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Tim Webb’s On Sports Psychology Column: Goals are gold, but only when used properly

I’ll be the first to tell you that goal setting can get boring. It seems like such a cliché today to “focus on attainable goals” or ask questions like “What are your long- and short-term goals?” I’m sure I’ve used those phrases a million times in my career, and I’m sure many of you have as well.

From building roads to building athletes, everyone has goals in mind. Setting goals is often so easy to do, but reaching them? Not so much. When setting goals, big corporations are very similar to athletic teams. Businesses like Under Armor and Nike have goals each year to gain revenue. After a year of marketing to our athletes, branding our teams and giving to charities, their goal in the end is to increase their revenue.

Goals that focus on long-term end results are called outcome goals. When athletes are focused on the outcome—winning, or beating an opponent—the focus is off their performance, and if their opponents are better than they are on that day, the outcome may be very different.

Outcome goals are great, but are often out of our control. One way to place emphasis on something other than outcomes, which at times may cause performance anxiety, is to focus on specific performance goals.

These goals—progress goals—are goals focused only on your performance and not the performance of others. Unlike outcome goals, your focus in your ability only, independent of opponents. Almost every coach or athlete has outcome goals, which when understood to be long-term goals can be compartmentalized and brought to the conscious thought when needed.

By setting progress goals such as giving 100 percent, pushing him- or herself, or performing slightly out of the preferred level of comfort, the athlete reduces focus and energy used to think about the performance of others. How many times have coaches said “Play your game” and “Don’t worry about your opponent”? It’s easier said than done.

With outcome goals and progress goals, emphasis is placed on everything except technical skills. It’s just as important to set goals that focus primarily on achieving skills that are vital to success in a specific sport. These goals are called process goals.

Process goals are emphasized mostly during practice, but you know as well as I that they can be used almost everywhere. Goals such as keeping the elbow in during the backswing, making a good hip turn when running the bases or getting a good push off the wall are all process goals. Setting these goals during practice helps measure progress and ultimately helps remedy those things about your technical skill that need some assistance.

When used properly, outcome goals, progress goals and process goals can help achieve performance outcomes that normal long- and short-term goal setting can’t. Be specific: Set these goals in your life, from education to relationships to sports. I promise, you will never see goal setting the same way again.

Tim Webb is the founder of Agency for Sports and Individual Enhancement and works as an adolescent and family counselor at the National Counseling Group. He can be reached at sports@freelancestar.com.

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