Goal Setting Basics

03 May

“Without goals, you are like a ship without a rudder – heading in no particular direction.” -Roy Williams, Head Men’s Basketball Coach, University of North Carolina

We all know about the importance of goal setting and, to some extent, we all set them from time to time. But, guess what, not all goals are created equal. There are many types of goals, and some are more effective than others. Furthermore, certain types of goals may be more beneficial in some situations while others lead to more positive results in others. Sport psychologist Dr. Damon Burton, in his book “Sport Psychology for Coaches,” outlines the different types of goals one can set. At the risk of greatly oversimplifying Burton’s work, below is a summary of two basic goal types:

Outcome Goals

These are the goals you’d absolutely love to accomplish if all the pieces fell into place and you worked really, really hard. Outcome goals involve such statements as “I want to win,” or “I want to lose 20 lbs.” Outcome goals are great. They motivate us and they provide purpose for exercising or practicing so hard. Outcome goals come with some caveats, however. First of all, they do not provide a roadmap for accomplishing a particular goal. Saying “I want to win” delivers no information on what you need to do to actually accomplish this feat. Outcome goals are rigid and leave no room for adjustments. If your only goal is to lose 20 lbs. and you lose only 15 lbs., does this mean you failed? Numerous environmental conditions may occur that hinder your ability to reach your goals. But if you do not accomplish your exact target goal, it does little good to beat yourself down. According to Burton, flexibility is highly important in the goal setting process and outcome goals do not provide any room for error. Finally, outcome goals can be stressful. We can’t always control the conditions that determine whether we reach our goals or not. Worrying about factors that we cannot control places our focus on external conditions, leaving room for “what-ifs.” For example, if you are lining up for a bike race with the goal of winning, much of your goal relies on how the other competitors perform. If you have the best race of your life, but another competitor simply outperforms you, it’s disadvantageous to say that you failed to reach your goal. Sport psychologists refer to setting strictly outcome goals as living in “outcome world.”

Process Goals

Process goals are smaller, controllable goals that provide more information for how to reach our outcome goals. If you have an outcome goal of winning a running race, a process goal might be more along the lines of “I will lengthen my stride by an inch;” or “I will stick to my race plan and focus on just my race.” If your outcome is to lose 20 lbs., you might have a process goal of exercising for 30 minutes each day or decreasing your calorie consumption to the amount of calories you burn per day. Process goals are specific, measurable and controllable. These goals relieve stress because they are related to your own individual efforts. Process goals make reaching outcome goals more likely because they provide specific information for how to improve. Process goals are also flexible. While your outcome goal remains constant, you can adjust your process goals based on progress and degree of difficulty.

How to Set Goals

Whenever you set goals, it’s best to begin with your dream outcome goals. It’s okay to dream big, but your outcome goals should also be realistic. According to Burton, the most effective goals are those that are moderately difficult and represent about a 5 to 10 percent improvement beyond your previous level. If you can run a mile in eight minutes, aim to make your next goal to run it in about seven minutes and thirty seconds or so. Then, once you set your outcome goal, set about three or four process goals that will help you reach this outcome. Make them specific, controllable and within your ability level.

We hear about goal setting all the time, but it continues to be one of the most important, and most effective performance-enhancement tools you can use. While outcome goals are motivating, avoid living in outcome world. Keep your mind focused on specific process goals that are completely within your control.

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