How to Set Goals for Success

Written by VersusThu Aug 18 2022
How to Set Goals for Success

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Know where you want to take your game. Learn how to set your goals for success for both in-season and off-season.

How to Set Goals in Sports

Use these 5 tips to take your goal setting to the next level.

When it comes to mental tactics for improving sports performance, there is no more popular strategy than goal setting. Athletes and coaches know this practice works.

Parents know it can motivate student athletes. And decades of research show it improves performance in several areas of life and business.

However, there is an easy trap to fall into with goal setting.

Because setting goals is something that makes intuitive sense to all of us—we think it is easy. 

We might think that goal setting simply involves deciding what we (or our athletes) want to achieve, staying focused on that goal, and working hard towards it. 

We also make the mistake of thinking that all general advice on goal setting applies to sports—it doesn’t.

Modern research from sports psychology tells us that while some aspects of standard goal setting might improve sports performance and enjoyment, conventional techniques don’t automatically apply to athletes—particularly those at a high level. 

Researchers recommend that goal setting in sports should be done on a case-by-case basis, taking into account factors related to the individual athlete and specific sports context.

Does this mean we should all throw our hands up in the air and say goal setting is too hard? Absolutely not! 

But it does mean we need to be intentional about setting goals. Coaches and athletes shouldn’t be too rigid about adhering to things like SMART goals and Goal Setting Theory, as these were designed with the general population in mind. 

By all means, use what feels right from existing models, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to go about goal setting in sports.

To give you some inspiration for your own journey, we’ve recorded an exclusive video interview with softball legend Jennie Finch, where we asked for her thoughts on goal setting.


Talk About Overqualified

To say that Jennie Finch knows a thing or two about goal setting is an understatement.

A talented child athlete, Finch set the goal of making the USA softball team when she was only 14 years old (with some prompting from a coach). 

Finch didn’t just make it to the Olympics (led USA to gold in 2004 and silver in 2008), she went down in history as one of the most successful and influential softball players of all time.

A National Softball Hall of Fame Inductee, Finch shattered several NCAA records: including going 32 - 0 her junior season and racking up 60 consecutive wins. She left college softball the career leader in strikeouts, shutouts, innings pitched, and was tied for no-hitters. To this day, Finch still retains several top-10 spots in college softball all-time lists.

Finch retired in 2010 to focus on her family. She is a busy mom of three children, runs a softball academy with training camps across the nation, and is involved in several other business and philanthropic endeavors.

While we’ve done our best to capture the spirit of her advice in this article, Finch’s enthusiasm about goal setting—particularly for young athletes—is difficult to express in words. If you’re interested in this topic (and you should be), head over to Versus and sign up. You’ll get access to the exclusive video this article is based on, plus lots more.

Now, let's take a look at Jennie Finch’s 5 top tips for goal setting in sports.

Know Your Why

Becoming a professional athlete isn't easy.

To be successful, you have to be able to put in the work others won’t. You also have to be willing to miss out on many of the things non-athletes get to enjoy. 

Even so, we think it’s worth it. 

We’ve never come across an elite athlete who regrets the dedication and sacrifice it took to get to the top. Yet most of us are familiar with the feeling of regret from missing out on an achievement or goal because we didn’t do the work.

What does this have to do with knowing your why?

As Finch points out, knowing your why is what gives you the deep motivation and dedication to do the work and make the sacrifice necessary to achieve your goals. 

“If a picture of a gold medal motivates you, put a gold medal everywhere,” she says. “So every morning you know why you're getting up early to get that workout in. You’re sacrificing going to the school dance for that softball tournament, because you have something more that you’re working towards.”

Pro Tip - If you’re having trouble identifying your why, try thinking bigger than goals: think dreams. As Jennie states, “As my game sharpened I had goals—[then] I had dreams.” 

Write Down Long and Short-Term Goals

Once you know your why, it's time to break down you goals into something you can focus on today. 

Looking at Finch’s goal of playing for Team USA in the Olympics, it’s clear there were many smaller goals to achieve on the way there.

Finch’s advice—write down long and short-term goals so you can focus on them. Have some goals that are realistic and achievable, but make sure some are ambitious.

In practice, this might look something like this: A long-term goal of getting a college scholarship, combined with a short-term goal to not let one ball pass when you’re on the field playing first base next game.

Pro Tip - Write your goals down in whatever way is going to help you focus on them the best. That could be writing in a journal, creating a screensaver for your phone, or taping them to the bathroom mirror.   

Track Progress. Expect Failure. Trust the Process

Most people get discouraged by failure, thinking it means a lack of progress—but not Jennie Finch!

In the video, Finch explains how as part of her goal setting practice, she used tracking progress as a way to overcome failure. 

Essentially, Fitch’s approach involves acknowledging that failure is part of the process. In other words, failure is part of the process. 

In her words, “Realize that it’s not going to be smooth sailing. There’s going to be a lot of waves, a lot of hurdles. But it’s a matter of pushing through and not being discouraged. And coming out stronger in the end.”

Because she tracked her progress, Finch could see that even when she experienced failure, she was still making progress. If she had a bad game. A bad couple of weeks. Even a bad season. Finch could see that she was still moving forward, allowing her to lean into the process and get back on track.

Pro Tip - When you experience a failure try this thought exercise. Rewind 3, 6, or even 12 months back. Even with your recent failure, are you still further ahead in terms of personal and athletic development? In most cases, the answer will be “yes”. If so, you're still on track. Trust the process and get back to work!   

Document Your Journey

Now, for those who don’t know Jennie—she’s a big fan of journaling.

If that’s not your thing that's ok. But you might have noticed that all Finch’s goal setting strategies involve some level of recording and reflecting on goals and progress. This is important to note because it gets to the core of how goal setting actually works—it increases focus, drive, and motivation towards a particular outcome.

This might sound simple, but it’s not.

The problems most people have with goal setting are that they lose sight of their why. Don’t make plans for the short and long-term, and get discouraged when progress stalls or is tougher than expected, keep your eyes on the bigger picture.

The solution to all these problems—document your journey.

However you choose to do it, create a system for reviewing and refining goals is essential to maintain the laser-like focus, dedication, and hard work that are required to achieve something big.

Pro Tip - If the idea of keeping a traditional journal or diary isn’t appealing, try something different. Social media and ready-made blog/website/newsletter platforms are a great way to record and track progress digitally (they have the advantage of using video and photo along with writing). Our recommendation is to create a separate account from your personal one and keep it private—remember, this is primarily for you, not to share with the world.  

Celebrate Progress

For this point, we’ll let Finch do the talking. 

On the topic of the importance of celebrating progress, she states:

“It’s so important to set goals, because then our failures, they have purpose. And you can’t appreciate your progress and the journey if you don’t look back. So do take the time to look back and appreciate how far you’ve come to get to the point you’re at right now.”

In this one statement, Finch sums up perhaps the most powerful effect of her goal setting process: it can increase the satisfaction and enjoyment from the game. 

It’s all too easy to get caught up with how you are performing right now. Or how well you and your team did in the last game, and completely lose sight of this important point. 

It’s not that current performance isn’t important—but if we never stop to reflect and celebrate the personal progress and development that comes from participating in sports (regardless of the outcome)—we risk missing some of the greatest gifts it has to offer.

Pro Tip - In this context, celebrating doesn’t have to be done with other people, or include any special event or reward (although that's fine if you want to). Celebrating means taking the time to mindfully review your personal growth and development, with a focus on how far you’ve come as an individual.       

Forge Your Own Path

Reading about goal setting for sports can get confusing.

Anything you read will invariably have some tips, advice, or a framework to use (we’ve done the same in this article!).

But then the research from sports psychology tells us an individualized approach is the best, and each athlete needs a unique strategy. 

If that’s the case, what’s the point in reading articles about goal setting? Shouldn't we just figure it out ourselves until the scientists decide what's best?

Each individual athlete, sport, and team are likely to always have too many variables for a ‘one size fits all’ approach to goal setting in sports.

Our advice is to do what the research suggests—come up with your own model.

Read up on the science behind goal setting. Familiarize yourself with how elite athletes like Jennie Finch approach it. Ask your coaches for advice and work with them on setting goals.

Then most importantly, try things out for yourself. Experiment to see what works best for you and forge your own path.

Get it right, and maybe one day you might be the athlete people are asking for tips on goal setting.

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Ali Krieger

Ali Krieger


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