Sports Education

Goals setting for excellence

In my contribution to this page last month I had written about motivation myths and misconceptions. This is a supplementary and my concluding column on the subject.

Athletes often ask me: “How can I become motivated?” Young people new to sports wonder how they can remain on the path of fitness and sustain new-found enthusiasm for working out. On the other hand, veterans seek advice on ways to “keep it going”.

Most people assume that motivation is a universal stimulus like air of which we can draw a lot, little, or none. In my experience there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is what comes from within and moves people to action for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation comes from without, prompting individuals to undertake effort and action for reward (or to avoid punishment).

I believe it’s better for coaches and parents to stimulate intrinsic motivation — the innate desire to learn and improve. In the long run intrinsic motivation is more effective than offering external stimuli in the form of rewards.

Goals setting in games and sports arenas is hardly a new concept. Most sportspersons experience the need to improve for a variety of reasons. Parents, coaches, peers, teams and athletes, all evaluate performance, and an athlete who settles for mediocrity or is resting on a plateau of effort is easily noticed. Therefore few sportspersons are content with the status quo. But few also know how to set goals that are challenging and  attainable.

For a start, if you don’t know where you are head-ing, you cannot bring your talents into play. Or, to put it another way, to bring your talents into play you have to know where you are going. Therefore effective goals setting is critical to creating and sustaining motivation. Long-term goals are essentially a player’s dreams. Intermediate goals are stepping stones to the realisation of long-term goals and should be challenging but realistic (attainable in five months to five years). Short-term goals are daily commitments to be met in the next three-six months.

Within these categories, performance goals are those over which players have direct control, such as maintaining a positive attitude or setting time goals (rushing the net at least ten times during a tennis match). These differ from outcome goals over which players have little direct control, such as winning a game or match, or besting a specific person. Though it’s expected that most coaches will set performance and outcome goals, the former deserve precedence because they are the vital prerequisities of attaining short-term, intermediate and long-term goals.

Where does an athlete begin on the road to setting goals? The process is not unlike planning a route for a hike, a flight plan or road trip — we need to know the starting point and destination. As with any road trip, we may well run into traffic or other challenges along the way. Here are some suggestions for goals setting:

First, make an honest appraisal of your current capability. It’s the pre-condition to setting realistic, long-term, challenging and attainable goals. Bear in mind the objective of goals setting is to continuously improve performance.

Together with your coach, establish ‘stair-steps’ towards attaining your intermediate goals. These intermediate goals should be achievable within an agreed time span. Avoid setting too many goals, three goals are much easier to focus on than ten. But always remember that continuous practice and training is necessary to move up the stair-steps.

•  Develop process as well as performance goals. Process goals are the fundamentals — the actual training and practice steps — on which your performance goals are achieved.

Surround yourself with a good support system. Parents, coaches and teammates (and friends) need to be aware of your goals and should encourage you to achieve them.

In my long experience as a coach I also recommend stretch and character goals setting.

Stretch goals. These are your ‘growing edge’ — short-term goals you set to ascend your stair-steps. Set goals that are just beyond your reach and make the extra effort, through additional practice or new techniques.

Character goals. There is a lot of loose talk these days about how sports build character. It is usually talked about under the heading of sportsmanship. We will discuss this important subject later. Let me just say that improved performance should be reflected in improved character.

In sum, while goals attainment is successful expression of motivation, there is much more to it. Many an athlete’s set goals are simply means to achieve other end goals. These include: the joy of self-expression through movement — artists paint, athletes play; the demonstration of self-efficacy through skill mastery; development of self- confidence through skill mastery; and attainment of comparative superiority through winning.

(Dr. George A. Selleck is a San Francisco-based advisor to EduSports, Bangalore)