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A class of athletes lacking goals?

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Today I was teaching a class of high school student athletes. They go to a top sports high-school and typically have four or more hours of practice a day. It’s quite a nice gig actually. After the first period, which is usually morning training, there is a breakfast served. It’s a delicious and healthy, whole grain oatmeal with salad, bread, cheese, tea, milk and juice. They have a normal school day after that, but then have training or practice again after school for a couple of hours or more. It seems pretty gender equal and there are a huge variety of sports. Everything from motocross to ballroom dancing. Anyway, back to the original topic.

I asked them to list three goals they had personally for their sport. Now, since I’ve done this before I was not surprised but the response, but their coach was shocked. Only about four people in the class were able to list three goals. And honestly they were really reaching for that third goal. I recall some like “to play my sport” or “to have fun”. Albeit those could be technically considered goals, as far as I see they are more along the line of desires. The rest of the students had one or two goals, and a majority of those were things like “play in the top league” or “play professionally.”

That’s not all though! Then I drew a line down the board and wrote “outcome” on one side and “performance” on the other. I predicted that if they read me their goals out loud, and I made a hash mark in the correct category, there would be zero on the performance side. Luckily I was wrong; one girl had written a goal, “score more goals than last game”.  Now, the interesting thing about these two kinds of goals (outcome/results versus performance/process) is that the effect of using them is also different! Outcome goals usually give a kind of overall motivating or competitive drive, but performance goals help you practice and train more effectively and grow self-confidence.  So here we had a whole class of serious athletes, and all of their personal goals were not only years away from being realized, but they were mostly the same kind of goal, which means they could only use one-half of the power that proper goal setting unleashes.  It’s safe to say that none of them were using goal setting on a daily basis to increase their potential and their success in sport.

Professional athletes learn through experience

It’s such a shame that the use of goals is not more widely understood, even among professional athletes. Some, however, have figured it out through experience. Lance Armstrong said:

I realize that there are many variables outside my control in my quest, but focusing on the big goal down the road really motivates me. To help me stay focused, I set micro-goals such as races or training achievements that bring me one step closer to being at my best for major goals.

There are loads of other athletes who also talk about the use of micro-goals in their training and competition. Unfortunately it usually takes years of experience, and a certain maturity, to figure out how to make goals work on your own. However, I think goals are like any other skill or subject. If you come up with a good method, you can learn it a lot faster. Languages are like this. I’ve met people who’ve studied the same language for twenty years and still can barely say “good morning”. Then there are people who pick up a new language in four years. We could even look at math. Everybody has the ability to learn math in school at to about the same extent. So why do math testing rates vary so much across schools and across countries? Everybody’s method is different!

Knowledge is power, but experience gives wisdom

So what is the method to learn better goal setting technique? I like to call it the “educational method.” I think the only person who can figure out how to best use goals is the person themselves, but knowledge can be borrowed from successful people who have gone before. For example, lets look at Armstrong’s comment again. He uses two kinds of goals. A big, motivating “dream goal” and smaller micro-goals to track his performance.

So when I translate that to a common esport like League of Legends I would have a goal like “2000+ elo” to motivate me to practice hard and play seriously. Then I would have smaller training goals that I can track game-to-game, like “die less times this week than I did last week” or “get ganked less than 2 times” or “get my carry more kills than last game.”  You should make your own personal goals specific to your situation, and don’t make too many, or you’ll end up ignoring them all. One common goal I often see on the LoL reddit channel from pros giving advice is to focus on measurable game objectives like ‘creep score.’ A sample would look like, “more than X cs by X minute.” You can change that for any position on the team. For junglers learning their timers it would be, “buff spawns only up for <10 seconds at any point before than 10 minute mark.”

Additionally there is another kind of goal that golfers and tennis players use a lot. It’s called a “process goal” and revolves around a specific skill. A goal for a tennis player’s serve might be, “bounce the ball 3 times, use two calming breaths, and say my self-talk phrase before every single serve.” A golf player might have a goal for sand-trap strokes, “check the lie twice, clench and then relax my wrists two times fully, take a cleansing breath, and swing.” Both athletes are trying to increase their overall consistency using a specific pre-preperation routine, and the set a simple goal to make sure they do it every time they have to use that skill.

For a Starcraft 2 player there are a multitude of moments that could benefit from goals like these. From simple situations like “scout my base perimeter at 15 supply as terran vs. protoss” to complex ones like “queue up the unload command on retreating medivacs which intend to be idle.” These might seem more like behaviors or practices, but treating them like goals makes you more likely to learn them and turn them into reflex behaviors.

Improve the goals you have

A lot of people already have fine goals and just need to make them stronger.  Good goals are inherently trackable or measurable. If you can’t track your goal, change it so that it has that ability. Usually goals are written down as well, which forces you to be more conscious of it during practice.

A handy acronym for improving goals is SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time frame. The guidelines are pretty self-explanatory, a good goal will satisfy 3 or 4 of them.  Write down the letters next to a goal to grade yourself and see where you are lacking.  For example “get level 2 weapons every game (sMA)” could be modified to “PvZ get level 2 weapons every non-rush game by 14 minute mark (SMA T).”  I’m still not sure if that goal could be made Relevant since Starcraft 2 is such a variable game, but if you practice it in every game then you sure will know which games it is relevant in by the end.

Goals can help you improve your performance, have more efficient practices, challenge yourself effectively or more often, increase your confidence, pride, and satisfaction with your play, and give you an inner drive to succeed. So if you haven’t tried it before, get a notebook and start today. Share your past or current experiences with goal setting in the comments below!