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.


3 Responses to “My Problem with Goal-Setting”

  1. 1 Mason August 26, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    It’s fair to say, though, that some athletes like working towards goals and find the structure helpful, right?

    I buy that for some people, setting goals based around things they don’t want to work on might cause them to resent the goal-setting process, but I don’t think they’re likely to achieve more by ignoring their weaknesses and just doing what they want to do.

    For athletes who are likely to non-comply, how can coaches help support them?

  2. 2 Paul R. Ashbrook August 27, 2010 at 12:21 am

    I think your idea is very interesting, and the point you are trying to make is very well thought out. You shouldn’t have to be limited by some specific “goal”. I would argue however that your idea of “No, they train; they compete; they simply pursue each day’s activity with same passion they bring to field (or court, or ring)” is in fact a goal. Their “goal” is to practice, train, or compete at the highest level possible, each and everyday. Although vague, this is in fact a goal, which is defined as “an objective, standard, and aim of some action, or a level of performance or proficiency.”

  3. 3 AHNaylor August 28, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Ed – always enjoy it when things are shaken up a bit. Yup, goal-setting is deeply ingrained in sport and sport psych… as you highlight sometimes for the worse. A couple of bullets from me related to the topic for all to chew on:

    – SMART has hurt as many as it has helped. It has certainly allowed many to remember some good ideas related to goal setting. It has also led many to fail to fully understand principles of goal setting and to take the time to truly learn its art.

    – In my experience, the easiest way to freak out a young teenage athlete is to tell them they can be an Olympian and then help them set goals towards this end. Maybe an exciting idea to an adult, but an absolutely terrifying one to a 13 year old butterfly swimmer.

    – Goals set because they are the “right ones” to strive for rather than ones an athlete is interested in doing are recipes for failure. If the goal set fails to resonate deep in the athlete, it is likely to remain unaccomplished and/or its actions will be not be sustained.

    – Does anyone appreciate how long it takes to set goals well? A pretty piece of paper with a goal mountain, a goal staircase, a goal checklist, or whatever other format is like gives a real false sense of ease. Most athletes can fill out a goal sheet in 5 to 10 minutes. To fill one out well, it probably should take 20-30 minutes, reflection for days afterward, and regular check ups, check ins.

    It is true, goals are the central determinants of human behavior. Goal setting however is too often misunderstood and misapplied. Athletes need a clarity of purpose and passion if they want longevity, fulfillment, and high performance… formally set goals… maybe.

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