In Pursuit of Excellence: Goal Setting
By Aimee C. Kimball, PhD
Every athlete has a goal. Whether it’s to win races, achieve a personal best, or simply make it through a grueling practice, the goals we set undoubtedly exert influence on our performance.
However, there’s a lot more to goal setting than just stating what it is you ultimately want to achieve.
To get the motivational support and performance boost that goals can provide, athletes must set goals systematically and have various types of goals.
This article will lead you through steps for setting goals to enhance your performance, satisfaction, and quality of practice. While this article is geared to your sports-related goals, the same steps can and should be used to set goals for all areas of your life.
Step 1: Know Where You Are Headed
Five years from now, what do you want to be doing? One year from now? At the end of this season, what do you want to have achieved?
All of these long-term goals are important to write down because they give you something to commit to.
It's also important to identify why you want to achieve these goals. This “why” should be something that is valuable to you more than it is to others.
Once you identify your goals, close your eyes and picture yourself achieving them. Try to experience the feelings you expect to have when you achieve these goals.
- On a weekly basis, reexamine your end-of-season goal. It’s okay if you need to adjust it and make it more challenging or more realistic. Make sure you keep your season goal in mind as you practice, so you're aware that what you do today connects you to what you want to achieve in the future.
- At the end of each season, revisit your yearly goal.
- At least once a month, imagine yourself achieving your five-year goal.
Step 2: Know How to Get There
Ever get lost going somewhere? If you have, you probably knew where you were supposed to end up, but you didn’t have an accurate map of how to get there.
Having a path to your long-term goals is extremely important, because what you want to achieve weeks, months, or years from now can only happen if you make progress towards your longer-term goals every day.
“What can I do today to get myself one step closer to where I want to be?”
Make sure you always have a short-term, specific goal you are working on.
Whether it’s a technique goal, a mental goal, or a nutritional goal, keep focused on your daily and weekly objectives so you can give yourself the best chance to reach your ultimate goals.
Step 3: Identify Milestones of Success
Having intermediate markers of success can help enhance motivation.
Some examples include:
- Setting a personal record
- Qualifying for a specific event
- Mastering a fundamental skill
These markers or milestones:
- Serve as points on your goal route that are important to you and are achievements you will be proud of.
- Provide set standards so you know you are progressing along your goal path.
- Let you know that your hard work is paying off.
- Give you confidence, encouragement, and enhance your commitment.
Step 4: Identify Obstacles
Reaching long-term goals is a very challenging process and there are a lot of uncontrollable factors that may keep you from reaching these goals.
Look at your long-term and short-term goals and identify obstacles that may prevent you from reaching these goals, such as:
- Strength of the competition
If you list an obstacle you can’t control, cross it off your list (if you don’t control it, don’t worry about it). If it is something you can control, make a plan for dealing with it when it comes up.
By identifying obstacles and being prepared to overcome them, you are helping to ensure obstacles do not become excuses.
Step 5: Create a System
Everyone is a little bit different in how they set goals.
Some set daily goals, while others focus on what they want to accomplish on a monthly basis.
Create a system that you can stick to that allows you to:
- Set specific, challenging goals.
- Measure progress towards these goals.
- Gain motivation and encouragement from your goals.
- Focus on these goals every practice.
I suggest setting, at minimum, weekly goals.
Maybe every Sunday:
- Write down three specific things you want to improve on.
- Share these goals with coaches, parents, and/or teammates so you have someone to hold you accountable and recognize when you achieve your goals.
- Review your goals each day before practice. Remind yourself what you are working on and how this week’s goals connect to your goals for the season.
- Assess whether or not you achieved your goals at the end of the week.
If you didn’t accomplish what you set out to do, make sure you honestly figure out why you fell short and try to control what you can in the future.
If you did achieve even some of your goals, take a moment to reward yourself and feel proud that your hard work paid off.
Step 6: Set Different Types of Goals
One of the biggest mistakes athletes make is setting goals focused only on the results of competition.
While these outcome-oriented goals are important, they are often out of your control. Therefore, it's essential to set process and performance goals as well.
Types of goals
- Process goals — fundamentals totally under your control (technique, attitude)
- Performance goals — “statistics” based on individual improvement (drop time, assists)
- Outcome goals — focus is on comparisons to others (winning, being the best)
Process » Performance » Outcome
Ultimately, you want to focus on your process goals since the more fundamentals you master, the more likely you are to reach your performance goals:
good technique + good mentality = better time
When you reach your performance goals, you give yourself a better chance of achieving your outcome goals (you don’t control if you win, you only control if you do your best).
By focusing on the process and what you control, you are trusting that the way you perform will lead to the outcome you want.
The Importance of Goal-Setting
Whether you are 14 or 41, goals are vital in:
- Providing direction
- Creating motivation
- Enhancing commitment
Some people shy away from setting goals because they are afraid of being disappointed if they fall short. Other athletes only set goals for competition or for their careers.
It's important not to see goals as the ultimate indication of success or failure; rather, they provide you with guidance so that you can stretch your abilities as far as possible.
Very few people achieve every goal they set; therefore it's the progress you make towards these goals and the effort you exert in their pursuit that determine your success. If, every day, you get a little bit closer to where you want to be, consider that to be a successful day.
Goal-setting Exercise (MS Word): Use this worksheet to help you set short- and long-term goals.
About Aimee C. Kimball, PhD
Dr. Kimball is director of mental training for UPMC Sports Medicine. She works with athletes, coaches, and parents to help them achieve success in sports and life.
Learn more about the mental training program at UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. Or, contact Dr. Kimball at email@example.com or 412-432-3777.