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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.

Leave It On The Field

A common expression I often hear before a big match or tournament is, “leave it on the field!: It’s understandable that athletes would want to give it their all, to it all out there when the big game or tournament or tryout comes along. When I coached high school soccer, I can remember hearing, “leave it on the field,” from my players before the last game of the season – it used to make me want to cuss.

Leave it on the field… tonight? Where in the $%@& was that sentiment at the start of the season or halfway through league-play?

I’ve since realized that “leaving it on the field” isn’t like flipping a light switch. That effort and intensity doesn’t just turn “on” right when you need it. Instead, it’s an attitude – something that needs to be cultivated throughout one’s season and career.

Apollo Creed was right – “there is no tomorrow!” He’d been helping Rocky train to get another title bout in Rocky III – and the former champ had just informed Apollo that he’d “work hard tomorrow.”  There’s a pervasive mentality in middle-class athletes that there’s always going to be another game, another shot, another chance to prove oneself. This I’ll-Do-It-Tomorrow-Mentality bleeds intensity and ambition dry.

Figure out what “leaving it on the field” looks like. If today was the last time you would play your sport – what would your last game look like? What – specifically – would we see? “I’m going to play hard” doesn’t cut it. Get specific. This gives you a better, clearer picture of just what it means to “leave it on the field”

Don’t wait until the end of the season to “leave it on the field.” Imagine an athlete or a team truly dedicated to “leaving it on the field” from the start of a season. They recognize that tomorrow is promised to no one. Consequently, they appreciate each opportunity to give their best effort and intensity at each practice and competition. That’s an athlete or team, win or lose, that won’t look back and ask, “what if…”

Move On.

I had my own “Robert Green Cringe-Worthy-Moment” during my junior year of high school football. In the biggest game of the year, in front of packed stands, against our cross-town rivals, I managed to drop a touchdown pass while all alone in the endzone – went right through my hands. Worst. Drop. Ever.

After the game, I’m pretty sure I blamed the stadium lights for the dropped ball.


Robert Green’s cringe-worthy moment came last Saturday against the United States – as he let a shot on goal bounce off his hands and into the goal.

And yet, even with a handy, pre-packaged excuse such as the ball controversy of this World Cup, Robert Green wasn’t having any of it afterwards:

“It is regrettable and not what you want to happen but that’s life and you move on. You hold your head up high and get to work in training. It won’t affect me psychologically. I’m 30, I’m a man, and you have hardships in life and prepare for them.”

Damn straight. There’s something to be learned here about performing, messing up, picking yourself up, and in Green’s words – moving on. “Flush it” has become almost cliché in sport – but just how does an athlete let-go of that really bad performance? I think it involves three steps:

Accept Responsibility. Our ability to effectively respond (or our “response-ability”) starts with taking ownership of our play on any given day. Of course, this is easy to do on great days – a little harder to do when we drop a sure touchdown pass in the endzone. Taking responsibility gives players a clearer perspective from which to decide if there’s something to learn from a bad performance.

Even a shitty mistake can be fertilizer. Sometimes mistakes and bad games happen. But most times – there’s also something to glean from the experience. The best athletes are willing to go back over the experience (even embarrassing mistakes) – just to see if there’s something to learn from it.

Choose a time or action that signifies “moving on”. An athlete once told me their routine after a bad game was to take a 10-minute shower: “I could feel bad for myself when I stepped into the shower,” she told me, “but after 10 minutes – the bad game goes down the drain with the water.” I get it – a nice metaphor. But the real lesson here is to have some concrete action that switches one’s focus from the past performance to the next performance.

Committed or Not

My grad school advisor liked to say, “The difference between just being involved with something and being really committed to something is like a ham and eggs breakfast – the hen is involved; the pig is committed.” I was coaching high school soccer at the time, and that saying always struck a cord with me. It always seemed once the season really got going – I had more hens than pigs on my team.

What coach wouldn’t want a team full of committed players? It’s easy to think that our committed players are just born that way – that commitment to something, a dream, a team, a cause – is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Either you got it from the start or you don’t.

I’m not so convinced.

Truly committing to a sport (or any activity) requires self-awareness, tenacity, and choice. It’s a process that’s learned over time. And while it’s not as easy as installing a “Commitment” app into our athletes’ brains – coaches can take steps to create an environment of commitment within their team. This starts with encouraging athletes to remember that commitment is about:

Knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself into. If I go into a store to buy a big ticket item I’d be smart to check the price tag first. What will this cost me? Is this going to be worth it? How much time and effort will it take to maintain? These questions are just as relevant when thinking about commitment to one’s sport. Committed athletes not only anticipate and prepare for the challenges, rewards, and setbacks that go into pursuing athletic dreams – they understand the demands, the cost, the sacrifice needed in such a pursuit. Throughout the season, coaches need to clearly explain to each athlete not only their role on the team, but also the demands and challenges of such a role. This gives each athlete a clear picture of what they’ve signed up for this season.

Keeping it simple “stupid”. Many athletes live with the mentality that they can have it all – that reaching great heights doesn’t have to involve letting some things or interests go temporarily. Simplicity of lifestyle and sacrifice go hand in hand when striving to commit to one’s goals or dreams. While I’m not advocating that coaches encourage athletes to pursue a Spartan existence in and out of their sport – it’s fair to say that athletes can perform at their best when outside distractions are kept at a minimum. Encourage your athletes to anticipate and prepare for possible distractions throughout the season. As a former coach once reminded me, it’s smart to “have a plan, before it hits the fan.”

Remembering rest & recovery. When working hard in training throughout the season, it’s easy to forget the role that quality rest and recovery plays in an athlete’s success. The temptation to always train longer and harder can lead to overtraining, fatigue, and finally injury. At the end a long season, it’s not the best team that wins; it’s often the healthiest team left standing at the end. It seems like obvious advice: the key is to weave rest and recovery time into the fabric of a competitive season. Rejuvenated athletes are more likely to maintain commitment throughout a long season.

Being willing to reexamine & recommit. The act of committing to a pursuit is not like flipping on a light switch – where one act or behavior is all that’s needed by an athlete to be committed. The truth is commitment often waxes and wanes over time. It requires attention and perseverance from time to time. Without the self-awareness to recognize that our commitment is beginning to lag, it’s easy to lose the energy to pursue our goals. Without the will to persevere – it’s easy to give up at the first sign of adversity. On a day-to-day level – encourage athletes to start practice with the question: “what am I committed to today – real effort or mediocrity?” Throughout the course of a season, have athletes check in from time to time – are we still committed to our team goals? If not, what changes need to be made? The answers to these questions keep commitment fresh throughout the season.

Congratulations Graduate: Now the Hard Part

If I could take a time-machine back in time to meet up with my past-self as I was graduating with my master’s degree in sport psychology – here’s the advice I’d give myself:
Everyone wants to go to “heaven” in this field, no one wants to die. There is a lot of work to do between where you are now in sport psychology and where you want to be in sport psychology someday down the road. If you’re really serious about sport psychology consulting, get into the habit of thinking about sport psychology/mental skills training every day – find ways to write about mental skills training and sport psychology (submit articles to coaching journals/magazines; start a sport psychology blog); offer to speak at coaching symposiums/conferences; attend regional and national sport psychology conferences; speak at local youth camps. Is any of this glamorous of high-profile? Not necessarily. Sound hard? Why yes, yes it is. However, all of these keep you connected to the field but also help you develop your practice/philosophy.
You gotta walk the talk. Everything that is true for enhancing athlete performance is true for consultant performance. We talk about athletes being focused and ready to perform – we too, have to focused and ready to perform when the time comes. To be effective, we have to model what we are teaching – whether that be confidence, concentration, or mental toughness. There will be times when you start a presentation to a group only to have a landscaping crew start leaf-blowing just outside the room where you’re talking. There might be a last-minute change of plan and you might be asked to give a talk to swimmers on the deck of the pool. Athlete can’t fake good thinking when things don’t go as planned and neither can sport psychology professionals. We must live what we teach.

Remember – Word of Mouth is golden. The coaching community in any sport is close-knit and well-connected. Coaches talk to other coaches. Word of your good-work at a camp presentation or with a team during the season will make its way through coaching-circles. Word of your poor or ineffective work will get around too.

Be able to articulate the “What” and the “How” of mental skills training. During my internships in graduate school, I was lucky to be placed with teams and coaches who already understood mental skills training and how it could fit into their daily/monthly training plans. Out in the “real-world” this is simply not the case most of the time. I’ve met a lot of coaches who recognize the importance of the mental side of their sport – they just don’t know how they would fit this into their practice schedule. A big challenge for the young consultant is to articulate to coaches/organizations just how mental training could be incorporated into their training program.

Practice With A Purpose (Part II)

Lack of effort and focus in practice can often bleed athletic dreams dry. To guard against this, athletes must be sure to be physically and mentally present at practice. In sport, we know the opposite of this as “going-through-the-motions”. Many athletes make the mistake of just trying to “get through” practice time to get to the next game or competition. While it’s often not exciting, practice-time is where real improvement and development takes place.  I like to remind athletes that if they’re killing time in practice, it’s not murder – it’s pure suicide!

A couple of suggestions:

Recognize the signs that you’re going through the motions.  Anyone can practice well when they he or she feels like practicing. What happens when you don’t feel like practicing after a long day at school? For a variety of reasons, many athletes waste valuable training time by going through the motions. They’d rather count down the practice time rather than make practice time count. It’s not a bad idea to have athletes scout their practice behavior. This starts with asking – what are the signs that you’ve mentally checked out of practice? What does look like? (In other words – if you were watching a video of your practice, what are the visual signs you’ve checked out?) The earlier an athlete can recognize these signs, the sooner that athlete can take steps to turn it around in practice.

Turning It Around – Give Yourself 5. It’s important to develop ways to break out of the funk of going-through-the-motions in practice. One way is to see how well you can practice – for just 5 minutes.  Pretend that a scout has arrived to watch you for only 5 minutes. The idea is not to go all “NFL Linebacker” on somebody, but to give your best quality, focused effort for five minutes. After five minutes, stop and ask, “what did I do to check back into practice? What did I focus on?” The answers to these questions are important because they’ll tell you what you need to do to get yourself going in practice and in games.

Practice With A Purpose (Part I)

If you’re interested in reaching your goals or in finding out how good you can be in your sports, then you need to get the most out of each practice session. Contrary to popular belief, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. Getting the most out of practice-time means doing things with the same intensity and focus you would use in a game. It’s great when our coaches help us get the most out of practice, but don’t always expect them to do it for you – the quality of your training session is your responsibility.

Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of practice:
Pick a time or action that means “practice has started” for you (before practice actually starts). Decide on a moment – putting on your practice gear, parking your car at the practice field, walking onto the field – that you become focused on your sport and what you want to accomplish at practice. Leave your off-the-field concerns off-the-field – don’t worry, they’ll be waiting for you after practice is over. In the meantime, it’s important to be physically and mentally present at practice and not focused somewhere else.
Have a specific purpose or goal for each practice. This is a big one. You need to know exactly what you’re there to accomplish each day. Don’t go into a training session just to “see what happens.” Ask yourself: “what am I going to do today to get a little bit better than I was yesterday?” Remember to write down you goal for that day on a post-it note and bring it to practice with you.
Evaluate your effort each day after practice. Ask yourself at the end of the day, “how did I do today this practice?” Get specific feedback from a coach on how well you did at working toward your goal that day. This feedback will allow you to work smarter at the next day’s practice session.

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