Goal Setting 101, with a Caveman's Perspective
By Ian Stokell
When most people think of goal setting they usually conjure up memories of over-enthusiastic commitments to New Year's Resolutions, followed promptly by weeks of frustration, and then guilt as those good intentions, like every January's good intentions, fall by the wayside.
There is, however, a simple answer to why 99 percent of New Year's Resolutions go unfulfilled. And it's not a lack of desire to change behavior.
In actuality, most New Year Resolutions are either too vague, or they are only long term goals. But the bottom line is, most people have no idea what it takes to achieve a long term goal.
As a result, people either pick goals that are too easily achieved - leading to easy completion and little behavioral change, which inevitably means a slide back to a pre-resolution lifestyle - or they pick goals that are too difficult to achieve without help - leading to frustration and abandonment of the resolution.
That's no different from goal-setting within athletics.
For athletes, performance does not improve by focusing only on long-term goals.
Goal setting is a proven way of changing behavior, providing the right goals are set, and an effective program to reach those goals is implemented. Any program of improvement needs short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. And they in turn need to include mainly performance and process goals, and not just outcome goals.
What's the difference? Outcome goals usually focus on the result of a competitive event - for example, winning the state championship. Performance goals focus on personal standards and individual performances, such as bettering a personal best time at the mile. Process goals are actions an individual must achieve on the way to accomplishing those goals - they focus on what an individual must do to perform well, such as implementing good technique.
For the most part, performance goals are better than outcome goals, even though the latter has its uses as a motivational tool away from direct competition.
What's the point of setting goals? Essentially, there are two reasons: motivation and providing a direction for athletic training. But take care - the wrong direction can be as damaging as no direction at all!
That said though, any program should aim for a balance between all three - performance, process, and outcome goals.
Goals need to be reasonably difficult, realistically attainable with extra effort, and specific. Goals that are too vague - "I'm going to improve my running" - do little to change behavior, which is a fundamental purpose of goal setting, and do not lead to improved performance.
Concerning outcome goals, the best way to beat an opponent is to concentrate on performance and process goals, because those are what an athlete can control.
Having fun is often a high priority for athletes when setting goals. Indeed, surveys show that "having fun" is among the top priorities for goal setters, along with improving performance. Fun though, tends to take a backseat for many serious athletes.
Not so for three-time XTERRA world champion Conrad "The Caveman" Stoltz, who took time out from his pre-season training to talk to me about goal-setting.
"Few serious athletes would list 'having fun' as a goal, but I truly believe having fun in training and racing is key," he told me. "Your first goal should be to enjoy the sport to the extent where you get so emerged in the 'do' process (training, racing, living) that the outcome should be a bonus."
Added The Caveman about winning, "Sure, if your results put the potatoes on the table, your placing gets quite important. But as soon as 'winning' gets more important than 'enjoying' and 'chasing your dream', you are fighting a losing battle. Athletes that 'hate' their sport because of too much pressure - the most common reason - won't be winning for long."
Outcome goals should, for the most part, be avoided. Increased anxiety and lower self-confidence in the heat of competition are common for athletes who emphasize outcome goals.
Why? Conrad Stoltz answered that one best when he told me, "My goal is not 'to win every XTERRA I do this year.' That would stack so much pressure on my shoulders, I would drown for sure. It also raises all those "what ifs". What if Lance (were) to really tackle XTERRA, like he said he would? What other people do is almost completely out of your control - although there is always intimidation - so worrying about what other people do will surely keep your mind off your dreams and goals."
In contrast, athletes that set performance goals, for the most part, experience the opposite to those who set outcome goals. They have less anxiety and increased self-confidence because, like The Caveman says, their own goals are not dependent on another person's performance or actions. It is their own actions that dictate the success of their own performance goals.
Goal setting is all about changing behavior. And the best way to change behavior is to set specific goals, not vague, indefinable ones. Additionally, research has shown that those goals that work best have moderately difficult, but realistic, targets: not enough effort, and the athlete will become bored and lose interest, but too much difficulty and they will become frustrated, which will lead directly to poor performance. A spiraling circle of confidence loss.
Many people associate goal setting with competition. But a key to behavior change and increased performance is to set practice goals as well as competition goals. After all, an athlete spends far more time practicing than they do competing.
But practice is practice, right? Practice makes perfect doesn't it? No! Practicing with bad technique does not make good technique. It makes a more ingrained bad technique that can take years to rectify.
As The Caveman said, "Whether it is swimming, biking or running, if my form is not 100 percent, I fix it. If I'm too tired to train with proper form, I go home. Admittedly, with running, it is hard to have good form every step of every day, but it is about the goal."
So practice goals are important. What is needed much of the time is goals set to ensure a quality practice. That said though, even a Caveman eases up on the throttle during the off-season. And it requires focus to get back on track.
Said Stoltz, "We have a saying: 'Hokus Pokus, keep the focus.' After a long, long off-season of very little serious training, I need to really focus on training well for a solid training block of 6-8 weeks. Less stopping on the Franschoek long ride for cappuccino and carrot cake, and more getting up and tackling the day's training with passion and enthusiasm."
Another key element for successful goal setting is for the athlete to record their goals, once they have been set, and to place them where they can be seen. Not simply put them in a folder or draw and forgetting they are there.
In addition, monitoring progress towards the goal is often as important as the goal setting itself. For many that is a main reason why they have a regular athletic coach or fitness expert to help with their program. They need someone, not just for them to be accountable to, but also to have that third party on hand to evaluate their progress and adjust the goals if necessary. Flexibility in any program is an important element of success.
Athletes need to be realistic in the application of any goal-setting program, not just in the choosing of the goals themselves. For example, if you're not a morning person don't schedule your workouts at 6am before you go to work. You're going to find it doubly hard to motivate yourself that early in the morning and you're not going to have a good time or feel good about the program.
Finding out if you're a high achiever or a low achiever will also help when setting goals. While high achievers have no problem accepting difficult but realistic goals to pursue, low achievers, with low self-confidence, will mostly gravitate towards either less challenging goals that are easily obtained or very difficult goals.
The most successful goal achievers are those that have the support of their family or a coach, and those that seek feedback for their efforts. For anyone that doesn't have a third party to provide feedback they may have to rely on keeping a concise training log and being objective with their evaluation of its progress.
The bottom line in motivation and goal setting is the love of the sport.
Concluded Schultz, "I think one has to be passionate about whatever it is you do. If you are then you'll probably do well at it, and of course you'll also enjoy yourself."
Tips to remember when goal-setting:
1) Set specific goals - they need to be reasonably difficult but realistic, requiring the athlete to put in extra effort to achieve them.
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