Hitting the Goal

Most administrators and coaches recognize the importance of writing down their goals. But have you ever considered asking your athletes to do the same?

By Mitch Lyons

Mitch Lyons is an Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Lasell College. He is also the President and founder of GetPsychedSports.org, Inc., a nonprofit corporation that can be found at www.getpsychedsports.org.

Athletic Management, 16.5, August/September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1605/hittingthegoal.htm

A funny thing happened on my way to the gym last winter. One of my players spotted me parking my car, stopped in his tracks, and yelled out, “Hey, coach! What are you thinking about?”

That’s the most asked question in our men’s basketball program at Lasell College: “What are you thinking about?” It is a question whose answer best predicts the upcoming performance of our players. Head Coach Chris Harvey likes our players to respond internally by questioning themselves about their level of effort, the details of what they’re doing, and their goals for the day.

To the player in the parking lot, I said, “First, I was thinking about parking my car without hitting anything. Now I am thinking about whether you brought your goal book to practice today.” He just smiled as he held open the door to the gym and we walked into practice. Written goals are due every single day of practice.

Most athletic directors realize at some point in their professional development that they accomplish more when they write down goals for themselves. Many ask their coaches to do so as well. Why not insist on the same standard for players?

The Reaction
What happens when coaches ask their players to set goals for themselves and commit them to writing before each practice and game? I can tell you because I’ve done it for the past several years, working with both a girls’ high school basketball team and in my current position as an assistant coach on a men’s college team.

First, there is absolute shock! I wish I had a camera to capture the initial look of wonderment as I tell them that they will be receiving a memo pad and that I expect them to write down three goals for every day’s practice throughout the season. I think of Tom Hanks in the movie A League of Their Own when he says to a weeping player, “There’s no crying in baseball!” From my athletes, I hear, “There’s no writing in sports!”

Once the initial shock wears off, a new phase starts: resistance. I am talking about resistance worthy of Sam Adams, and I’m not referring to the beer, but to the hero of the American Revolution. Eventually, with explanations by the coaches and persistence equal to that of the English in the Hundred Years War, players start writing down goals (and reading the feedback I give them on their goals) on a daily basis. After a few weeks of this, players start to exhibit a real ownership of their goal books.

Once, after a few weeks of this training, I had a high school coach visit our college practice and she asked to see what the players had written in their goal books. I saw no problem in that, but while she was examining them, the captain of the team came over and asked indignantly, “Why are you letting that coach look at our books?” I asked why it was a problem and he said, “They’re our goals. It’s personal. The team doesn’t want someone else looking at them.”

It was then I realized they’d actually taken ownership of their work. They took their personal goals seriously, admitted their weaknesses in writing, and they didn’t want anyone else to know. That showed me a lot, and I apologized, telling him that I hadn’t thought it through when I allowed the books to be viewed by someone else. I corrected the problem immediately, and I could tell the players appreciated that I had admitted my own mistake.

You can expect similar reactions from coaches, too. Once, when talking about goal setting, a veteran baseball coach said to me, “I don’t believe in goals and I’m not going to make my kids do it.” After clarifying that I didn’t think goal setting was a requirement, just common sense, I asked him why he objected. “They have enough to do,” he said, “and I don’t want to ask them to do any more.” I thought he felt that he had enough to do and didn’t want to add any more to his plate. In other words, it sometimes takes coaches as long as athletes to buy into this idea.

Why Set Goals?
From a practical perspective, why should you insist that players construct written goals? First of all, scientific evidence shows that setting goals, with a coach’s feedback, improves players’ performance. (Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, by Robert S. Weinberg and Daniel Gould, is one source to see the results of goal setting.)

When players think about the little things they have to do, they make progress. When they write them down, they remember them better. And when they remember them better, they focus on them and more readily improve.

Goal writing also helps to free the coach from reminding his or her players what they need to work on. Because the players are already thinking of what they need to improve, coaches don’t have to repeat their words again and again.

Setting daily goals also helps players transition to practice time. By handing in their goal books as they come into the gym, athletes think about their sport before they begin to practice and clear their minds of whatever they have just been doing. They think about their goals before they step out onto the court, which makes the job of getting them into the practice a lot easier.

Another plus of setting goals is that it helps establish discipline. Sometimes, players forget their goal book. They misplaced it, the dog ate it for dinner, it’s back in their room—the kinds of excuses you don’t need to hear on or off the court. The discipline required to run a play all the way through is the same type of discipline required in bringing their written goals every day. I have found that if you inform kids, they see the parallel of what they do off the court with what they can accomplish on it. Your coaches establish discipline in a number of ways on their teams—goal setting can be just one of them.

Best Types
According to research, one of the most important factors in setting goals is finding the balance between making them challenging and keeping them realistic. One example of a bad goal is when a freshman point guard says he or she wants to avoid making any mistakes in an entire practice. It’s unrealistic and sets the player up for failure.

When helping our players formulate goals, we look for them to be performance-related because that’s something they can control. Outcome-oriented goals do not work as well because they depend on more than just an athlete’s individual effort and focus.

The goals should be specific. This is where most players have problems. For example, a goal such as “make better passes” is too general. The real question is, “What do I need to do to make better passes?” If the answer is “look at the defense before passing,” then that’s the goal. That’s specific. Don’t allow your players to write “get more hits” in baseball. First, find out what they are doing wrong at the plate, and then help them come up with a specific goal.

I have also found success using short-term goals so my players can quickly see their progress. However, sometimes they need to write the same goal every day for weeks at a time, because it’s a particular problem they need to keep reminding themselves of. That’s okay, as long as they can chip away at it every day.

For a basketball player who tends to “slack off” on defense, an example of an effective goal is “stay low on defense.” When we see the player stand up on defense, we know that the person is taking a break in the middle of the game or practice. It’s hard to quantify “slacking off on defense,” but if we have a goal of staying low to remain focused, the coach can let the player know that the goal has not been reached whenever he or she stands up on defense.

Giving feedback on their goals is also important. After the players drop off the goalbooks and start warming up, as an assistant coach, I read their goals, make comments, and try to remember their goals during practice so I can see how they are doing. Next year, I am going to carry around a couple of goal books with me in practice so I can really talk it up with those players. In this way, I can show them how really focusing on something improves their chances of success at it.

Plan of Action
Coaches need guidance from their athletic director. Many coaches are uncomfortable with setting goals for themselves, and are very hesitant to introduce the concept to their players. Take the time to show them how it works. Have coaches and players read about the advantages of goal setting. Once you make your suggestion, follow through with it, and ask about it frequently.

Even if your coaches are not convinced it will improve their athletes’ performance, remind them that setting goals teaches kids how to get better in anything they do, not just sports. Isn’t giving them a better education what it’s all about?

Go ahead. Write down this goal now: “Institute goal-setting as an athletic department standard with coaches at our next meeting.”

To request a copy of the curriculum offered by GetPsychedSports.org, the author can be contacted at mitchlyons@getpsychedsports.org. The group’s web address is: www.getpsychedsports.org