Goal setting is very important in sport. That is undeniable! Over time, athletes become very good at setting goals for training and competition, and often go through the process of setting clear, SMART goals in a subconscious fashion.

While the process of setting goals in the performance setting will require little effort, setting goals in less familiar environments, such as when injured or when planning for life after sport, often require considerable more thought and effort. But it is in such settings that goal setting can be really come into its own.

Knowing what you want to achieve is paramount to managing time, and it’s a lot easier to make decisions when we know what we want to achieve in the short, medium and long term. Goal setting also plays a role in coping with setbacks and may well be the key to striking a healthy life balance and maintaining a lifestyle conducive to performance.

Coping with Injury

Setting goals can be a great way to overcome injury.  An athlete doesn’t have to think about what they want to achieve after the injury – this often results in over-compliance to rehab programmes and rushing back to training before they’re ready – but they can think about the process goals that will help them make the most of the time out with injury.  Depending on the individual, the sport and the injury, these are some goals that an athlete might set while injured:

1. To undertake all exercises prescribed by they physiotherapist – no more and no less – each and every day of rehab.
2. To take up a new hobby, and practice it daily (during normal training time), in order to take the focus away from the injury and not being able to compete.
3. To carry out a 20-minute period of mental imagery, focusing on perfect technique, each day of rehab.
4. To have a massage once every two weeks.
5. To use the downtime to catch up on dental appointments and other things that normally detract from training.
6. To maintain a structured routine throughout the time of injury.

Not all goals need to be performance goals, and outcome and process goals are especially important during times of injury, illness, transition or poor form. By devoting time to things that they would not normally have time for, but which are still important for training and success (e.g. catching up on dental appointments, learning to drive), athletes can continue to be productive and maintain a high level of self-worth.

Managing your time

Over years of working with high performance athletes, I have noticed that those who manage to fit the most into their lives are the ones who know what they want to achieve in both sport and outside of sport.  I’ve come across medical students who have managed to compete at an international level, and triathletes who can fit training for three disciplines around being a full-time student.  There are enough hours in the week – we just need to be motivated enough to use them wisely.

When planning for the week, it’s a good idea to write down a few goals for the week, plan our time, and then reflect on whether or not our allocation of time is reflective of what we want to achieve in that week.  There is no special wand that will suddenly make us ‘time-managed’ but knowing what we want to achieve will make us more efficient with our time.

An attendee at a recent workshop that I delivered declared that he set three goals every day. While his goals may have looked like a simple to do list to the rest of us, there is an important benefit to looking at it this way: goals are something that we want to achieve; a to-do list is simply a list of things we have to do. Viewing our agenda for the day as a series of goals can help motivate us.

Making decisions

We all have important decisions to make from time to time – what subjects do we choose for A-levels? Which university do we attend? What will we do after university? Is it a good idea to become a full-time athlete? Do we want children? Is it time to retire?  For some of us, these decisions will be made or the options at least narrowed down naturally, but most of the time, we have to actively make the effort to wade through the options and decide what we are going to do next.  This takes energy and effort that we would probably prefer to conserve for training, but not making a decision, and leaving it to sit on the back of our minds, can use a lot more energy. Decisions are important!

Knowing what our goals are can greatly help with the decision making process.  If achieving success in your sport is the most important thing in your world, then make sure that you choose a university where you have the facilities, coaching and environment to maintain your training.  There are rarely any right or wrong choices, but if your goals can’t be achieved by the decisions that you have made, you are unlikely to lead a satisfied life.   Making decisions based on your goals also prevents you making them for the wrong reasons, or making them purely to keep others happy.

In summary, goals don’t just help us to perform better – they help us decide what is important to us, to decide what we want to achieve in life, to successfully transition from one phase of life to the next, to deal with injury, to manage our time and to make decisions.  They are the key to managing our lifestyle, whether that be as a student-athlete, retiring sportstar or active mother.  Goal setting, it would appear, is the key to lifestyle management.

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This is an adaptation of an blog post that I wrote for some time ago for my blog athletelifedevelopment.blogspot.ie