Guidelines for goal-setting: Researched and Tested

Sasha DiGiulian Win’s the 2011 SCS National Championships in Sport Climbing

Photos by Dominik Walker

Editors Note: Goal Setting is commonly referred to as an integral mental skill. However, in our experience there are few coaches and athletes that really know how to do it properly. It is a mental skill that will require months of diligent attention the first time through, but like all skill sets, it becomes more routine with practice. However, this mental skill is designed to be a very conscious one, to be well thought out, and thoroughly reviewed with those whose support is key.

Given the concerns and downside of overtraining/under-recovery and burnout, done properly, goals can help maximize the health and performance of every athlete. Dr. Julian Morrow offers us a well crafted, intelligently written, researched and tested program that is a must for every athlete and coach’s repertoire of skill sets. It addresses and takes into account the most common pitfalls and oversights, and enables one to plan and execute on an elite level, whatever the goal.  Thanks J, SEW

by Dr. Julian Morrow

Suppose that during a moment of earnest introspection, a teachable opportunity so to speak, you decided to create the perfect “you”; not just in terms of your sport but in regard to the big picture, the whole enchilada from the ground up. A sensible place to start might be to list the various roles that comprise your global sense of self, your identity (e.g. grad student, mom, electrical engineer). Next, order them in a hierarchy, placing those that are the most highly valued at the top. Disclaiming any extra-sensory pretense, I can still predict that being a competitive athlete would fall somewhere in the upper tier, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. Competitive athletes are continuously searching for that extra edge which will push them over the top and that is exactly what I believe this article offers.

Implicit within your role hierarchy are an assortment of contributing factors, a composite of your values, perceived competencies and lifestyle preferences. In other words, it portrays a pretty comprehensive snapshot of your existing self-image as well as a futuristic glimpse of how you intend to evolve.

Beginning with the Beginning

Based on my personal experience, I have yet to meet someone who has voluntarily committed themselves to pursue the rigors and demands of sport, on any level, who is satisfied to remain static. I have found that the one pervasive and common feature among this stouthearted group is their eagerness to accept the challenge of striving to improve themselves. Quite often, this is attempted by sifting through the multitude of self-improvement tips floating around and then locking on to those they intuitively believe will help accomplish their mission; those with the potential to nudge them ever-closer to that ephemeral, ever-shifting, concept, the ideal “me”.

Why bother with Self-efficacy?

Ultimately, positive change involves the dialectic of “pushing the envelope” beyond the comfort zone. This, however, can be a dicey undertaking, given that all changes involve a degree of risk. And unless faith and confidence are at hand to neutralize the risk, nothing happens. So, worthy of note, and this is important, if and when you ultimately decide to make the push towards change, indeed push, but gently. Exuberance and eagerness must be continually fortified with little successes and positive feedback. This consideration is especially worth noting early on, that pivotal time when you’re most vulnerable to self-doubts, the nasty flip-side of self-confidence, a.k.a. “self-efficacy”, a more precise but somewhat “jargony” term. Self-efficacy refers specifically to your personal sense of competency in one or more of these areas we are about to explore.

Unattainable aspirations as well as unrealistic self-assessments typically lead to negative self-talk which stirs up feelings of anguish and apathy. Inevitably, these feelings will morph into diminished energy and a “why even try?” attitude. This is why it is wise to incorporate “keepin’ it real” as your omnipresent mantra. It will serve you well as you as you proceed on your journey.

Motor Skills & Techniques
Adaptive vs. Destructive Lifestyle Features
Fitness Level
Mental Toughness

You can begin to chart your course by using the following four interrelated domains as your self-evaluative framework: 1)motor skills and techniques (including the sophistication and breadth of your racing strategies and your ability to read your competition); 2) lifestyle features (nutrition, sleep, drug and alcohol consumption); 3) fitness level (training); and 4)mental toughness (giving special consideration to your ability to access your “game face” and regroup after setbacks). What the consideration of these four domains provides is a totally comprehensive set of the features that must be addressed in order to ultimately make a genuine difference. Take note, your initial evaluations should start out broad and general. As you work the process, continuously attempt to deconstruct each issue into its most fundamental elements. The more specific you are, the better this procedure will work.

Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance here because your coach or personal trainer can help.  The Bottom line: the numbers in your workouts don’t lie – so consider a base-line fitness for competing and work up from there.  In most racing events (triathlon & running) an athlete who is able to perform in competition at a level commensurate with the numbers they put up in training – has had a great outing.

That point behind us, and assuming you’re amenable to accepting suggestions from a highly qualified stranger, we’ll continue. Eschewing any iota of false modesty or equivocation, I implore you to keep paramount in your mind that this is a carefully crafted, road-tested (sorry about the pun) strategy. TRUST IT! Begin by grabbing a plain sheet of paper and pencil. Let’s kick start your pursuit towards excellence.


Determining What Condition is your Condition in?

First, construct four horizontal parallel lines of equal length. Whoosh! These lines have now been magically transformed into continuous scales, each one representing your strengths and weaknesses in terms of the four aforementioned domains. The left end of each line designates your lowest self-evaluations as they relate to the construct while the right end signifies the highest. Now place two dots, A and B on each line. “A” represents your perceived current state of affairs (competence or skill level) and “B” marks the spot where you ultimately believe, given optimal circumstances, you can go.

Beginner                           A                                                                               B             Master

Motor Skills & Techniques

Don”t neglect to consider some realistic parameters such as age, inbred limitations, and competing demands from the other roles in your life. Word up, this is neither the time to be humble nor full of yourself. Now prepare yourself to break down each domain into functional components. Do this by replicating the same procedure of drawing lines and noting where to place your “A’s” and “C’s”.

Using only the “fitness domain” as an example, what you should now have,  is one overall general fitness scale, followed by a series of subscales that you determine to be the most critical elements of the whole. In this instance let’s say, you identify and label three subscales: aerobic fitness, flexibility and upper body strength. Then, complying with your assignment, you fill in the dots.

Poor                              A                                                                                          B   Excellent

Aerobic Fitness

The next step is to observe and examine the gaps between the A’s and B’s individually on each global domain scale as well each subscale. Your underlying concern is directed at creating a workable set of strategies that will ultimately minimize the distance of each distinct gap. In order to accomplish this, try to establish as many insights as possible. These are to be transposed and written down as self-affirming statements. No shortcuts please! Now, to the best of your ability, define and pinpoint specifically, in terms of measurable objectives, what course of action, in terms of specific steps, those behavioral and cognitive changes (automatic, involuntary, random thoughts and self-talk), it will take to satisfy your intentions.

The substance of the message I’m trying to convey is, in order to promote positive movement, more attention should be devoted to your long-neglected weaknesses. Restated, it’s time to stop relying on your strengths to pull you through. “Same-old-same old” is just not the savvy way to initiate growth. Sure, it’s the safe and cozy path but it leads nowhere.

Chris Carmichael (Lance Armstrong’s Coach) said it best:”Train Your Weakness Race Your Strengths”

And oh yeah, if you’re one of the fortunate souls who have coaches or training partners, get them into the mix. Probe their minds for additional ideas and feedback-all the while remembering to interpret their comments and critiques as constructive suggestions rather than “put-downs”.

This is a forewarning, we’re about to enter a slightly rougher stretch of road (again pun, again sorry). What typically makes the conversion from plan to execution difficult is that once you get started, initial improvements are generally negligible to the naked eye. In fact, what sometimes occurs is that, as you shift your emphasis towards the weaker aspects of your repertoire, performance may even take a slight dip. Be prepared for this and remember it’s only temporary. Consequently I offer this little caveat, restrict your modifications to open periods in your racing schedule. Never initiate a novel “tweak” during competition – they just flat out won’t work effectively under high arousal situations like road-races.

Hold off unwrapping these nuggets until they’ve been adequately hammered into the old noggin. Avoid the potential pitfall, the voice of the devil so to speak that might whisper, “noticeable changes aren’t happening, not working, jump ship…woe is me.” Meaningful change, to the level that it feels automatic and natural takes time. I cannot stress this enough. Be patient – ask any coach in any sport, proficiency takes reps, reps, and more reps. For a more thorough explanation of this point, check out Hull’s Drive Theory in almost any reputable intro psych text.

That said, what sorts of tools do I offer to provide the necessary juice to guide us, no, urge us, to sustain a “keep on keepin’ on” mind set? The-plain-and- simple answer is (drum roll please) – goals.

Goals & Goal Setting

Remember Pac Man from back in the day of first generation computer arcade games? There were those little power pills that, when consumed by our pie-shaped little hero, boosted his energy and enabled him to continue scurrying around consuming the dreaded “ghosties”, which in turn, propelled the player to an ever higher score. Goals are like power pills but, in addition, they also serve an additional function, that of a road map. A schema that clearly represents, “you are here” and “here’s where you want to go”. Goals provide direction. They are the AAA of the soul. What’s more is that when you adequately satisfy a goal, you experience a boost in vitality. The notion that goal attainment which is achieved through self-regulatory procedures possesses this powerful quality has been substantiated by reams of scientific research results. Word up, there’s nothing like achieving smaller goals to strengthen your resolve to “keep on keeping on” towards long objectives. Without goals to guide and sustain you, energy soon gets depleted from purposeless floundering.

Researched and Tested – Guidelines for Goal Setting

There is, however, an interesting paradox here which, if ignored, has the potential to trip you up. Whereas the concept of goal setting is so simple, it may lull you into a false state of complacency. Proper execution and mastery involve some basic principles that novices often overlook. Many of these principles have already been alluded to within different contexts, so I offer this primarily as a check list and review.


* Long term Goals are comprised of a series of short term Goals.
Long term goals as well as major domain goals should be arranged into a series of short term goals on a daily basis. I enjoy reserving some time to kick back each day and contemplate tomorrow’s challenges. As I jot down my delineated course of action, I’m aware that my strivings should become progressively riskier along the self-efficacy versus task difficulty matrix. What helps is that I have learned to conceptualize this as a chain of pit stops that provide refreshment and confidence even as the distance between stops gets progressively longer.

* Goals should be written down. Repeat. Goals should be written down.
The act of writing changes the dynamics, “the medium is the message”. Why? First because your attempt to fashion a workable hard copy allows for a slowed down pace and hence, detailed specificity. Second, the permanence of the written word creates a sense of commitment. It’s a lot harder to run and hide from a document saved in your computer than a fleeting thought. Studies conducted in the area of motivation strongly suggest that people who take the time to write down their self-improvement agendas are significantly less likely to blow them off when the going gets tough. Instead, what they’re more likely to do is remain mindful of the next rule.


* Goals should be flexible. Ahem. Goals should be flexible.
Knowing exactly where to dangle the carrot is an art form. Placed too close to your nose and the only feelings you’re likely to express upon attainment are a blase yawn, coupled with a sarcastic finger swirl. Inversely, pie-in-the-sky goals set too far down the pike which, upon further consideration, are considered to be way too ambitious, elicit an equally ineffective consequence. The bottom line – no movement at all. Use the feedback you receive from each attempt and each reevaluation to make appropriate adjustments. Knowing how high to set the bar takes some trial and error based on your objective self-appraisals. This is one instance where either modesty or false bravado will serve you well. Keep fine-tuning until you ultimately hit that sweet spot where the challenges only slightly exceed your sense of competence. This is especially true during the early stages. Once you get into the rhythm of the dance and your self-efficacy becomes more pervasive, you can attempt to stretch out the challenges without risking a drop off in confidence from pulling up a tad short.


* Goal satisfaction should begin easy and get more difficult.
In keeping with that same train of thought and what bears repeating is, goal satisfaction should start easy and get progressively more difficult. A wise rule of thumb is that self-efficacy, your belief that the goal can be met without much strain, should begin with a resounding “slam-dunk”. Once this consideration is assured, you can start attempting the lower percentage shots, the “three pointers”. Go ahead, survey your buddies about the most difficult aspect of any activity, be it a term paper or work-out, and the unanimous consensus will point directly to getting started. Once you prime the pump, your energy surges and things just seem to get easier. Try this little experiment on a day when you feel too lethargic or out-of-sorts to train. Establish a very modest goal, say, simply changing into your sweats and plopping your lazy butt onto your bicycle seat. No joke. What typically happens then is, that goal achieved, you effortlessly slip into convincing yourself to proceed with a quick and easy “ride in the park”. What you’ve done is minimize the negativity of fretting and ruminating that usually accompanies your concerns stemming from bailing prematurely from your objectives and, “not getting the job done”. By utilizing this super-minimal effort strategy, you can reframe your inner dialogue, “props to me, since I’ve already surpassed what I set out to do”. Feeling lighter and unburdened, you can now continue to boogy down the road. Before you know it, you’re stepping into a well-deserved shower. This phenomenon is not hard to explain. It’s a result of the way our nervous systems are hard-wired. As a rock proceeds to roll down a hill, its energy is exclusively provided by its own momentum.

* Goals are specific and measurable.
Goals must be specific and measurable. Suppose you decide to improve on a counterproductive aspect of your lifestyle by cutting out simple carbs right before you go to bed. A pattern you’ve established from reviewing the daily entries in your training journal (a previous goal which you’ve selected) is that you typically get uncontrollable sweet tooth yearnings and eventually succumb to a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia at around ten in the evening while you watch the nightly news. Seeking creative solutions to this nutritional dalliance, you attempt a plan of distraction. Having carefully reviewed this article a number of times and following its suggestions to the letter, you correctly formulate a blueprint which translates into immersing yourself in woodworking projects, your fave-rave pastime, from ten to ten forty p.m., in your brand spanking new workshop. By first removing yourself from the place and time where your cravings usually occur (for the uninitiated, some review of involuntary classical conditioning will provide the theoretical rationale of this particular situation), you’ve made a heads up choice. What’s more, if this particular prescription falls short, you can implement plan B, either by modifying the time duration or by attempting another activity altogether (like sex for example, which has a greater capacity to distract) all the while maintaining the understanding that reprogramming your conditioned responses to external stimuli, like time of day, will ultimately spell the difference. Don’t for one second think that I couldn’t continue this discussion ad infinitum by deftly switching my focus to the elimination of negative self-talk or the creation of effective pre-competition routines as my objectives. This should serve as a warning-don’t get me started.


* Goals are process rather than outcome oriented.
And finally, goals should be process rather than outcome oriented. This includes the acknowledgement that goal achievement should be within your control. You have no control over your competition, your coaches, or weather conditions, just yourself. As an example, consider the variability of your competition. The effort and preparation that may pay off with a high standing in one race may not produce bupkus on another day. Same effort. Same prep work. Different competition and surrounding circumstances. For many, this is a sea change in their approach to cycling. Trust in yourself to the extent that when your technique, lifestyle, fitness level and mental preparations have been adequately attended to, the outcome will take care of itself. It’s really the only way to fly.

Photos by Dominik Walker


About the author:

Dr. Julian Morrow, who by the way prefers to be referred to as J (please no Dr. J jokes either) graduated “quite a few years ago” from the University of Wisconsin where he was a member of the wrestling team. “Several years later”, after exploring an unsatisfying succession of totally unrelated careers (while half-heartedly attending graduate school in psychology) an insightful moment occurred that cleared his vision. Committed and focused, he completed his Ph.D. in counseling psychology from New York University despite the disappointment of having to “end run” one last obstacle. He explains this final hurdle by narrating the story of being unable to recruit even one faculty member to join his dissertation committee, “rejections were, one hundred percent in agreement,” his proposal topic was deemed “interesting but frivolous”. He continues, “this event occurred before sport psychology was considered ‘legit’ in the eyes of academia, and my topic of choice had to do with self-concept and athletic performance”. So, being a pragmatist, he “somewhat reluctantly” gave up the ghost, that is, until several years later, when a critical mass of interest and support, “even academia hopped on the bandwagon”, allowed him to return to sport psychology and pursue a variety of “different research objectives and roles” that now encompass this burgeoning specialization. He’s taught (full and part time at various universities), authored (research papers, text chapters, popular magazines), consulted (professional athletes and teams, NCAA, USOC), and continues to enjoy his albeit scaled back, semi-retired, career. What has been J’s most satisfying experience as a sport psychologist? “Thus far, I would say mentoring a wonderful high school student for three years. The relationship culminated with Matt being rewarded for his research efforts by being selected as a finalist in the highly competitive and respected Intel Science Competition”. By the way, the topic that the two explored together – Goal setting, expert feedback and verbal leaping ability.

Dr. J Morrow is a long-time friend of Podium Sports Journal and a member of the Podium Advisory Board – to learn more about Dr. Morrow check out his professional bio.


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