The Action Part of Goal Setting – An Athletic Perspective

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Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics

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Recently, I received an email from an athlete looking for resources to guide him in the “how” of mental strength training. He indicated that he knows a little about the various mental strength skills and the importance of them, but has trouble actually performing the techniques.

This echoes comments I’ve heard from a numerous coaches and athletes.  It also confirms the opinion of many athletes – mental strength/mental training /sport psychology concepts are fairly easy to understand (concentration, self-confidence, goal setting, or motivation) – but these same concepts are tough to learn and difficult to put into practice.

Think for a minute about a wide receiver in football who yells at himself after dropping a critical pass in the end zone to “C’mon…focus…before your blow this game.” Can this athlete, who says he knows about focusing and the importance of keeping his mind in the game, effectively implement a refocusing strategy in the middle of a playoff game? He knows that he should, but can he?

The same could be said for a sales person in the middle of a negotiation.  He/she may be so concerned in making the sale that they lose their mental edge.  Sure, when the deal is done…or not, they can look back and realize what happened, but in the middle of battle…not so much.

Ask yourself this…”Have I learned and developed my mental training enough for my success, or does the wide receiver example have some truth in it for me?”

One of my goals on my post is to address the action part of the mental training and less on the “knowing” part.  Oh yea, did you know that the three deadliest words a person a can say, “I know that.”  We’ll get into how to apply specific mental strength skills in to action so that you’ll be prepared and ready to reach your peak performance.

Let us begin this session with the skill of goal setting. Yea, yea, yea…I can hear you already…not another session on goal setting.  So, let me ask you, if you’re really good at goal setting can you tell me exactly what do you want, how will you know you have it, all the steps necessary to archive it and what’s stopping you from getting it?

Didn’t think so…and that’s OK. I’m here to help you.

You see, most athletes already set goals…kind of…so the challenge is not in setting goals. Rather, the challenge is in setting the correct goals that will influence behavior and achieve your personal goal, that is, in setting effective goals. To do this, we’ll apply scientifically-derived goal setting principles. Research on goals tells us that the following factors consistently enhance the effectiveness of goal setting (1):

  • Goals should be specific (versus • general or “do your best” types of goals)
  • Goals should be moderately difficult so as to challenge
  • Short- and long-term goals should be set
  • Goals that relate to both outcome (e.g., Win, achieve a specific time) and the process of performance (“explode out of the blocks”) are important, but performance goals are controllable
  • Set goals in practice and competition
  • Goals need to be recorded and evaluated

That seems like a lot of things to think about and incorporate and there’s a simple acronym that will help in setting goals: SMARTER

S = Specific (and keep it simple and positive)

M = Measurable (it must be meaningful to you)

A = Achievable (is this something you CAN do?)

R = Realistic (is this goal really reasonable taking into account all areas of your life)

T = Time bound (when are you going achieve this goal)

E = Evaluate (document your results, are you making progress towards your goal?)

R= Revise (if you’re not making progress, or not in the time frame revise your goal or your actions in obtaining it)

The following exercise is one way of how to “do” goal setting effectively. Keep in mind that there is no best way to do this, but there probably is a best or certainly way that is better for you. Your job is to adapt it to your unique situation.

While you will read quickly through the following section, it is meant for you to come back to when you have time and can really put some thought into your responses.

1. Write down your season goal.

Notice the first word—WRITE. Commit this to paper to make it “real” and also enable you to honestly evaluate this and ensuing goals. Is your goal challenging yet realistic for you to accomplish with hard work and dedication? Is it positive?  That is, is it’s something you want instead of something you DON’T want. If you are like most athletes, you did not hesitate in knowing your long term goal.  But are your daily, weekly and monthly goals written down too? By writing down the subsequent “short” term goals and achieving them you’ll automatically achieve your long term goal and hit your peak personal performance.

2. Identify the primary skills and abilities you have and will need to achieve this goal.

Your long-term goal may be to win State or qualify for Nationals, but what is needed to accomplish this? Many athletes and coaches only focus on what’s missing.  This tends to unconsciously emphasize that the athlete is not good enough.  There will ALWAYS be room for improvement and to focus only on those areas can create doubt in the athlete.

Make list (yes another list) of all the qualities you possess in relation to your goal.  Keep adding to this list and read it everyday.  If you don’t think you have any ask a teammate, a coach or a fan.  They’ll be able to give you a ton!

Now on to the areas of improvement…some skills and abilities you may need could include developing greater strength, increasing flexibility, improving a specific aspect of technique or enhancing our emotional control during games.

List, specifically, the things you can and need to do to develop these skills and abilities. For example, suppose you need to develop core strength if you are to achieve your goal of running a sub-11 seconds 100 meters. You will need to identify the specific core exercises and proper progressions to develop this strength. It may be helpful to solicit input from your coach as to specific skills and abilities that will lead to long-term development and success.

4. Based on this goal breakdown, identify one thing you are going to work on today to help you reach your long-term goal. Then, do the same tomorrow and the next day.

Is the goal for practice specific enough such that you (or your coach) will know if you accomplish it? While your daily goal may seem far removed from where you want to be at the end of the season, it is a necessary step to get there.

Goals, when set effectively, can provide direction, enhance training motivation, and build confidence as you see success and improvement (that may otherwise go unnoticed). OK, now it’s time for you to get to work on the “doing” of setting goals.


  1. Weinberg, R. & Gould, D. (2007). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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