessary. Some athletes experience anxiety when they are not able to achieve goals they have previously set. It is important to learn to be flexible and feel good about making changes.

Realistic: Goals should be achievable given various constraints. There is no point setting easy goals because one will become bored of meeting them very quickly. Conversely, goals that are too challenging will cause one to give up easily. Therefore, goals should be realistically challenging so that pursuing them will motivate you.

Time frame: An essential starting point of goal-setting is to start at the end.4 Setting a date and having a timeline throws one into action. Completing a full-marathon may seem like a dream, but setting a date can give you a clearer direction of what your short-term goals should be.

Psychological Goals

The purpose of goal-setting is not merely to improve your skills and technique, but also to enhance mental toughness. Some people may argue that they are doing everything to achieve their long-term goals by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable targets. However, goals like these are usually fitness- or skill-related. To go beyond that, we must also establish psychological goals to give ourselves that extra edge. Psychological goals are related to your attitude, confidence, and effort, and they can also follow the S.M.A.R.T. principles. A specific daily confidence- related goal during training could be to say something positive to yourself when you start feeling pain in your legs. If you come to think of it, it is also a measurable psychological goal, because you are able to count the number of times you state a positive phrase to yourself.

Sometimes, however, psychological goals are vague. For instance, one’s psychological goal might be to ‘enjoy practice, every time.’ However, enjoyment is a subjective feeling that is hard to measure. To make things easier, athletes can use a scale of 1-10 to rate their enjoyment levels. If your enjoyment level is at a 4 and you want to experience level 5, you can employ a psychological strategy to enhance your perception of your training (e.g., recalling a past enjoyable practice whenever you start having negative thoughts).

Positive Goals

Your goals should be stated in the positive tense. A negative goal would be, ‘I do not want to finish behind 500 at the New York Marathon.’ Not only is this an outcome goal that is out of your control, a negative goal creates an image that you do not want portrayed. Make sure that the goals you set are positive goals so that they create a positive frame of mind.

Effective Goal-Setting

Athletes who know how to define good goals not only set outcome goals but also performance and process objectives that can improve both their skills and motivation. Effective goal-setting also includes continual evaluation and re-setting of goals after each training period, season, or year. The physical act of writing down goals also makes them more tangible. So go grab a piece of paper, and start writing down some positive aspiration

Written by Karen Lo, Sport & Performance pshychologist from Inner Edge