Headspace

To set goals or not to set goals

Aug 7, 2020

Runner determined to reach her goals

If you read up on the concept of achievement, you are bound to come across chapters on the setting of goals. The first school of thought places much emphasis on the outcome and every section is broken down into chunks toward achieving the final outcome or result. Goals are set up for each step of the way for example current, short-term, long-term, and of course, the ultimate goal. From this, a structured schedule of action steps is carefully formulated to assist progress gradually toward the ultimate goal. These schools of thought would say that goals are central to achieving everything and anything.

The second school of thought places more emphasis on the journey instead of the outcome. The focus is on the process or system, the routines and being fully in the action steps that eventually make-up the process. The emphasis is on the experience of the journey and to acknowledge the learning and qualities, which the journey brings along the way. If the outcome is achieved, this is a bonus! This school would clarify what you want, (set a goal) place it at the back of your mind, and focus on improving in the moment to moment process.

Both of the above, in my experience, can be equally valuable models contributing towards achievement. After many years of working with a variety of sportspeople from amateur to professional, I have seen that whether you choose the first or the second school of thought, or even a combination of the two, all depends on your relationship with expectation and pressure.

Some great athletes love the adrenaline brought about from the pressure of top of the mind goals. These athletes harness adrenaline and make this pressure serve their performance. This group of athletes would choose the first school of thought. An example of such a champion was Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian of all time thus far. He is known to set goals of specific times for specific races, which he often achieved. These goals were set and addressed years, to months to minutes before he dived in the pool.

Other equally great athletes have had to learn to handle the discomfort of the adrenaline that comes with competition. These sportspeople prefer to use tools to contain or calm the adrenaline, so as to compose the plethora of symptoms adrenaline can bring. This allows them to stay aware and engaged in the moment, without feeling overwhelmed by the adrenaline and in so doing serves their performance. These athletes would choose to lessen the pressure and expectation that focusing on the outcome brings, and they would, therefore, choose the second school of thought as their preferred manner of “goal setting.”

An example of another athlete who made history was Nadia Comaneci. She was the first gymnast to ever score a perfect score of 10.0 at the Olympics. Her procedure of achievement was likened to the second school of thought. Of course, her goal was to win a gold medal, very few competitive athletes do not set goals to win. However, Nadia’s focus was much less on her goal, and much more on her system and toolbox she has committed to long term. Her unwavering commitment to her finely tuned system of training and competing is what eventually won her “the perfect 10” making history. When she competed she would say, “… I hope I am going to do a good routine here – because I know I have prepared everything I have done in the gym.” Nadia also speaks of her mental toughness toolbox that she used to stay present and bring her subconscious mind to the fore.

As you can see from the above, whether you choose to have a particular outcome/goal  and work hard to achieve it, or whether you have a particular process set and you work hard to achieve it, both do not seem to influence the eventual outcome. Both of the above achievement procedures have been experienced successfully by the greatest sportspeople of our time!

What is most important here is to know how ‘foreground goals’ or ‘background goals’, adrenaline levels, expectations, and the accompanying pressure or lack thereof, impact your state of mind. A good understanding of the effect of the above on your mind, body and performance, will give you an excellent clue as to what and when to choose which approach for achieving anything in sport and life.

Toni Gaddie


Toni Gaddie is as a Clinical and Sports Psychologist who assists national and international sports champions and business leaders in becoming and maintaining their “whole champion” status. She is also the co-founder of the Champion’s Academy. Read more about Toni here.

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