Not a single athlete exists who isn’t intimately familiar with the term goal setting. It’s become stale in many athletic circles.“Work hard to achieve your goals!” “Dream big, and reach for the stars!” “If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything!” This type of motivational language surrounding goal setting sounds valid; after all, it sounds like something that should be splashed in big letters across the wall of a high school locker room.
But limiting our comprehension of setting goals to a few attractive inspirational quotes doesn’t get us far at all.
It becomes important – for the athlete, the ironman, the zumba class participant, the working professional – to understand the science behind goal setting. Psychological research shows us that successfully reaching goals is more likely if a few key habits are present.
- Regular writing, or journaling, about the goal setting process is a hugely effective component. This can include pre- or post-competition evaluation sheets along with personal writings in a composition notebook. Within their writings, players should reflect back on their attempts to reach goals, identifying what worked and what did not in their techniques. Some athletes avoid confronting failure (“whatever, let’s forget about this one and move on”) and, perhaps more surprisingly, avoid confronting success, too (“what a game! I guess I’ve got it all figured out, no need to go back to the drawing board”). Those who don’t treat failure or success as a way to learn are stripped of their ability to grow and develop. Find the courage to stare your performance in the face, and write about it.
- The athlete should have immediate informative feedback from knowledgeable sources (e.g., coaches, trainers). In our pursuit of high performance, it’s inevitable that occasionally aspects of our game –technique, tactics, physical health, mental health – will falter, albeit momentarily. Having an expert providing instant feedback on your “hiccups” so you may make adjustments in the moment – or on your progress so you may reinforce certain habits and instill confidence – is a powerful luxury. The feedback needn’t be lengthy or verbose, just continuous and informative. If a goal of yours is to achieve and maintain a certain position in your evening beginner yoga class, having a seasoned instructor provide frequent tips when you’re off track and frequent tips to let you know when you’ve gotten back on track helps.
- More on writing. Progress and improvements – even the littlest of improvements – should be recorded in writing, and the athlete should reflect on strategies that worked previously. The act of looking back at one’s writings can lead athletes to consider their attempts in different ways and give them a motivational boost in self-esteem and confidence. This is preferred over relying strictly on memory, which is often inaccurate and misleading over time. Many athletes, when considering their own history of recording progress, realize that much of their attention is usually spent recording (mentally, at least) their misses, failures, and mistakes. Give yourself permission to look for the good.
- Mini-goals – in other words, an improvement ladder or staircase – should be created that lead up to the larger goal. Just as important as asking yourself “Where am I now?” and “Where am I going?” is “How will I get there?” Identify a few manageable, realistic steps that will get you closer to the top step. Few of us can reach the top step in our house from the bottom in a single bound. The act of setting smaller goals and achieving them strengthens our motivation to then set more challenging goals.
Ultimately, to reach goals requires learning, and creating an environment most conducive to optimal learning. Research suggests that the way you practice is just as important as how often you practice when it comes to learning quickly. Psychological data from one recent study on online gaming reveals that those people who seem to learn more quickly have regular, spaced-out practice time (that is, they don’t “cram” practice into short periods) and have more variable early performance (they explore how the game works and experiment with different styles before committing to rigorous, repetitive practice).
This suggests that learning can be improved, which enhances our likelihood of reaching our goals. Consider ways in (or on) your own field in which the above findings could be useful in your own quest for growth.