We know it’s possible to become a top athlete. Top athletes are made rather than born. Working hard is an essential component in becoming a top athlete, and working hard has lots of advantages in the short-term (value, self-confidence, motivation amongst others). However working hard is sometimes not that fun to do on a daily basis. How can you make sure you do work hard? Or how can you make sure your players do? Well, let me give you some ideas.

What we want is often quite different from the current position we’re in. You have to bridge the gap between your current situation and your wanted one. And this is good! We all have the innate drive to develop, to learn, to get better. To get better, it takes hard work. Now, it’s quite a long way to reach the top of the mountain when you are at the very foot of this mountain. While you’re at it, you do at least see the progress you are making uphill. You see you are getting higher, farther from the beginning and closer to the top. These are indicators of making progress. We all like progress don’t we? Progress comes with feelings of success, of rewards which make you feel good and make you go on and on. If you want to improve physically or mentally the progress isn’t as visible. With not seeing progress you will lose those feelings of success!

Therefore psychologists came up with the tool of goal setting! If you use this tool properly, you will achieve anything you want – stay realistic though. As I said, we like rewards and feelings of success. It’s like dope to our brains. And as a matter of fact that’s exactly what happens in your brain. Those feelings of success are a release of chemicals in your brain (e.g. dopamine) which make you feel good. Those chemicals pleasure the brain, pleasure you. Your brain loves to work hard, it loves to learn. Therefore it releases those chemicals and make sure you go on. So there you have it, that’s just what we need. We need those brain pleasuring chemicals, we need those feelings of success, we need to learn, we need to work hard.

Let’s say you want to lose weight or want to improve your endurance. In doing so you choose running. Every week you want to run 6 km each time. Would you have more feelings of success if you ran those 6 km in one big lap or when you would run 6 laps of 1 km? Out of experience I can tell you you’d have more feelings of success if you run 6 laps. In doing so you give yourself 6 times a feeling of success, of ‘yes, 2 down another 4 to go’. As opposed to a big lap, thoughts are more like ‘pff, another 4 kms’. What does this mean in goal setting then?

Having a goal is great, it directs you to what you want. By setting short term goals (or subgoals) you give yourself the chance to increase feelings of success and seeing improvement. Hence more pleasure in your brain! Think about this. Duncan and Lorenzo are both going to the gym to get their body in shape for the upcoming summer. They have 5 months left. Both of them want a fat percentage of 8 and a weight of 80 kilograms. Now assume they’re physically even, just for the sake of this example. Both weigh 90 kilograms with a fat percentage of 23. Duncan is keeping the end goal in mind, only. He is constantly comparing his current physique with his wanted physique. Lorenzo on the other hand made short term goals in reaching the end goal. He set short term goals to lose 2 kilograms and 3 percentages of fat every month. He is comparing his current physique to his short term wanted physique, a difference not so big. In these comparisons, it’s rather obvious that Lorenzo will be closer to his wanted physique than Duncan, every time.

Who will have the more feelings of success? Who will have to bridge a smaller gap each time? This is what makes short term goals brilliant. If you’d have to climb 5 meters high, this would be easier done with 25 steps of 20cm (stairs) as opposed to one big step (or jump) of 5 meters – if it’s even possible to take such a step. It’s all about matching your want (challenge) with your current situation (level of ability). Because if the challenge is too high (or lacks a path with short term achievement possibilities) you will not see too much progress if at all and you will lose interest and stop.

In setting short and long term goals it is important to make them specific, measurable, acceptable, realistic, time-bound and clear why you want to achieve them (SMART + W). Exactly what are you going to do?, how are you going to measure your improvements?, is your goal acceptable & realistic?, when do you want to have achieved your goal and why are you doing it again?. The why is very important, it gives meaning to your goal. It remembers you why you set it. If the why is emotionally charged it’s even better! We know how to act (cognitively) and yet often we act because of what we feel (emotionally). That’s because we are all human beings with strong emotions. And your emotions are often a stronger factor than your rational in guiding your behavior. Sometimes emotions get the better of us, however you can use your emotions at your advantage!

One last thing in executing the goals you’ve set, use variation to achieve them! If you’re busy shaping up your body, like Duncan and Lorenzo in the example, use different routines and exercises for the same muscle groups. Variation makes it new and more fun to do for you, your brain and your muscles. Otherwise your goal might be a good one, your short term goal too, but your execution boring. It has to stay as much fun or interesting as it can be! The same goes for team sports (e.g. football), vary with your training exercises to make sure the players will be focused while executing them. Not only do your players enjoy them more, they will also learn more as they have to consciously process the execution of the exercise.