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How to Help You and Your Athletes Set Better Goals

BY Phil White

Success comes from not only goal setting but using smart approaches to reinforce goals through smaller targets, past learnings and strong values.

We often talk about goal setting as a once-a-year (or even once-in-a-blue-moon) type of thing. But in fact, it is a skill that needs to be worked on regularly to be improved. In this article, I’ll share some tips from several sports psychologists that will enable you to improve your clients’ goal-setting as well as your own. 

Balancing Goals and Values

Goal setting is in many ways a future projection of where your athletes see themselves being at the end of the season, crossing the finish line in a certain race or beating a PR time over a set distance. All of these are examples of future targets that, in some cases, could be a long way off. That’s why sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow suggests that your clients continue targeting longer-term outcomes but also zero in on values that inform everyday actions. “Goals are all about what’s coming tomorrow, next month, or next race season,” Afremow said. “Sometimes, we can waver from them because they seem too distant. That’s where our behaviors and habits can be informed by core values that help us identify the most important things in our lives and then double down on our commitment to them.”

Another tip that Afremow shared was the power of writing out goals and referring to them often. He suggested that each of your athletes create two index cards. On the first, they should write three big, ambitious aims, like qualifying for the Boston Marathon or breaking the three-hour mark for 26.2 miles. Then on the second card, they should jot down three previous highlights in their sporting career that give them the confidence that their goals are obtainable. Ask each client to put their goal and confidence cards on their desk, their bathroom mirror, or in some other highly visible spot so that they can refer to them daily. This will create a link between goal setting and the self-efficacy needed to turn dreams into reality.

Uniting Previous History and Future Vision

Michael Gervais is best known as the host of the “Finding Mastery” podcast, but by trade, he is a sports psychologist who continues to work with athletes at every level, from pro to amateur. Gervais believes that before a competitor can start mapping out where they’re heading, they first need to trace where they’ve been and then see what clues this offers about potential future roadblocks. “If I use my experience, if I begin with a curiosity and an authentic discovery about what could be and what is getting in the way, [including] some of the history that has brought us to that point, then we can begin to unpack and unfold a potential strategy toward the vision of what could be,” Gervais said in an interview with Sean DeLaney on the “What Got You There” podcast. “It’s really looking at the vision, the history, the roadblocks, and obstacles, and then setting and mapping—through the discovery process—a strategy to move forward.”

Gervais has also stated that one of the keys to effective goal setting is to incorporate it into a broader vision for where your clients imagine themselves being at some point in the future. “What does your future look like?” he asked on an episode of the “Mark Divine Show.“What do you want it to look and feel like? Where are you going? What are you doing? You can call it a mission – we call it a vision because we want to talk about the imagination. Use your imagination, your pictures in your mind. Not in some flimsy way—there’s good science around this—but to imagine how you want to spend your life efforts.”

Learning to Love the Process and Targeting Small Daily Goals

In the generation of sports psychologists before Afremow and Gervais, Bob Rotella and Ken Ravizza set a high bar for athletes pursuing a performance mindset. “There’s a goal that I speak of often,” Rotella and J.D. Cuban wrote in an article for Golf Digest. “It’s called a ‘process goal.’ Success comes from patiently and persistently doing the right things over and over. Process goals are the ‘to-do lists’ of players striving for excellence. The process is what gives you a chance to find out how good you can be.”

In other words, encourage your clients to keep the larger outcome goal in mind while asking themselves, “What is important right now to get me closer to that intended outcome?” This is a moving target and will differ during the competitive calendar from the offseason. Pursuing process goals requires a high level of self-awareness and consistency of small actions that will compound into significant progressions if your athletes can keep patiently chipping away at their training.

Ravizza believed that establishing and pursuing goals shouldn’t be an isolated process for athletes alone, but rather a vehicle to improve coach-athlete communication. “Ask the athlete what he is working on today,” he told Brian Cain in a discussion about formulating a high-performance mindset. “By asking that question, you get to find out what the athlete is thinking about.” Ravizza went on to emphasize the importance of using every day as an opportunity to set small milestone goals. “When I step onto that practice field, what am I working on today?” he asked.

There is no precise science to goal setting, and it’s arguably more of an art. Just as focusing on the breath can be calming regardless of the inhale-exhale cadence, so too can the act of focusing on setting and striving for goals become a galvanizing force with your clients no matter the challenge. Using the tips above is a solid starting point that they can progress from as they begin to achieve their aims and find what works best for them in setting new targets to aim for.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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