“If you don’t know where you are going,
you’ll end up someplace else.”
- Yogi Berra
Goals are the driving force of our efforts. Whenever we read a book, listen in class, or run down a drop shot, it’s because we’re pursuing a goal. Same goes for hopping in a car and driving somewhere. We do this because we’ve got a destination in mind, and as the Yankee legend quoted above so cleverly reminds us, if we aren’t aware of our goals, we’re unlikely to achieve a desired result.
Thoughtful goal setting is a foundation of success. A helpful guideline for setting effective goals is to make them SMART. This acronym stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable (with effort), Relevant, and Time-based. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Setting a specific goal means you know exactly what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. A measurable goal is one that can be easily evaluated, to know if you have achieved it or not. (These first two aspects of SMART goals are often neglected, and we’ll say a bit more about this below.) A helpful goal is also achievable – something that is within the realm of possibility rather than simply wishful-thinking. At the same time, we want our goals to require lots of effort and hard work, so not too easy, but achievable with effort. Next, a relevant goal is one that aligns with your purpose. If you can answer the question, “Why is this goal important to you?” then it’s relevant. Finally, making a goal time-based means that you give yourself a deadline to reach it. Identifying a time-frame when you expect your goal to become reality will prevent you from procrastinating on it or “kicking the can down the road.”
You might ask what is an ideal time-frame for your goals. That’s a good question, and although the answer depends on the nature of each goal, your best bet is to set a combination of short and long-term goals. For example, you might set a year-long goal to improve your fitness, as measured by specific gains in strength and speed. To ensure you reach this larger goal, you would also set weekly and even daily goals for the number of sprints you’ll run and repetitions you’ll do in the weight room. By setting both short and long-term goals, you’ll have both a broader vision to guide you and a roadmap to get there.
In addition to setting goals that are SMART, it’s also important to have a balance between process and outcome goals. An outcome goal focuses on the result, such as winning a tournament or obtaining a certain UTR. A process goal focuses instead on the steps you take to get there, such as hitting 30 extra serves at the end of practice every day for a month. To give another example in a school setting, an outcome-based goal would be getting straight A’s. A process-based goal, which helps you reach that outcome, would be taking notes on every class lecture or reading assignment and re-writing your notes before going to bed each day. As these examples show, process-based goals tend to be entirely within our control, whereas outcome-based goals have some element of chance. The good news is that if you focus on the process, then the desired outcome usually follows. For this reason, I recommend setting at least three process goals for every outcome goal.
I mentioned above that individuals often struggle to set goals that are specific and measurable. When stating our goals, we often make the mistake of expressing our aspirations without being specific about our path to getting there. This is especially common when targeting intangible qualities such as attitude or focus. We might, for example, express a desire to “have a more positive attitude.” This is a laudable sentiment that most psychologists and coaches would endorse, yet the challenge remains to state specifically what having a more positive attitude looks like or sounds like. What exactly would you like to change? Asked another way, the questions is, “How will you evaluate, or measure, whether you’ve achieved the goal?” In order to answer these questions, you effectively have to define what a “positive attitude” means to you.
Here are some options. First, you could set a goal to respond in a more positive way to your mistakes. More specifically, your goal could be to critique your errors without insulting yourself. Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m so lazy,” you would say “I need to get my feet moving more quickly next time.” Another option would be to have a more positive response to feedback from your coaches. The specific and measurable goal here could be to nod your head, repeat back the advice and say, “got it” each time your coach gives you instruction. If you set goals such as these, you’ll be well on your way to demonstrating a positive attitude.
To get the most out of your practice time, it’s necessary to have a goal that you’re pursuing. Otherwise, you’ll just be going through the motions. In fact, having a goal in mind is one of the defining characteristics of “deliberate practice,” which is a topic we’ll be discussing in depth in the coming months. In a challenging sport like tennis, it’s impossible to be perfect. (That would be an unrealistic goal.) If you’re a goal-oriented person, that’s a good thing, because it means you’ll always have something to work on. For as long as you keep playing, you can keep improving. And if you enjoy the process of getting better every day, then setting and pursuing goals will be a meaningful part of your sport experience.