Goal-setting is one of the most common exercises for athletes, at both junior and senior level. Whether it’s qualifying for the county championships or winning an Olympic medal, the majority of athletes will have aspirations and objectives for the season ahead. Goals are important because they give us long-term vision and short-term motivation but goal-setting can be one of the most misunderstand practises in sport.

Many people believe that setting a goal to achieve an ambitious dream, and then working hard, is all it takes to achieve the vision. They believe that the difference between those who eventually make it and those fall short is a matter of luck, timing or inherent talent. This blog aims to dispel some of the outdated goal-setting practises that are common in sport and give parents the skills to help their young athletes set goals that are both ambitious, realistic, and most importantly, achievable.

Most traditional goals focus on outcomes

“I want to get a personal best time”.

“I want to win the race”.

“I want to get selected for the team”.

“I want to break the world record”.

“I want to progress from a junior level to a senior level”.

It’s easy to focus on outcomes. We feel excited when we think about the possible results of a race, and it’s easy to visualise how it will feel to climb onto the top of the podium. Thinking about desirable outcomes makes us feel inspired and motivated, and that’s not a bad thing. But there are a few problems with setting goals that are solely focused on outcome.

It doesn’t give you tangible things to work on every day

It’s great to have big dreams but just dreaming of winning an Olympic medal isn’t that helpful on a day to day basis. If your only goal is a medal/time/distance/qualification, then what does that mean when you go into a training session? How will you know if you’re on track? Sometimes you’ll be tired and give a sub-standard performance, does that mean you’re not going to achieve your goal? If you have only outcome-focused goals for the season, then it’s very hard to apply yourself to daily tasks with any real direction.

You have very little control over outcomes—results aren’t guaranteed

I once achieved a huge goal of mine—I looked up at the scoreboard to realise I’d broken a world record. Unfortunately for me, someone else in the race beat me, so of course the record went against her name! In most sports you can’t control the performance of others. That means you could produce a lifetime best, smash your expectations, run faster than you thought possible or throw further than you’d dreamed, and still miss out on the final or the podium. When it comes to goal-setting, having targets that are reliant on the performance of others is a bad idea.

Progress is difficult to measure

Unless you have the good fortune to have a statistician or sports scientist working with you (which most young athletes don’t), it’s very hard to measure your progress towards an outcome related goal. There are often many weeks of training that lead up to a race, or a competition season, so who decides whether you’re on track or not? If your goal is to win a race at the end of the season then, unless you have a method of monitoring all your competitors all the time, it’s very difficult to know where you stand!

It’s difficult to maintain momentum when things get tough

It’s great to feel inspired by the thought of winning that race at the end of the season, but if that is your only goal then it can be easy to become reliant on seeing proof of progress to maintain momentum and motivation through the hard training weeks. Sometimes you will see fast training times and you’ll know you’re on track, but the reality is that most of training is a little rough around the edges—that’s the point of training! If you’re relying, each day, on seeing proof that you’re on track to achieve your goal, then you’re going to find it hard to push through the difficult days. This is when it’s common for young athletes to give up—not because they’re weak or can’t do the hard work, but because they lose motivation when they stop receiving feedback that lets them know they’re on track for success.

It’s hard to see anything other than a black and white result

Most goals aren’t achieved, at least not the first time around. If your only goal was a certain outcome, and you don’t achieve it, then it’s easy to feel like you’ve failed. This in itself can deter some youngsters from trying again or, in even more extreme cases, can prevent young athletes from setting any goals at all, as the fear of perceived failure can be so great.

Olympic athletes don’t see proof every day that they’re on track to win a medal or break a world record—lots of high-level training is tired, heavy and slow. And yet elite athletes still seem to be able to motivate themselves through endless weeks of gruelling sessions and hard work. How do they do it?

Process is everything

Focusing on processes is the key to setting and achieving goals. “Follow the process”, is a phrase commonly used by coaches and players, but what does it really mean to focus on the process, and why is it a more sustainable and proactive way to set goals?

What are process goals?

With any goal, there will be a process involved in getting there. The idea behind process goals is that if you commit time and effort into mastering the skills that go into a performance, then you are more likely to achieve the desired outcome anyway. This could mean working on technical skills, tactical objectives, or behaviours, attitude and effort. The point of a process goal is usually not to achieve a specified position or medal, but to do everything possible to deliver your best performance on the day.

“Master the process and the results will follow”.

Why do process goals work?

You’re in complete control

Process goals are all about your actions and application. If you go into a race with the sole objective of winning, then you immediately remove yourself from the driving seat. What happens if the person next to you breaks the world record? Your performance suddenly doesn’t seem so great. Focusing on race execution, attitude and effort puts an athlete in complete control of their performance. It also helps them stay logical when pre-competition nerves kick in, because race tactics and technical application are a series of practised actions that they have direct autonomy over.

You can break processes down into small, achievable, daily actions

Want to be the best swimmer in the world? It starts tomorrow morning with your application to your training session, your attitude towards your team mates and your interaction with your coach. It involves being smart with nutrition, developing psychological resilience and tactical experience. It comes down to taking ownership of the choices you’re making on a day to day basis. It doesn’t mean just writing down on a piece of paper that you want to be the best swimmer in the world, and then hoping for the best. The process is the set of steps that will create the outcome.

It’s easy to assess progress and adjust where necessary

When you’ve broken a goal down into actionable steps, it’s much easier to assess where you are at any given point. Although we’d all like our trajectory of success to be linear, the reality is that it it’s usually indirect, filled with the ups and downs of sport. Focusing only on an outcome means judging yourself constantly on results and where you are in relation to the end goal. Focusing on processes means acknowledging that a season spent developing technical skills and tactical knowledge followed by a poor competition performance is probably more valuable in the long-term than a great one-off performance without the prior learning and development.

Small wins lead to momentum retention

Human beings rely on dopamine (the feel-good hormone). Our desire for a dopamine ‘hit’ drives pretty much everything we do, from grabbing a burger, to online shopping, to checking our Instagram likes. We also get a release of dopamine when we master a new skill, win a race, or perform well in training. If you only have an outcome-focused goal, then you’ll be looking for proof of progress every day in training in order to get your feel-good hormones and maintain motivation. The reality is that most days you won’t see this proof of progress, and therefore will often miss out on that important dopamine release. If, on the other hand, you have many small process driven goals, then you get regular feel-good feedback as you apply yourself to skill development and development focuses.

Failures become wins

When your goals relate to the execution of a performance (rather than the direct outcome) then it’s easier to find positives from the days that, on paper, didn’t seem to go so well. Didn’t run a personal best time, but executed a solid race plan? That’s a positive. Missed out on a team selection but learnt about the tactics of progressing from heats to semis to finals? That’s a great result. Didn’t make the podium but tried a new technique for the first time in competition and now have a new plan for next season? That’s a huge step forward in learning.

Balance is key

Outcomes shouldn’t be completely ignored—having a results-focused aspiration can give us motivation to get out of bed for early-morning training or push through that last rep in a hard session. So, acknowledge and embrace the thought of stepping on that podium, or breaking that record, but make sure that goal-setting isn’t entirely focused on times, distances, positions and records. High-performance may be measured by outcomes but it is underpinned by robust processes.

This notion of balancing process and outcome is important for youngsters in other areas of life too. For example, the education system is based on exam results, grades and judgements of ‘performance’, and there is usually more significance placed on the end result than on the steps towards achieving the result. However, some of the most important things learnt in school are not graded or monitored—communication, innovation, emotional intelligence, team work, creativity, social skills and application to tasks, to name a few. Try not to get too caught up in grades and results; instead encourage holistic development by prioritising the process, learning from the outcomes (positive and negative), and allowing young people to take ownership of their choices and attitude.

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