5 Questions to Help Set and Keep Any Athletic Goal

Megan Rapinoe

February is around the corner… which means it’s been a whole 3 weeks of the “new year, new me” mantra playing on repeat in our heads. It also means that the time is nearly upon us when most resolution-ers have packed up shop, retreating back into the all too familiar “new year, new me” remorse.

One clinical psychologist study suggests that by the second week in February, nearly eighty percent of resolution journeys have been cut short (1). As athletes, we set the expectation bar high, often consumed by the daily grind and finding discouragement in the little blunders that leave us thinking we have failed ourselves completely. That is why this year we are putting resolutions in the past! We are setting goals… big, small, achievable and sustainable. With this Q&A framework, you can ask and answer the right questions in order to assure that this time your goals on and off the field are not only achieved but surpassed.

Examples of the questions you may ask during this process;

1. What goals should I strive for?
2. Why is this my goal? Why am I driven to achieve this?
3. When will I achieve my goal? When will I say yes or no?
4. Where did I go wrong, where did I go right? Where can I make changes?

Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates her goal of winning gold at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe of the USA celebrates her goal of winning gold at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

1. What?

What is your goal? If you haven’t set your goal for the new year, it is NOT too late. If you have already forgotten, let’s revisit. Have an overarching theme, taking time to really reflect on the thing that must be prioritized. Maybe it’s something that you want to improve or fulfil or maybe it’s something that terrifies but challenges you. Look to improve areas in your game like physical fitness, technique, tactical awareness or mental stamina in the three categories of goal setting…

  • Performance… “I will cut thirty seconds off my mile pace”. These are often building block goals. They are objective measurements that are set, met, and raised. After shaving off thirty seconds, can you do another five, ten, fifteen? 
  • Process… “I will juggle four days a week outside of practice”. A process goal is a desired outcome that takes you towards the bigger goal. They are under your control and a recommended starting point for any athlete seeking excellence. 
  • Outcome… “I will win the National Title this year”. These goals are often affected by external factors. They are great to work towards but can not be met without clear performance and process standards set in place.

2. Why?

Why is this your goal? Why must you succeed this time around? We’re going deep and we’re creating reason.

Two people jumping up, holding hands under the tree

Your goal is the firm foundation of the tree, but we all know a tree doesn’t start there. It goes deep into the soil and into its roots. Maybe your goal is to improve your tactical awareness by watching and studying at least one game per week, but the “why” is so that you can boost your confidence and become a happier and healthier player on and off the pitch. Take a deep look into the accountability mirror, asking yourself why the cycle of tampered commitment remains unbroken. How bad do you want it? The deeper you dig, the deeper you stabilize. Find your roots. Find your why.

3. When?

Thumbs up and thumbs down

When will you say yes? When will you say no? This part is crucial to the outcome of your dream. Too often we say “okay” to the things that do not align with our goal and “nay” to the things that would take us closer. It is important to prepare for any situation with a clear “yes, I will partake” or “no, I’ll sit this one out”.

For example, if your goal is to get to bed earlier and improve your alertness come game time, you will not compromise a 10:00pm curfew for any reason except the ones that fall under the category of “yes”. Maybe that occasional “yes” is to catch up with friends every other week. Your “no’s” are then all else that fall outside that category. In this circumstance, a late night for one more Netflix episode is a hard “no”. Establishing your list of non-negotiable items eliminates any and all excuses. Your priorities are all grounded in the criteria you set for yourself here.

4. How?

Quote in the foreground and an enthusiastic child in the background

How will you achieve this goal? Write it down. Make it specific and doable at this very moment. Analysis paralysis can often become our biggest enemy, keeping us stuck in the pursuit of perfectionism. There will never be an ideal time to start so do it now with the first micro step. If your goal is to improve your anaerobic fitness in the weight room, start big and filter down. If a large plan of action is to hit the weights Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:00am, one micro action could be to simply find which gym clothes to wear. Lay them out, check it off the to-do list, proceed to the next step.

A study by psychologist Gail Matthews found that those who wrote down their goals were thirty-three percent more likely to achieve them (2). Get it in writing. Do not make it perfect but make it well-defined.

5. Where?

Where did you go wrong? Where did you go right? The fifth and final piece, is all about continuous accountability in whichever way success is measured for you. Ask the tough question, where did I go wrong or right in my execution? If a goal is to improve your nutrition, keep note of the specific times you could have done better and how your performance suffered. Be sure to also track the moments you maintained accountability, observing the high level of energy following an adequate day of fueling. This is where you find a balance between grace and discipline… Have the ability to forgive the times you faltered but the discipline to learn from the little failures, learning and doing better the next time around. No matter the duration or enormity of the goal, there is immense value in regular check-ins. After you’ve set your goal, established your why, created your “yes’s and “no’s, and taken action around a plan, accept that the journey has just begun.

There is certainly no foolproof method to altering your habits and changing your life. There is no magic switch to flip and keep on, but when the motivation isn’t there, how will you take back control? How will you make 2020 the year of colossal transformation for your athletic goals? We are confident that if all else fails, go back to your why. As athletes the pressure from parents, coaches, and teammates can be a heavy weight to bear so this year, do it for you. Do it for the player and person your future self will soon thank you for.

1. Luciani, Joseph. Why 80 Percent of New Year’s Resolutions Fail (2015). https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2015-12-29/why-80-percent-of-new-years-resolutions-fail

2. Matthews, Gale. Goals Research Summary (2015).  https://www.dominican.edu/academics/lae/undergraduate-programs/psych/faculty/assets-gail-matthews/researchsummary2.pdf

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