#1: Goal Setting for Performance
Every dream, every accomplishment, every victory; it all starts with a goal.
The World Champ doesn’t just show up to the race having never thought about it before. The World Champ shows up to the World Championships having worked for years and years to get there. And it all starts with a goal. At some point he sat down and decided, I’m going to be a World Champion.
It sounds easy, doesn’t it. Just write down that I want to be the World Champion and it’ll happen. However, that’s not exactly how it works. The goal wasn’t the guarantee of the victory, but it may very well have been the catalyst that started the journey towards that victory. Goal setting doesn’t always equal success, but it’s certainly a part of success when it happens.
Before I even get to why goal setting works, I should start by proving that it does indeed work.
My thoughts on goal setting were sparked when I was researching pain tolerance. One study I came across that had individuals try to last as long as possible in a cold pressor machine (a legal and ethical way to induce pain) stated that when the subjects were given a goal, their ability to tolerate the pain was greatly enhanced.
The scientific approach to goal setting began in the early 1900’s, but there were 2 guys that really blew it out of the water. Their names were Locke and Latham and they’ve been producing published articles on their goal setting theory since the 1960’s, with their latest article being published in 2019. Locke and Latham and the goal setting theory gurus.
They’ve proven through 50+ years of research that goal setting does in fact improve performance. However, it depends on a few factors. You can’t just write something down and expect it to happen. It has to be thought out and precise. And they’ve come up with some key components that are crucial to the goal setting process. Their biggest finding within goal setting theory: The higher the goal, the higher the performance.
Subjects who are given a specific, challenging goal outperformed the subjects that were told to “do their best.” The “do your best” approach is too broad to actually induce improved performance and motivation within subjects. They discovered that the more difficult the goal, the higher the improvement in performance, at least until it becomes unrealistically difficult to achieve.
That’s a good question. Why? You should ask “why” when it comes to just about everything you do in life. When you answer the question “why,” you’re getting closer and closer to purpose. And purpose is what drives us in everything we do. Purpose is the “why” behind our action.
Setting goals helps us define our purpose. This is what we need when it comes time for the daily grind: a goal and a purpose. Without a purpose, we’d just skip every workout as if it didn’t really matter. Our goal becomes our “why” behind every action we make.
“Training is not an end in itself but an activity with a purpose.” -Ed Burke
One Locke & Latham study puts it like this, “A goal provides anticipated satisfaction for desired accomplishment as well as the basis for a negative appraisal. Thus, a goal provides an athlete with the incentive for action.”
When we set goals we can envision the desired outcome and success. We create this mental image of ourselves accomplishing that goal. We see ourselves standing on that podium, sliding that jersey over our shoulders and the crowd going crazy. This gets me pumped up just thinking about it.
And when you have that clear image of a goal in the back of your head, it fuels your everyday action. There’s a strong psychological advantage when someone has their goals clearly defined. Because when push comes to shove, they aren’t skipping their daily workout. When someone is completely convinced of their goals, they orient their entire lives to evolve around the accomplishment of that goal.
Ultimately goal setting provides persistence. One study writes, “Goal setting operates primarily as a motivational mechanism to influence one’s degree of effort and persistence in striving toward a goal.”
When someone sets a goal and they’re sold out on that goal, they aren’t going to give up. They will pursue that goal over and over again until they accomplish it. This is true for the big goals like winning nationals, but it’s also true for smaller goals like I’m not leaving the park until I bunnyhop these barriers. Goals create persistent athletes.
After 50+ years of researching goal setting theory, Locke and Latham have some key takeaways that help us in our goal setting attempts. Here are the big ones.
Give yourself challenging goals. The goals you create for yourself must be ambitious, yet achievable or motivation won’t follow. If the goal is too easy, then it doesn’t create enough excitement for the athlete. But if the goal is too difficult then it becomes unrealistic and the athlete won’t even try. It has to be just out of current capabilities, meaning you’ll have to work really hard to make it happen. It has to be scary and exciting at the same time.
Make your goals very specific. The more clarity, the better. “Do your best” kinds of goals are not going to keep you motivated when the going gets tough. You need specific details. This also allows you to know when you’ve failed or succeeded at your goals. When your goals are very specific, the mental image of success in your mind becomes a lot more vivid.
Accept your goals. In athletics, this isn’t typically an issue since the athlete is usually the one creating the goals, versus a boss giving an employee specific work goals. But nevertheless, you should be completely sold-out when it comes to your goals. You must accept them and own them as your personal ambitions. If you don’t buy-in to your goals you won’t make it very far in accomplishing them.
Give yourself feedback or invite feedback from others. Feedback allows the athlete to see their performance and progress in relation to their goals. This can be creating a progress chart that allows you to see if you are actually making progress towards your goal over time. This can also be by finding a coach that will provide you with feedback along the way. Either way, there must be feedback when it comes to goal setting.
2 Types of Goals
Another big takeaway that Locke and Latham suggest is setting short-term goals as a means to attaining your long-term goals. Thus, the topic of goal type arises. I came across a lot of various language when it came to this topic, but I believe there are 2 types of goals an athlete can and should have for himself. I’m going to call them progress goals and performance goals.
Long term goals, outcome goals, ego-oriented goals or performance goals. Call them what you want, but these are the BIG, scary goals that a person creates for themself. In most cases this goal is going to be subjective, or dependent on other competitors. The most common performance goals would be to get a certain place or time in a specific event.
Performance goals are the ones you’ll write down and put on the wall and they won’t change for a very long time. These are the ones that are big enough to give you purpose in training. They’re big enough to motivate you for months and maybe even years before you actually attain them. I like calling them performance goals because in races it all comes down to performance. Whoever performs the best, wins the race.
Short term goals, learning goals, task-oriented goals or progress goals. The are the stepping stones that get you to the big, scary goals. If all we did was set one big goal that took years to accomplish, we may not keep the focus for all that time. Odds are we’d give up before successfully reaching that goal. But by creating smaller goals along the way, we are setting ourselves up for success.
When we achieve goals, we are satisfied. We are happy. Our motivation is increased. So giving yourself even more opportunity to make this happen totally makes sense. However, the goals still have to be challenging. The more challenging or ambitious the goal, the more satisfaction we’ll feel when we accomplish it. Goals are kind of like drugs, you just keep wanting more.
“The increase in self-efficacy resulting from goal attainment and from the satisfaction derived from it leads to the setting of increasingly higher goals.”
As athletes, we should include both performance and progress goals within our goal setting process. Once you’ve created 1-3 performance goals, you’ll then look at progress goals you can incorporate for each performance goal. If I have a performance goal of increasing my FTP by 20 watts in 6 months, then maybe at 3 months I’d have a progress goal of increasing my FTP by 10 watts.
Like drugs, the addiction of goal setting can sometimes be a bad thing. When you become so transfixed on a particular goal and then actually achieve that goal, it may not feel as good as you expected. Psychologists call this the Arrival Fallacy.
The arrival fallacy is the idea that as we strive after our goals, we actually come to think we can attain them. When this happens our brains create a “feel-good” sensation during the training process but when we actually accomplish the goal, it doesn’t feel as good as we expected.
This doesn’t mean we should stop setting goals. Absolutely not. B what this does mean is that we should approach our goals with a focus on progress over performance. Bike racing is crazy. An athlete may work for years to make the Olympic Road Race, only to be taken out by another rider mid-way through the race. That’s racing!
The arrival fallacy reminds us that it’s the process, not the outcome, that actually brings us satisfaction. So as you embark on your own goal setting process, don’t forget to embrace the suck of the everyday grind. Ultimately, this is what makes us happy.
Locke, E. & Latham, G. (1985). The Application of Goal Setting to Sports.
Journal of Sport Psychology, 7, 205-222.
Weinberg, R. S. (1994). Goal setting and performance in sport and exercise settings: A synthesis and critique. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 26(4), 469–477.
Latham, G. P., Ganegoda, D. B., & Locke, E. A. (2011). Goal-setting: A state theory, but related to traits. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. von Stumm, & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of individual differences (pp. 579–587).