Use goals like the Pros

We’ve been privileged to work with some really successful athletes and teams in elite sport. We’ve seen how they operate day-to-day and we’ve worked with them in the most pressurised sporting environments like World Championships and Olympic Games.

One of the things we’ve noticed that’s pretty different and unique is how they constantly use goals in delivering great performance and getting great results. Here are the nuts and bolts of what they do.

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High performance headlines

Knowing what you’re aiming for is essential if you’re going to deliver and perform well. The world’s best make sure they are using goals in a powerful way that helps them keep delivering great performances day after day. For them, goals are:

  • Not all about the result. While outcome or result goals are important, what’s more important are process goals – goals that help you be clear about the stuff you need to do – and how – to get to the end outcome goal.
  • Never absolute. Setting one goal that you succeed or fail on is limiting. Setting a range of levels for a goal gives you options and will stretch and motivate you and at the same time fuel your confidence.
  • A process not an event. Your world is changing constantly. So the idea of setting goals and never reviewing or tweaking them is ridiculous.

The full viewpoint

Not many people use goals in a powerful way to fuel their performance and motivation. That’s really annoying because having worked with world-class performers who use goals brilliantly, we know how important they are and how powerful they can be if they’re used in the right way. Great athletes – and great performers in any arena – don’t just have goals, they use them and they use them superbly . Goals are an essential tool in getting ready, in delivering excellence, in keeping focused under pressure and in constantly improving.

And using goals powerfully is not hard. It doesn’t take time. It’s really just doing a few simple things well and doing them consistently.

It’s not all about the result

The world of sport is defined by winning and losing. It’s a harsh environment in that way, just like the world of work. It’s easy to get stuck in that win/loss mentality, but a focus only on results can be very limiting and counterproductive to performing well.

The great athletes and teams that we’ve worked with have taken the time to take control of their goals. That means that while they know what result they’re after or is expected of them, focusing on these goals doesn’t help them be ready to perform and do what’s needed. They know that goals that are only about the result may simply increase pressure and stress, threaten their confidence and motivation and actually lead to under performance.

What is it about then?

It’s about performance. Their goals are focused on what they need to do to get the result they want. These are PROCESS goals – tactical, technical, behavioural and attitude goals – things they need to do – or a way they need to be – that will give them the best possible chance of getting the result they want.

These become their performance ingredients and a recipe that they focus on day to day. They know if they follow this then they’re maximising the chances of delivering the result. These sorts of goals are 100% in their control – as opposed to the result that is often well outside their control. By focusing every day on things that they can control 100%, they gain confidence and they feel empowered and motivated.

For teams, a really clear focus on the process goals is important too because it helps everyone be clear on what approach is needed and helps them be on the same page mentally.

So the Pros take time to set very clear process goals, and in teams, everyone is involved in this. They also do this repeatedly, because the goal posts shift. If the results you’re aiming for change – or the conditions you’re playing in – your process goals will also need to change. The world’s best understand this and will set goals every time they perform – whether in training or in competition – so that they’re clear on what they need to do and what they need to focus on through their performance.

And there’s more

Talking of conditions, it’s pretty rare that conditions don’t change in sport, sometimes from moment to moment. The weather, the surface, what the opposition are doing, injury, luck – things constantly change which means that setting a fixed goal is a ridiculous concept. If you set a goal and conditions deteriorate and your goal becomes unachievable, at best that goal is simply redundant and at worst it’s demotivating . You see the goal is out of reach and it disheartens you and you may reduce your effort. Your confidence may be knocked.

So the worlds best recognise although it’s all about winning and losing, there are different degrees of success within the overall challenge. To make sure goals work for them, they set a range of different targets. They might have a system of typical podium medals of gold, silver and bronze goals.

In this case, Gold goals would be the best possible, dream result or performance – the absolute peak if you deliver your 100% performance. Silver goals are still challenging goals and ones that you’d be proud to achieve, but are attainable if the conditions deteriorate a bit or things don’t go your way. Bronze goals are a minimum standard of delivery that you’ll accept from yourself.

Having a range of goals also helps fuel motivation levels of individuals in a team. While some people will be very motivated by striving for perfection, others feel a bit stressed by that and prefer to start with a lower benchmark, aim for that and work from there. So for teams, having levels of goals become a very useful motivational tool – as is the discussion to set them.

The approach in your organisation?

Is this how you, your team and your organisation approach goals? Too often we see process goals missing in organisations. There are wild assumptions that because everyone knows the critical KPI’s and delivery dates, everyone will be working effectively together to deliver the right process. A recipe for disaster.

And rarely do we see different levels of goals set. Absolutes rule which is completely bonkers. Unless you’re working in highly fixed conditions and everything is predictable. And all your people are motivated in the same way. We haven’t met many organisations like this.

So how effectively are you and your team using goals to fuel your motivation and performance?