Time to achieve . . . to set targets or not to set targets

By Toni Gaddie | Champion Academy

Toni Gaddie is as a clinical and sports psychologist, and co-founder of the Champion Academy. She assists national and international sports champions and business leaders in becoming  “whole champions” and maintaining their status. 

If you are interested in the literature on achievement in many areas of life, it is almost certain you will come across the setting of goals in one of the chapters. However, I use the word targets instead of goals.

  1. Goals are often just words.
  2. Goals imply either / or statements that impose even more pressure!
  3. Goals that are not achieved imply failure making the learning part obscure.

Pressure and failure is part of development and it is par for the course. There is just a more valuable way of moving forward on your journey toward growth than the achieving or not achieving of goals.

Setting a “target” motivates you to keep trying to reach the target, even if you only achieve 70%. It allows you space to reward yourself, to keep trying and to learn from your attempts. There are two schools of thought discussed here regarding the setting of targets.

The first school of thought places much emphasis on the target, and every section is broken down into chunks towards achieving the final target. Targets are set up for each step of the way, e.g. current, short-term, long-term and, of course, the ultimate target. From this, a structured schedule of action steps is carefully formulated to assist with progressing gradually towards the ultimate target. This school of thought would say that targets are central to achieving everything and anything.

The second school of thought places more emphasis on the journey instead of the target. The focus is on the process or system, the routines and being fully in the action steps that eventually make up the process. The emphasis is on the experience of the journey and on acknowledging the learning and qualities which the journey brings along the way. If the target is achieved, this is a bonus! This school would clarify what you want (set a target), place it at the back of your mind, and focus on improving in the moment-to-moment process.

Both of the above, in my experience, can be equally valuable models in contributing towards achievement. After many years of working with a variety of sportspeople from amateur to professional, I have seen that whether you choose the first or the second school of thought, or even a combination of the two, everything depends on your relationship with expectation and pressure.

Some great athletes love the adrenaline brought about by the pressure of top-of-mind targets. These athletes harness adrenaline and make this pressure serve their performance. This group of athletes would choose the first school of thought. An example of such a champion is Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all time thus far. He is known for setting targets for specific times for specific races, which he often achieved. These targets were set and addressed in years, in months and in minutes before he dived in the pool.

Other equally great athletes have had to learn to handle the discomfort of the adrenaline that comes with competition. These sportspeople prefer to use tools to contain or calm the symptoms adrenaline can bring. This allows them to stay aware and engaged in the moment without feeling overwhelmed which serves their performance. These athletes choose to lessen the pressure and expectation that focusing exclusively on the outcome brings and would, therefore, choose the second school of thought for “target setting.”

Another athlete who made history was Nadia Comaneci. She was the first gymnast to ever score a perfect 10.0 at the Olympics. Her procedure of achievement was likened to the second school of thought. Of course, her target was to win a gold medal (very few competitive athletes do not set targets to win). However, Nadia’s focus was much less on her target, and much more on her system and toolbox she committed to long term. Her unwavering commitment to her finely tuned system of training and competing is what eventually won her the perfect 10 and made history. When she competed, she would say, “I hope I am going to do a good routine here – because I know I have prepared everything I have done in the gym.” Nadia also speaks of the mental toughness toolbox that she used to stay present and bring her subconscious mind to the fore.

As you can see from the above, whether you choose to have a particular target set and work hard to achieve it, or whether you have a particular process set and you work hard to achieve it, either can influence the eventual outcome. Both of the aforementioned achievement procedures have been experienced successfully by the greatest sportspeople of our time!

What is most important here is to know how “foreground targets” or “background targets”, adrenaline levels, expectations and the accompanying pressure or lack thereof impact your state of mind. A good understanding of the effect of the above on your mind, body and performance will give you an excellent clue as to what and when to choose which approach for achieving anything in sport and life!