Archive for August, 2010

My Problem with Goal-Setting

The idea of having concrete, achievable goals are deeply ingrained in sport and sport psychology. Effective goal-setting (altogether now – SMART goals!) is a part of every student’s graduate training. It’s been the topic of posts on this blog. But let me play the role of sport psychology heretic for the moment by proposing this – It is possible to live and perform without goals, for the most part.

Contrary to what you might have been taught, it doesn’t have to mean you stop achieving things. It means you stop letting yourself be limited by goals.

The problem with goals

Take the following athlete: they set an outcome goal or three for the year, and then process (or performance or action or whatever you’re calling them) goals for each month. Then they figure out what process steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus their day on those steps.
Unfortunately, it rarely works out this neatly. You all know this – put yourself in the athlete’s shoes. You know you need to work on a process step, and you try to keep the end goal in mind to motivate yourself. But this process step might be something you dread, and so you procrastinate. You do other work, or you check email or Facebook, or you goof off.
And so your weekly goals and monthly goals get pushed back or side-tracked, and you get discouraged because you have no discipline. And goals are too hard to achieve. So now what? Well, you review your goals and reset the outcomes. You create a new set of process goals and action plans. You know where you’re going, because you have goals!
Of course, you don’t actually end up getting there. Sometimes you achieve the goal and then you feel amazing. But most of the time you don’t achieve them and you blame it on yourself. I propose the problem isn’t you, it’s the system! Goals as a system are set up for failure.
Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are extremely limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else. Some goal systems are more flexible, but nothing is as flexible as having no goals.

How it works

Athletes don’t have to set a goal for the year, or for the month, or for the week or day. They don’t need to obsess about tracking progress or actionable steps. They don’t even need a to-do list, though it doesn’t hurt to write down reminders if they like.

What does the athlete do, then? Lay around on the couch all day, sleeping and watching TV and eating Doritos? No, they train; they compete; they simply pursue each day’s activity with same passion they bring to field (or court, or ring). Just because they don’t have goals doesn’t mean they do nothing — they can create, they can produce, they can follow their passion. In the end, they usually end up achieving more than if they had goals, because they’re always doing something they’re excited, passionate about. But whether they achieve some goal or not isn’t the point at all: all that matters is that they’re engaged in the passionate pursuit of their sport.

Agents of Performance, Agents of Protection

Sport psychology professionals and sports performance coaches are passionate about improving the competitiveness, skills, and play of the athletes with whom they work.  The best at what they do are adept at knowing when to push,  when pull, and how to educate about navigating the often confusing culture of competitive sport.  Beyond “confusing,” sport can also be cruel (see Doc Gardner’s post Just a Tipping Point…).  It is these times when sport is cruel that a performance professional’s humanity, ethics, and courage are challenged.

In the July-Sept issue of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Stirling and Kerr examined the following questions:

  • Are sport psychology consultants exposed to cases of child maltreatment in sport?
  • Do sport psychology consultants believe they have the requisite knowledge and training to identify the various forms of relational maltreatment?
  • How might sport psychology consultants be better enabled to act as agents of child protection in sport?

Important questions that seem outside of the desire to improve athletic performance.  However are these not more important concerns than raising one’s batting average, preparing for a national championship, or simply, finding more focus in practice?  Of course they are.

These are questions that need to be considered by all sports performance professionals.  How prepared is the soccer coach, the strength and conditioning professional, and the nutritionist to protect their athletes in the most serious of situations.  Without awareness, some education, and great courage, it is too easy to look the other way or provide ineffective assistance (or times inadvertent harmful help).  The performance coach may not be able to fully rescue an athlete from abuse or cure all that ails, but failure to adequately address such issues leads to harm for the athlete… the human being and likely many restless nights for the coach.  Great coaches care about victories and they also care about people.

Beyond substituting various others for the words “sport psychology consultant” in the above questions, the word “child” can be dropped.  In the world of sports, it is not only children that need protection and caring adults but also collegiate, young professional, and, at times, experienced athletes.  In speaking with a former student the other day, the case of a young women’s tennis professional was brought to the table.  While she was an adult, it is clear that she herself needed “protection” from an abusive family and appropriate emotional support now that she is in essence alone traveling the world.  She has a caring coach who is thoughtful enough to attempt to navigate the confusing, frustrating, and painful world of abusive relationships.  One can only hope for a positive outcome for the young lady.  One also has to realize that she is not alone in having such struggles.

Anyone that works in sport needs to consider the questions posed by Stirling and Kerr.  Truly protecting the athlete physically and emotionally is every coaches ethical responsibility.  Beyond this, it is simply the right thing to do.

Too often one tries to gain education and learn about resources after revelations of abuse arise.  Adopting a more proactive approach to preparing for such challenging situations will benefit any performance coach.  A few broad suggestions that are put forth by Stirling and Kerr are 1. Get formal training and continuing education in ethics, 2. Take advantage of informal learning opportunities (conferences and self-study), 3. Be aware of definitions of abuse and trouble as well as the signs and symptoms, 4. Become familiar with reporting protocol in your community, 5. Understand treatment options and referral resources, 6. Set guidelines in organizations for handling concerns, 7. Have clear behavioral codes for parents, coaches, and all in the sports organization.  This is a somewhat long list, but one that provides a framework for creating a caring community and a high performance community.

Ethics aside, it is very difficult to truly be an agent of performance while not effectively being an agent of protection.  Courage is something spoken about on the playing field quite often.  The coach that is willing and able to address maltreatment (unfortunately some times will be unable to stop it) is a true model of courage for players and community.

DJ Did It. Rory Did It. Will Nick?

Dustin Johnson shot his way out of contention in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach on the 2nd and 3rd holes of his final round.

Rory McIlroy shot his way out of the British Open championship by following a brilliant first round with a second round in the 80s.

Both displayed tremendous mental toughness this summer.

Mental toughness at the highest levels is not about a “flow state,” but rather is about resilience. You will be hard pressed to find a truly elite athlete that has not overcome obstacles either competitive, personal, or both throughout their career. The truly “tough” athlete learns from each struggle (and success) and comes back better the next day, next week, next season.

Blowing one of golfs major championships in front of thousands of fans and millions of t.v. viewers is tough on the ego. Neither golfer could be blamed for hiding in a hole and having the shakes the next time they present themselves in public. Johnson and McIlory did neither, but rather nearly won the season ending major the PGA Championships. Sure, each came up a few strokes short, but both clearly learned from their struggles over the summer and showed that they are champions (and likely to be one’s with a major or two on their resume). They both put to use the too often forgotten “mental skill,” the ability to learn.

It takes humbleness, self-reflection, and practice, but the “learning” is one skill the great athlete cannot be without.

Nick Watney started Sunday at the top of the leaderboard and managed to play his way out of contention with an 81. Does he have what DJ and Rory have? If so, the next few majors ought to be interesting.

Are you BOLD or Italic?

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

This blog has already discussed many of the critical attributes of intrinsically motivated athletes, most recently by Dr. Naylor (  The topic of intrinsic motivation on a broader scale, however, has not been broached.  After suffering another long, hot, humid day in the South Carolina sun (it’s been nearly unbearable for almost two months now), the time came for me to do a little soul searching of my own.  In other words, I needed to do some reading and research (in the a/c) and I re-discovered some cool stuff.

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci wrote a piece for Contemporary Educational Psychology in 2000 about motivation that lays an outstanding foundation for high achievers in any area of life and sport.  Follow this link for the original work in its entirety…

I was especially struck by the following excerpt on intrinsic motivation…

Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external prods, pressures, or rewards. In humans, intrinsic motivation is not the only form of motivation, or even of volitional activity, but it is a pervasive and important one. From birth onward, humans, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious, and playful creatures, displaying a ubiquitous readiness to learn and explore, and they do not require extraneous incentives to do so. This natural motivational tendency is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development because it is through acting on one’s inherent interests that one grows in knowledge and skills.


  • Fun and challenge – Do you approach training and competition with these key themes in the forefront?  Or does motivation come from doing just enough to blend in without being called out, fear of looking bad on game day, or being able to hold a trophy at the end of the season?
  •  Active, inquisitive, curious, and playful, showing readiness to learn and explore – When was the last time you took this approach to practice?  Or do coaches, parents, fear of losing, and other outside factors drive your sessions?
  • Cognitive, social, and physical development occurs through acting upon inherent interests – Are you truly doing what you enjoy day in and day out?  Or are you just passing the time because others say “you are a natural” or family/friends enjoy the sport or activity?


 If your life looks like this (bold print)…keep it up and you will reap the benefits of healthy success.  If your life looks like this (italic print)…it might be time to make some changes in your daily approach to live fuller, more gratifying days.

As summer comes to a close and the school year approaches for student-athletes, time and energy become valuable resources.  Establish priorities and decide if you will live a bold life, or a passive life in italics.

Fun but Not Trivial

From golfers to fighters it has been said to me, that they need to have fun whether it be at practice or when they step into the competitive arena.  This is all well and good, but when one considers that training and competing are their “job” and often times prior to practice “time to get to work” can be heard, fun would appear an afterthought.  Furthermore, many a coach has preached about the necessity of discipline and seriousness.  Again, fun appears to be in the review mirror.  Nonetheless many a platitude about the importance of fun in the sporting process has been spoken.

Certainly fun is important to high performance on the athletic field… no, it is necessary.  It leads to enthusiastic efforts, unwavering persistence, spectacular creativity, and prevents staleness.  But what is this “fun” so many preach about (and at times coaches fear)?

Careless giggles?  Hippie-like twirling freedom?  Cheap laughs and juvenile humor?  An awe shucks, no big deal approach to errors?  A quest for immediate gratification regardless of the competitive cost?  Unlikely…

Perhaps high performing fun is best defined as full engagement (also part of a great title from a good book by Jim Loehr).  Everything listed above may be part of sport when it’s fun (however it is unlikely that all will lead to good performance), however the root of true, deep down, competitive fun that your soul yearns for and heart palpitates at appears when one is engaged in each action at each moment in time.

  • Winning is great, but the potential of this serve is greater.
  • Going low on this links is great, but solving the twists, turns, slants, and slopes of this put is greater.
  • Hoisting the championship belt is great, but striking with precise power, rolling with great aptitude, and combining both with seamless fluidly is greater.
  • Breaking a personal best in a 5K is great, but committing to a wise race plan while not relenting to the screeches and screams of the body is greater.
  • To complete an ungodly number of hours of practice each week may be great, but to be fully engaged throughout is greater.

There is always another opponent, race to be run, score to be carded, but the possibility of each moment is fleeting.  Some of these moments may be hard and grueling, so “hee hee hah hah” is ridiculous.  Many of these moments may leave the body aching, so dumb-ass smiles are simply dumb.  Lots of these moments will tax one’s mind and will, so a lazy tropical vacation attitude is nonsense.  In these realities reveal that sports and striving is fun, but not trivial.

It is this lack of trivial-ness that leads the fully engaged athlete back to the playing field and practice gyms like an unrepentant junkie.  There’s little boredom in practice, because each drill has a purpose, a challenge.  Even long competitive seasons are wonderful, because each contest is an opportunity to test one’s self, learn, and find a little greatness every now and then.

Engagement is tough however.  The tasks asked of an athlete seem relatively unchanging (practice makes perfect… uuggghhh) and in reality there only seem to be a few “big games” each season.  Considering this, the great athlete chooses to engage in the seemingly most benign tasks.  Going through the motions insidiously draws passion, performance, and persistence from the athlete.  Being curious about one’s self and each task leads to enthusiastic practices more often than not.  Finding competition in each the task and with one’s self is a lot of fun.  These things are definitely tougher than having frivolous fun or simply no fun at all.

In the grand scheme of things sport is not a matter of life and death.  Nor is it a referendum on our goodness as human beings.  Sport is play.  This being said however, sport is not trivial.  Sport is an endeavor that is pursued passionately and invested in heavily.  This being said, is seriousness only lies in the level of caring behind it.   Any time that the ball is in play or a sweat is being broken, engaged fun is necessary.  Choose engagement – for the mind, for the body, for the soul.

Macho Mumbo-Jumbo

Pre-game chest thumping, fist pumping, and all things that accompany are culturally acceptable from the macho athlete… unfortunately all the hub bub isn’t worth much once the whistle is blown, puck is dropped, or the ball is put into play.  Predicting the first round knockout, proclaiming a forthcoming championship winning shutout, and hooting and hollering about how an opponent will be crushed are all entertaining to spectators and teammates.  It might even be argued that a big mouth filled with soundbites can shift an opponent from a productive focus to a foolish focus.  These are pretty advanced Jedi mind-tricks however…

Too often bold proclamations are little more than macho mumbo-jumbo.  Shouting from the mountain tops about one’s greatness isn’t positive self-talk.  Predicting domination of an opponent isn’t confidence.  They might appear to be both, close inspection reveals that such boasts and bravado are misguided efforts at toughness.  Yes, they are adored by media-types looking for a little excitement and an engaging story.  Often, they are lauded by the young coach that is unable to see the fire that burns beneath each athletes surface.  Regularly, they are reinforced by the compliments of teammates that enjoy a loose locker room.  As with most things in life however… beauty is on skin deep when it comes to blustery proclamations of future success.

True confidence is well-summed up by Matt Larsen, founder and president of the Modern Army Combatives program at Fort Benning, GA.  In the June issue of FIGHT! magazine he states, “The defining characteristic of a warrior is the willingness to close with the enemy.  Confidence comes from competence.  It is not enough to simply tell soldiers to be aggressive.  They must have faith in their abilities that is build through hard and arduous training and know that they are going to win.”  Talk is cheap.  Quality training builds competence.  Competence leads to confidence.

Let the media adore the soundbites… however don’t feel obligated to give any to them.  Athlete’s shut up, train well, and believe in themselves.  Develop competence first, find the macho mumb0-jumbo later… with competence however the athlete will find little need for chest thumping and fist pumping.

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