Goal Setting for the Modern Athlete
Everyone that plays a sport does it for their own reasons. Some people want to stay active, some embrace the social aspect of a sport, some take up a sport as part of a weight loss plan, and some people are just in it to win it.
No matter why you play, in order to get what you want out of your sport of choice, you need to set goals. Athletes who use goal setting as a part of their toolbox give themselves a mental push to do their best as well as a clear method by which they can measure their progress.
Athletic goals can range from carrying the focus of your last practice into your next game to a long term goal such as your final ranking at the end of your league’s season.
But not all goals are helpful. They can be poorly worded, involve something that you don’t actually have full control over, or be totally unrealistic. When you go to set your long-term and short-term goals, keep these tips in mind.
Types of Athletic Goals
In order to set goals effectively, you need to know the three categories that all athletes’ goals fall into. No matter the sport, no matter the season, whether looking at individual or sports team goals, these three categories cover them all.
Those categories are outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals. Each type of goal serves a valuable purpose, but it’s important that you understand how each kind of goal works on its own and with the others.
Outcome goals are the goals you have for the end of a season or tournament. Typically, these goals are set in the preseason or heading into a tournament. To ensure these goals are effective, you need to assess your skill set and what you know of your competition realistically.
For example, if you have never played in a racquetball tournament before and the rest of the field has some experience, setting an outcome goal of winning the tournament isn’t a reasonable, realistic approach. Consider setting the goal of finishing in the top 50% or the top 75%, depending on how well your practice sessions have been going.
Performance goals are about setting benchmarks to measure your improvement in your sport of choice. When you think about runners keeping track of their personal best times and trying to beat those times, you get a sense of what a performance goal is.
Performance goals for athletes are great because they help athletes track their improvement. It’s so easy to ignore how much better you’ve become at something if you don’t have a way to measure progress. This is true in athletics and in life. Many people will downplay their abilities or allow their personal doubts to hold sway over them—quantifiable performance goals give evidence to yourself to help crush that kind of negative self-talk.
Process goals are actually the most important goals for an athlete. This is because these are goals related to improving different parts of a game. Process goals are the only kinds of goals that an athlete can actually work on directly.
For example, a new racquetball player may set a process goal related to improving their footwork. They can focus on footwork drills and transitioning from side steps into their forehand and backhand lunges in training. That training will then affect their performance goals which will affect their outcome goals.
Timing is Everything
You may have noticed that the above example of a process goal was a goal that could be worked on during practice sessions. That’s because your outcome goals and performance goals can only be achieved through your work on your process goals—work which happens in training.
That is the heart of goal oriented training. Set process goals and use those to strengthen your abilities so that your performances on game day are improved, and your outcome goals become realities.
Smart goals for training and development have a few things in common. They focus on achievable, quantifiable results, they can be accomplished with a plan of action, and they have a time frame.
An endurance athlete may set a goal to cover a certain distance before taking their first rest of the practice session. A racquetball player may set a goal to consistently hit a target with their Z-serve—if they give themselves ten practice serves, they hit their target seven times, for example.
But there must be a time frame. Whether your goal is to hit a benchmark by the end of a week of training or to accomplish something within that day’s practice, you must have a deadline. When you hit your deadline, you can evaluate whether you hit your goal or not. If you did, you could set new short term goals for athletic trainers sessions. If not, you can examine what happened and aim to accomplish the goal within your next set time frame.
Without a set end point, goals get nebulous. If you have an idea for something you want to accomplish on the court, but you don’t set a deadline as part of your plan of action, it becomes easy to push your work on that aspect of your game down the road. It becomes a priority for the next practice, then the next, then the next.
We’ve all done this in one aspect of our lives or another. Smart goals training helps us break out of the bear trap of procrastination by using concrete, actionable goals with a start and end point instead of ethereal, nebulous goals that slip through our fingers like wisps of fog.
It is All Connected
The danger that can come with athletic training goals is that the athlete focuses on one single goal in every practice to the detriment of the rest of their exercise and training routine. Even when you aren’t working out on the court or track or field, those workouts are connected to what you want to accomplish.
Take racquetball as the athlete’s primary sport. It’s a game that works out a player’s entire body. It requires strength, stamina, flexibility, agility, and more. But if you only exercise in on-court practices, it will take you longer to achieve your goals, and you may lose ground due to injury.
By adding variety to your exercise routine, you improve the physical tools you are using to attain your athletic goals. Yoga classes, strength training, jogging, walking—Every one of these activities can contribute to your in-game success and resistance to the wear and tear that any sport can bring.
And by setting and hitting process goals that you develop for your off-court workouts, you contribute to your progress toward your on-court performance and outcome goals.
An Achievement Mindset
There is a major mental aspect to a goal sports performance training approach. You need to be prepared to not reach your goals. Not hitting a benchmark you’ve set within your initial time frame does not mean you’ve failed—it is an opportunity to re-examine your approach and try again.
Humans often learn their best lessons through failure. But we are often made to feel as though anything less than perfection is garbage. If you’ve ever had a coach that said, “second place is just the first loser,” you probably know that feeling all too well.
But an athlete’s goals aren’t meant to determine their worth in their sport or in their life. They are intended to help the athlete play their best and feel their best. For an athlete to have an achievement mindset, they should not focus on wins and losses, but successes and the opportunities for further success that the goals they have yet to reach offer them.
Play How You Practice
We could list examples of smart goals for athletes all day, but your goals will be specific to your needs. A player who has been in the game for ten years will have different goals than someone that just started playing. A serious competitor will have different goals than a hobbyist.
It’s up to you how you use your goals in training to affect your in-game results. But as long as you remember the differences between outcome, performance, and process goals, focus on setting goals that have a set time frame with attainable, actionable results, and keep a healthy perspective on what success and failure means in this context, your goals will serve you well.
Mental goals for athletes are incredible tools for improvement. A healthy achievement mindset and a desire to get better and keep your body in great shape will serve you well. And you may find that your athletic goals positively influence how you go about your daily life.
You might find yourself breaking down tasks at work to outcome, performance, and process goals. And you might find that you like it that way.