Goal-setting can be an important part of any athlete’s training plan, whether their goal is to improve their physical skills, mental skills, or just get more enjoyment out of their sport. Setting goals can help athletes focus on what’s most important, increase their effort and motivation to stick with their plan, consider new strategies regarding how to accomplish their goals and help them track their progress. As anyone who has ever set a New Year’s resolution knows, however, setting goals is easy; reaching goals is tough.
“Research shows that about 50% of people who begin an exercise program discontinue it within six months.”
There are at least three problems that make effective goal-setting difficult for athletes. First, and perhaps most importantly, few athletes know how to set the right kind of goals. Many well-intentioned people mistakenly set outcome goals (more about this later). Because they don’t know how to set effective goals, they end up abandoning them in frustration after a short time. Second, goal-setting isn’t very exciting. Most athletes are eager to learn mental skills that are seen as more interesting, like imagery training, for instance. Third, many people think goal-setting procedures take too much time. Let’s take a look at these problems more closely and outline some strategies for how to deal with them.
Problem 1 – The wrong kind of goals are frequently set:
One of the most common mistakes in goal-setting is creating too many goals about how you perform compare to others. Attaining goals like winning a competition or beating a rival depend, not only on your performance, but also on the performance of others. Goals that depend on how you compare to others are called outcome goals. Outcome goals can be motivating, but relying solely on them can make it difficult for you to get motivated in the short-term, especially if your outcome goal is so far in the future that it doesn’t create the sense of urgency that can help you get up early on a cold winter morning to train. Relying solely on outcome goals, (for example, finishing first in an important competition), can also leave you frustrated if another competitor happens to have the competition of their life.
Problem 2 – Goals setting is often considered boring
I would go as far as to say that creating an effective goal-setting plan may give you the biggest performance bang for your buck of any mental skills technique. Research done specifically on goal-setting and athletic performance shows a significant effect. Most elite athletes see goal-setting as an important part of their performance-enhancement plan. For example, a survey of over 300 Olympic athletes found that every one of them practiced some type of goal setting to help enhance performance, and proven to highly effective in actually enhancing their performance. Additionally, a survey of 44 sport psychology consultants who work with Olympic athletes indicated that goal-setting was their most frequently used intervention strategy. The bottom line: Goal-setting may not be exciting, but it is, without a doubt, extremely effective.
Problem 3 – Setting goals is often considered time consuming (or worse – not necessary)
At least in the beginning, setting goals does take some time. Creating any new habit takes time. Thinking, writing, sharing, deciding, planning can all take time! However, once you have put in the initial investment, goal-setting pays off and actually saves you time because it helps you stay focused and motivated. If you have set effective goals, your training time will be spent more efficiently because you will spend it involved in the kinds of activities that will be most helpful to you to attain your goals. The time it takes to set effective goals is more than made up for by the efficiency they will bring to your training program.