Psychology: Going for goal

Psychology: Going for goal

If you haven’t yet resolved how to improve your performance in 2016, then it is time to set some goals. Nick Pagan asks the experts how to go about it

Every athlete needs goals. They help to inspire and fire us, to think about what we need to do in the coming year and to reflect on what worked well in the past season or what didn’t quite go according to plan.

For most, especially those in a club where they train in a large group, having a chat with their coach to set goals is probably the only time they really get any one-to-one time with them, and even then it might not be very long. But even 10 minutes of sitting down to set some basic goals can have a real impact on performance over the coming year. If there’s nothing to aim for, how are you going to gauge how far you have come?

Research has confirmed time and again that goal-setting has far-reaching benefits, not just those measured in better times and distances. It vastly increases motivation, commitment, concentration, and confidence during training. Anxiety levels have been shown to be significantly reduced and athletes are better able to deal with pain when they have set themselves clear parameters for anticipated progression. But how should you go about setting your goals?

Be realistic

Different athletes will, of course, have vastly differing goals – international-standard athletes will be looking to set goals to help them peak for world championships and Olympics, whereas national-level athletes will looking to be at their best for national and regional championships. For some of us, goals may seem relatively lowly in comparison, but whatever they are, they matter. And crucially, they must be realistic and controllable to make a real difference to your own performance.

“For example, setting the goal of winning the English Schools isn’t controllable as you never know how someone else will perform on the day,” says sports psychologist Dr Josephine Perry. “A goal that is beyond an athlete’s control is not always going to be achievable and could be called a ‘dream goal.’ Instead of thinking about winning as the goal, work out a time you might need to win the event or a distance you’ll need to jump or throw and build smaller, fulfilment goals around these.”

But stretch yourself

While you need to remain realistic, it is also important to push yourself towards new barriers. In his new book How Bad Do You Want It? (Aurum Press, £14.99), endurance sports writer Matt Fitzgerald describes how research shows that stretching your goal by almost imperceptible margins (seconds, centimetres), can have a positive effect.

“Setting goals that stretch you just beyond your past limits is like setting a flag next to a bed of coals to mark the furthest point reached in your best fire walk,” says Fitzgerald. “That flag says to you, ‘this is possible, and you know it’. So why wouldn’t it be possible for you to make it just one step farther the next time?”

In studies at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, students given a “difficult/realistic” goal improved much more than those given an “easy” goal or an “improbable/ unattainable goal”. “Make your goal reachable, but barely so,” says Fitzgerald. “This ideal goal would also need to be sufficiently well-defined to pull the athlete beyond past limits, yet somehow vague enough that it did not place an artificial ceiling on an athlete’s performance.”

Select long and short-term goals

Dr Perry says effective goal-setting always includes a mix of long and short-term outcome goals. “Set early-season targets and as you hit them, tick them off your list. It’s a great way to stay motivated,” she suggests. “You also need to focus on your own performance and not be concerned with how other people are doing. Some athletes peak at different times of the season so think about when you need to be performing well and not about others.”

Examples of short-term goals could be something as simple as improving your nutrition, concentrating on having a good night’s sleep and reducing the time you spend in front of technology the night before a competition. And sticking to these small goals that at first glance seem unimportant can result in massive improvements.

“Always keep your long-term goals in mind though as these are what you’re always aiming for when you hit your short-term ones,” Dr Perry says.

Training v competition

Don’t fixate on competition goals at the expense of training aims. “Separate goals for training and competition so they’re more focused and specific,” says Dr Perry. “To throw further, work out how much weight you need to put on in the gym. If you need get an advantage over your competitors at the beginning of a race, practise improving your start. Or look at how fast you need to run 60m to improve your 100m time. These are known as performance goals and are all things you can work on in training ready for the next time you compete.”

Add in what psychologists call a few “process” goals as well. These are the tactics and techniques you need to follow so you can reach your performance goals. “They’re controllable and you can crack them with the right level of hard work and effort,” says Dr Perry.

“They are usually things like maintaining your rhythm in a long jump run up or running a mile at a certain race pace during a competition.”

Accentuate the positive

Goals should always be positive. “Always set a goal as something you need to achieve not what you should avoid,” says Dr Perry. “It’s what you must do that’s important, not what you must not do. The slightest negative thought can stop you achieving your goals so cut them out completely.”

Setting goals when you’re injured is just as vital as when you’re healthy. Again, set small targets that aren’t too difficult to keep motivated. If you can see results you’re more likely to do your rehab properly and get better quickly.

“If you’re out of action for a while, put a few goals in place away from your sport too, like spending a bit of time with the family as it can be tricky to do this when you’re fully immersed in training and competing,” Dr Perry advises.

Make a note

“Whatever your goals are, make sure you write them down and share them,” says Dr Perry. “You’re much more likely to succeed with the support of others and if you can see a reminder of your goals. Once you’ve committed them to paper, stick them somewhere prominent like the fridge, your training diary or your kit bag.”

» Dr Josephine Perry is a sports psychologist at Performance in Mind. See

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