As a mental skills consultant I know the value of setting goals for my athletes. I know that they must be outlined starting with the end goal – or measurable outcome. Once identified then the performance goals are outlined. In other words, what needs to change or happen in order to achieve the end goal? Even further – and on a week-by-week basis – process goals are set so that an athlete can work to make the changes come about. It seems so clear on paper and in theory, but then why do athletes continue to struggle with progress?
In sport, most athletes strive for the next level as their end goal. For example, many of my clients want to be recruited to college athletics, or make an elite team, or become a starter – and these are all tangible outcomes. When these outcomes are determined, it is much easier to plan and train towards achievement. But if we look at the working world as an example, the end goal may not be as black and white.
As in my line of work as a mental skills consultant I know that I work with athletes, teams, and coaches on a daily basis, but what is my end goal? What is driving me to get new clients and evolve with the field? One general response is that I love what I do and it brings me joy to help people feel confident, however this is not a tangible end goal. Finding clarity in what the next level would be for me has guided me in my daily decisions and more importantly, it has helped me to feel motivated when taking risks. As for athletes, a clear picture of the next level, or end goal, is an essential start to a successful progression.
Before continuing, it is important to note that clarity is not synonymous with firmness. For a long time I believed that I had an end goal in site, but through experiences and continued education I realized an essential truth: goals are not a certainty – they are not iron bound simply because the future is unknown. In fact, most people don’t truly know what they will want as we change and develop with time. For me, I noticed that I hesitated to do the things that would help me progress – to take risks. It was only until I reestablished a new end goal – a new direction – that I felt my motivation renewed.
Through my experience of stagnation, or limbo as it felt, I have learned that it is somewhat easy to verbalize an end goal once determined. This is especially true for athletes who participate in sports with various levels of competition. There frequently seems to be a next step, like ‘making varsity,’ or ‘being recruited to college.’ With that said, I believe that the question of capability is much more influential than the question of desire and so this is where the abundance of mental skills training resides.
Below are two examples of the main factors that prevent athletes from progressing to their end goal with suggestion on how to overcome the difficulties that they bring about:
1. Identify the fears:
When determining an end goal it may be easy to say I will play D1 soccer or I will be a sport psychologist for a professional team. Writing it down may even make it more likely, but there are major factors that can disrupt a person’s belief in their goal. Fear, for example, is one of the most prominent roadblocks, delaying or even inhibiting the experience of achievement. There are many variations of how fear can manifest, but here are some familiar examples that have come about when working with youth athletes:
- Fear of not reaching one’s potential
- Fear of getting injured
- Fear of letting people down
- Fear of making mistakes
Then my own experiences have taught me that there are fears that linger as excuses. For example:
- Fear of committing down the wrong path
- Fear of being unhappy
- Fear that work will keep me from my family
Yes, there is some truth to each of the fears listed and the truth is that if any of the fears were to become a reality, they hurt. So, to avoid the emotional pain fears are developed as a form of protection. However if you were to put this all together then it would mean that our fears save us from feeling high levels of achievement and pride. It doesn’t make sense because there will always be negative emotional experience in ones life, especially when pushing to the next level. Therefore your fears are not protecting you in this case, they are preventing you from taking risks and making progress.
I know for myself that I hesitate from doing things that I haven’t done before because I don’t have the experience to rely upon. The mental skill is to firmly believe in your capability – without proof, just belief. To feel that you can accomplish things without truly knowing if you can. One of my young clients put it best, “If I know how many sets I am doing, then I will just do it.” She is showing a firm connection between the end goal and her belief that she is capable of achieving it.
2. Understand how you relate to goal achievement:
I chose to focus on this concept because I was raised to believe that what you do demonstrates who you are. So I developed these rules that I must ALWAYS demonstrate integrity, hard work, intelligence – I must ALWAYS achieve. Although a seemingly quality way of living, the always makes this hard to accomplish. My perspective on goal achievement was skewed by a rigid belief that achievements demonstrate my worth.
So ask yourself, am I doing this to demonstrate my worth or am I doing this to experience pride and achievement? Through time and practice, I have learned to adopt a more intrinsic motivation to achieve goals by allowing myself to feel pride and accomplishment with even the smallest successes. For athletes in particular it is very important to truly feel and experience the various levels of achievement. In doing so you become motivated to feel it more often and with a greater intensity, making the end goal more in reach.
From both athletic and professional experience, I can say that it is easier to set an end goal then it is to achieve it. The path may be clear on paper, but there are potential obstacles that must be acknowledged along the way. Setting goals is not only a valuable way to stay organized towards success, but also it is a much-needed spark to uncover deeper mental hurdles like overcoming fears or establishing a sustainable achievement orientation. So the next time you sit down to set goals, be sure to take the extra step of identifying your obstacles before you get to work.