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Top 5 Mistakes in Goal-setting

This is the third instalment of my goal-setting fundamentals course.

So far we covered:

In this third lesson we’ll go over five common goal-setting pitfalls that trip up even the most motivated athletes who are trying to go pro.

1. Not clarifying your dream goal

I’ve met a lot of athletes who can’t answer the question, “Where do they want to be in 3 years.” This is actually sometimes a dangerous question to ask yourself, but you have to ask it anyway. There are only two possible answers.

  1. You want to be somewhere farther along the path you are currently traveling, or
  2. You don’t.

Some of the athletes realize in our sessions that they can’t motivate themselves to “do what it takes” simply because their dream is not on the same path. Do you want to achieve a high level in your sport? Sometimes the dream is “to have fun,” sometimes it’s, “to have a career of some sort,” and sometimes it’s just, “I don’t know.”

Despite my bold claims earlier about workhorse goals, actually setting and maintaining any sort of goal takes a modicum of sacrifice. If your “hunger” is missing, then the sacrifice is work instead of pleasure. If the path requires sacrifice and does not end where you want there is no motivation. If the actual dream goal is off to the side, then there is no payout for the pain, only distraction.

Not having a dream goal, or having the wrong one, is not a fatal flaw. If you think you have the wrong dream goal, but you know that you really want to be a professional athlete, then it’s possible that being pro is simply a step along the way. Where are you headed beyond being a pro? Maybe being a pro is a variable step you can swap out for another goal and still achieve your dream. That’s healthy.

I also help athletes to set dream goals they didn’t have before. A lot of times it’s because you don’t dare to dream it. So I make that possible. Let me tell you now, “If you want to become a professional esport athlete, set your sights on that goal. Have no fear. Nobody ever died from not reaching their goal. Plenty of people die without ever having tried.”

Remember to visit the Q&A and ask ANY questions that come up.

2. Not properly assigning value to steps leading to their dream goal

Going along with clarifying your dream goal comes the second pitfall. Not valuing the skills needed to achieve their goal.

Once a year I run a workshop called, “Inciting the drive to write.” It’s for academic researchers who can’t stand writing. The first thing I ask them is, “What do you get paid to do?”

They come up with all sorts of answers, “research, thinking, teaching, etc.” Then I ask them, “If you didn’t write a single word from this point, how long would you keep your job.” Most of them saidthey wouldn’t last the week.

It turns out, they are professional writers. They didn’t like it when I told them that all the research, thinking, and teaching were the background, and that the writing was their “performance.” It wastheir public display. It’s the reason, ultimately, that they are able to communicate their thoughts, and therefore earn a living.

They didn’t like it, but they begrudgingly agreed. That was the first step towards mentally assigning value towards writing. Only then were they able to start making the small sacrifices necessary to improve. Just as with any skill, sacrifice is required for any dedicated effort.

What daily task do you begrudge that is actually a part of your goal? What thing do you avoid, knowing that it’s only a small part of your dream? That missing it today isn’t that important really?

How big a part of your dream is it. Because if it’s an essential part, and you mentally refuse to recognize that, then you’ll never be able to sacrifice in order to make it happen. Do you really need to go out Friday? Or could the night be spent in pursuit of making your dreams a reality.

3. Not letting them go – keeping around goals that harm you

How many of you are perfectionists or have that tendency? Raise your hands. Ok then it’s likely that you have this problem. Heck a lot of people have this problem regardless. Letting the goals go.

Workhorse goals are meant to be discarded. Recycled. Reused. But not piled up. Too often people will slack off and postpone their daily or weekend goals. You rationalize it by saying, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.” The fact is, it’s not a bad to skip a goal and it does not need to be atoned.

Toss out your goals expired goals. Put them in a pile of ideas for later use. Recycle. Reuse. Reduce. Don’t make an inbox of your workhorse goals. Wake up each day fresh, with no burdens, and decide before your training what you want or need to do. Then make a goal targeting the day. Don’t use a goal designed for a previous version of yourself. It’s hard to move forward by repairing the past. Simply focus on the present.

4. Assigning competition versus mastery for workhorse goals

Dream goals are hard to control. Sometimes they involve other people. I call these agents. If your dream goal looks something like this, “Get to the world championships,” then you have other agents in your goal. The enemy team you have to beat to make it into the championship. They have partial control over your goal. If they just slacked off and didn’t practice they could hand you your goal. On the other hand you can make one small error and they can snatch your dream away from you in the blink of an eye.

These goals with multiple agents in them are usually competitive goals. “Beat Alex Ich, who is my idol.” “Make it to LCS.” These goals are based around comparing yourself, to other people.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Competitive athletes need to have a healthy drive to win. It’s even useful outside of sport. I learned Japanese because I wanted to tell some Japanese people how pissed I was at them, in their own language, so they couldn’t write me off. That rage-fueled goal powered me through two years of intense study. (I didn’t achieve it, although now I can at least speak and mostly read Japanese, so checkMARK!)

The problem is, this goal sucks as a workhorse goal. What if your daily goal is, “be higher on the ladder than when I woke up.” This goal sucks. How does that help you improve? What if you are playing people better than you, and you learn a lot, but you are worse on the ladder? Goal failed? What if you end up higher on the ladder, but you stomped noobs all day training stuff you already knew how to do. You feel great. Goal accomplished? Even though you are a worse player now?

Your workhorse goals need to have one agent in them. YOU. You are the agent of your own destiny on a daily basis. Not your opponenet, not your idol, and not your teammates. At the end of the day, in sport, your only goal should be, “be better than I was when I woke up.”

There’s a mantra that I go by. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” There’s a lot that goes into this, which I’ll get into in a later lesson. Today, right now, it just means that I want you to not concentrate so much on referencing yourself against other people in your daily training. Eventually, if you stick to your guns and train the right way, you’ll be better every day you go to sleep. You’ll get so good nobody will be able to ignore you.

This brings me to my last pitfall.

5. Shying away from competition based goals

Wait a second. Wait. One. Second. Didn’t I just write an entire 6 paragraph rant about not using competitive based goals with multiple agents in them? Aren’t they bad? What’s going on.

Turns out they are bad for daily training. They are also good for daily training, as fuel for the fire. Think of it this way, mastery goals (the ones where you try to master yourself, think zen master), are good for progress. Your mastery workhorse goals are your measuring stick. Each day you measure how tall you are. YOu look at how tall you were yesterday, not how tall some random dude you meet in the ladder is.

Then when you sit down before another game. You think, “Why am I doing this again?” “Why am I not just playing and having fun?” “How did this game become my obsession? My passion? My drive? My competitive life?” You look up and see your dream goal. The one you absolutely must strive for. Whether it’s beating that idol, defeating all other mid laners in the world, or simply proving to every doubter and hater you ever had that you. are. the. best. All the effort you put in was worth it.

That’s your fuel. That’s the fire that drives your daily sacrifice. You need to have a clear dream goal to power that fire. You need to use that dream goal to motivate yourself. But never confuse it with the steps you take on a daily basis. In fact, your competitive goal explains exactly why you can not, under any circumstances, narrow your focus to some paltry daily goal like beating an opponent.

What use is beating some chump on the ladder? So what if you measure up higher than him? So what if they measure up higher than you? Your goal is not there, not living in solo Q. Your goal lives under the lights, on stage, striving against the best in the world. You can’t waste time trying to train yourself beat somebody slightly better than yourself, or slightly worse than yourself.

You’ll waste your whole life. The only fast track, the only way up, is to beat yourself every day. Or every week. Improve. Watch your height grow. Know that it is growing, because your measure is always yourself. Waiting their right behind you. Breathing down your neck. Saying, “Is this the day you can’t beat me? Is this the day you can’t learn one new thing? Is this the day you waste 6 hours winning games and losing games, and never focusing on the most important thing in the match, your own training goals?”

Your mastery goals will carry you toward your competitive goal. In the important matches, you know you’ll need to win. In those cases it’s make or break. Strive to defeat all before you. They are the steps you will trod on to climb upwards. But after the big match, win or lose, keep mastering yourself. Before you know it, you’ll be up on the stage as well. You were so good they couldn’t ignore you anymore.

Final thoughts

Ultimately it does take a lot of work and knowledge to pull off successful, daily goal setting. People often think it’s not worth the extra time, since they could instead be training. I promise that any time you spend crafting proper workhorse goals will be earned back double or more through your training effectiveness.

Don’t worry if you notice yourself falling into any of the pitfalls listed above, or you only notice small gains in your training in comparison with the large annoyance you might feel at having to construct goals. Goal-setting is a skill, and that means the more time you put into it the better you get. It’s also a transferable skill. Not only does goal-setting improve your athletic career, it also improves any task you undertake.

Almost all professional athletes, almost all successful people, are good at goal-setting and using workhorse style goals to motivate themselves, to get things done. Keep practicing and it is inevitable that you will be able to use that same skill to achieve your own success.


Leading from this goal-setting course, there are a lot of different ways you can go. So here is your task for the Portfolio Forum. Visit your portfolio and answer the following questions:

  1. What is the BIGGEST thing that hampers your training?
  2. What slows you down most in your goals?