Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon
The Mental Edge

Creating Effective Goals for a Successful Performance

By Barbara J. Walker, Ph.D.

Since the New Year has begun, I'm sure that you, like most other athletes, have at least started to think about what you'd like to accomplish in your next running season. If you haven't, then, now's the time. The beginning of the New Year is a great time to evaluate what you'd like to accomplish. Some of you may have had incredible success in the past by deciding the night before an event that you will run a race. Then you happened to perform quite well. For the rest of us mortals, success doesn't happen that way!

The need to set goals depends on how much success you want! Many athletes achieve some success without using formal goal setting. Virtually every great athlete, who consistently wins, uses some form of goal setting.

By definition, a goal is that which an individual is trying to accomplish: it's the objective or aim of an action. In sport, the types of goals set by athletes vary in degree of specificity and difficulty in measuring whether the goal was accomplished. Goals can have a powerful impact on behavior because they become standards by which success or failure is evaluated.

Setting the big goals, like winning, completing a marathon or an Ironman, is the easy part that every athlete does. Setting the smaller goals that get you there is the hard part. Effective goal setting begins when you get past the big goals, and start building the yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily steps that get you to the big goals. This takes work and commitment, but it will prove to be worth it!

Goals work by directing your attention to the relevant aspects of your training. They help you focus, prevent time wasting, and conserve your energy for higher quality workouts. They help you clarify your expectations by allowing you to judge if you're improving. Finally, goals are motivating by providing a personal challenge.

You may set effective goals by making them:

Specific: Break down big goals into smaller and smaller chunks. Set goals that help you focus your attention on specific actions and/or times (e.g. I want to increase my speed by five seconds per mile for a half-marathon in ten months).
Challenging, yet realistic: Challenge yourself, but also make sure there is a chance of success.
Performance focused: Create goals against your own performance, not toward an outcome, like winning or beating an opponent.
Positive: Use positive words to describe what you want to achieve; keep a positive attitude. Record your goals, make a commitment, and tell, and tell someone: When you write down your goals and share them with someone, it helps reinforce your commitment to achieving them. Come, and to make sure you've still having fun.
Keep your goals flexible; Don't be rigid. Use your goal as a guideline, and adjust the goal if it appears too hard or too easy, or if some other event (e g. other life obligations) has moved in the way for you to achieve your particular goal at this time.

Goal setting is an extremely powerful technique for enhancing your athletic performance. It is important, however, that you set goals that will be effective and meaningful. Society places a lot of emphasis on competition and winning, so it is difficult not to focus on the end result and outcome of the competition. Researchers have found, in working with elite athletes, that the best way to win a championship or gold medal is to focus on your performance goals. They have found that putting too much emphasis on winning may increase not only competitive anxiety, but also puts the competition out of the athlete's control.

Who shows up on race day and how other racers perform is totally out of your control. Focusing on your own performance is the only thing you can control. Improving against your past performance rather than comparing yourself against an opponent can bring satisfaction. If you set your goals effectively, and follow through with the goals you set, the outcome goals of winning will take care of itself!

Editor's Note: Dr. Walker is an Ironman triathlete and Boston Marathoner, as well as a Sport Psychologist in private practice. She is available for individual and group consultation, as well as half-and full day workshops. She may be reached through e-mail at: barbara@CenterForHumanPerformance.com or by phone at 513.961.8400.

Dr. Walker has developed a visualization CD specifically tailored to the mental aspects of running a marathon. This CD will take you visually through the Flying Pig Marathon course and contains a guided relaxation exercise, as well as precise mental techniques that will allow you to create an environment of success prior to the marathon. When the real day arrives, you simply recreate what you have already learned to do - your best! Click here for details.