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Mental Training Tips: Effective Goal Setting For Performance

Editor’s Note: This is part three in a three part series on how to effectively end a season and how to outline off-season training. Part one explains how to analyze a performance. Part two will elaborate on burnout and if an athlete should quit. Part three will explain effective goal setting for performance.
When heading into a new season, no matter what the sport is, it is always exciting and encouraging talking to athletes, as they have a renewed inspiration and increased motivation for what they would like to achieve for the season.  In lacrosse, it is not uncommon to hear an athlete tell me how many “Goals and Assists” they are going to have, or for some they mention that all they “want to do is crack the starting line up.”
However, when I ask them how they are going to achieve those goals.  Often times, I am met with a blank and misunderstanding look and a quick “what do you mean?” response.
In competition and in life, goal-setting is an essential tool.  As goals can help direct your focus, as well as improve your performance by increasing your motivation, enhance self-confidence, and decrease anxiety associated with competition.  More importantly proper goal setting gives an athlete a road map or a checklist of sorts of what is needed to be able to accomplish them.
Therein lies the problem with many athletes, and why I am always quick to ask the aforementioned question.  As athletes usually know what they WANT to achieve, but don’t necessarily know HOW to plan to get themselves there. Ultimately, this is where proper goal setting can greatly help in achieving success.
For many athletes, when they think about what their goals are, they think about outcomes or the end/desired result.  Which is good as it helps give direction, and will help the athlete stretch their thoughts of what they are currently capable of.  However, these type of goals are often out of their control.  Such as, an athlete will state they want to make all-conference or they want to win the state championship.  Obviously, these goals are desirable, but they are almost entirely externally dependent and not within the control of the athlete.
Therefore, instead of solely focusing on the outcome, it is much better for the athlete to break down their goals into what are called process goals.  Process goals, focus on our actions that are within our control that will help towards achieving an outcome goal.  They essentially are goals that get very specific and answer the question of “What do I need to do to achieve my outcome goal?”  They are the short-term goals that provide steps towards outcome goals.
Better yet, the advantage of focusing on and implementing process goals is that they are entirely within your control.  Research has shown that having a high locus of control in goal-setting can be effective in enhancing self-confidence and reducing anxiety brought on by competition.
Implementing Process Goals
One of the best ways to creating efficient process goals is to use the SMART goals method. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Adjustable, Realistic, Time-oriented.
Specific: Make goals as specific as possible. Specifics help us to focus our efforts and clearly define what we are going to do. Specific is the What, Why, and How of the SMART model.
Example: “I want to score more goals. To do so I need to become better at shooting the ball. To accomplish this I need to improve my accuracy. To improve my accuracy I will practice by taking 50 shots per day.”
Measurable: Goals must be able to be measured. As if it is measurable, then it is easy to track progress and note improvement. When you are able to measure your progress, your confidence will increase because you are able to see your improvement, which will reinforce your motivation to achieving your outcome goals.
Example: “I will improve my accuracy by clipping 95% in wall ball drills.”
Adjustable:  It is vital for goals to be pliable. As we are unable to predict the future, there are unforeseeable events, like an injury that could setback the original goal.  The goal will need to be adjusted. Or sometimes if the goal is to rigid, we forget about the process because we become so fixated on the outcome.
Example:  “Since, I rolled my ankle, I need to get healthy and improve my strength and mobility to get back to competing.”
Realistic:  The goal you set yourself, be it process or outcome, should be realistic. Consider where you are at the moment and use that as a starting point, then increase your goals gradually considering what you believe you can achieve.
Example:  “I will do my best to spend as much time as possible working to improve my accuracy skills. I will try and spend 20-30m a day, 2-3 times a week. I understand that some weeks I will just be too busy.”
Time-Oriented:  Most importantly, there should be a time frame to your goals. Having a time limit will deter you from procrastinating and encourage you to achieve your goal.
Example:  “I will pass coaches fitness test at the end of the month.”
As an athlete, much of your success will be gauged and directed by the goals that you choose to set.  Therefore, it’s important that you choose to set the right goals! The question you want to answer through your goals is “Is my performance improving?”
Part 1: Mental Training Tips: Analyzing Performance
Part 2: Mental Training Tips: Burnout
Jared Ocana, M.S., is a Mental Skills Coach and Adjunct Faculty at Westminster College in the Human Performance and Wellness Department. Besides working with student-athletes at the school in 17 intercollegiate sports, Ocana also provides coaching and training to individual athletes along the Wasatch Front.  To connect with Jared, or have questions or comments, you can reach him at: or (801) 448-6818

  1. Always love your posts Jared. Thank you for taking the time. I think it’s incredibly important to make goals for the season. I think it also helps to share the goals with someone who can keep you accountable, either a coach or teammate or parent. If that person can just ask you every so often how you are coming on your goal there is more sense of accountability. I hope all players will set goals for themselves for both on and off field performance and that they utilize their coach or parents to help focus each goal. Thanks Jared

  2. Drew, you are absolutely right in your assessment on accountability. Truth be told, mostly what I write about is the very tip of the iceberg on what an athlete can do to help their mental skills match their physical ones. The feedback and responses I get from parents and a few coaches are great. In fact, I am always looking for ideas, situations, or skills to write about. So, please if anyone would like me to expand on creating an adaptive coping strategy for performance enhancement. Let me know!

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