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  • Alison Lincoln

Goal Setting - the good, the bad, the alternative?

“In the measurement world you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility you set the context and let life unfold.”
Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility

Goals should excite and motivate you into taking action. But when you get right on down to the nitty gritty of delivering on those goals it’s a daily grind, in fact a slog. Honestly take G O A L S and rearrange it and you get A S L O G! How do we ensure our goals work for us and make the slog worth it?

The Good

Studies in sport have shown that goal setting clearly and consistently facilitates improved performance. Goals focus your attention on what is important, provide a purpose for your efforts and help to organise your training. They can even increase your self-confidence by highlighting progress and improvement. However, not all goals are equal.

Aim to set yourself performance goals. These are goals that relate to improving your own personal best performance or improving compared to previous performances. Research suggests that individuals who set performance goals are more likely to adopt a problem-solving approach to difficulties and rarely perceive unsuccessful results as failure. Instead they develop strategies to overcome difficulties and demonstrate tremendous persistence in the face of adversity.

Process goals are there to support your performance goals. They should identify the actions, techniques or skills that are required to achieve success. They are within your control and contribute to achieving your performance goals.

“Work out your goal, then how to get there. See everything between now and then as the process – then focus on that not the goal”
Laura Tomlinson, Dressage Olympian

There’s nothing wrong with outcome goals (winning or beating someone else) as long as you recognise that they are less effective than performance goals because you only have partial control over the result. Focusing purely on the result can increase anxiety and reduce confidence and motivation.

“I was never satisfied with what I was achieving, I always wanted more. But ultimately, I enjoyed the torture and pressure I put myself under, I had to have goals to drive towards and push myself out of my comfort zone”.
A P McCoy, Champion Jockey

The Bad

Winning is often seen as the ultimate goal if you are involved in competitions. However, since that is rarely 100% within your control you should ideally support this desire with performance goals. What do you need to do to win? In dressage, the stats might suggest that an average score of 8 per movement is likely to be a winning score. If that’s within your capability and training – great. If not, aim for a personal best, perhaps an average score of 7.5. On any given day your personal best may be enough to secure the win. On another day you may simply be beaten by a better test. That’s life.

Try to see competition as an opportunity to demonstrate your skills and test the progress you’ve made. When winning becomes the end in itself that’s when the fun stops. Every 4 years over 1 million athletes globally train to qualify for the Olympic games, yet only 1% make it. If your goal is to be an Olympic athlete and this is your only measure of success, there’s a high probability that you’ll fail. If your measure of success is also linked to your self-worth then suddenly you’re setting yourself up not only to fail but to label yourself unworthy.

“Things don’t always go to plan, no matter how hard you try. I appreciate now, that there are things I can control and things I can’t. When on that glorious Sydney day in 2003 we won the World Cup, I felt hollow. The World Cup was something I had dreamed of since I was 9, but there it was my life hadn’t changed.”
Jonny Wilkinson, World Cup winning rugby player

Once you’ve decided on your goal(s), there is a commonly held belief that they should be formatted to be realistic, flexible and within a time frame. However, if goals have too rigid a time frame they can actually be de-motivating and set you up for disappointment and frustration.

“I’m not an advocate of specific goal setting such as I must do a 3* by the end of the year – this is the route to disappointment as there are so many uncontrollable variables. I advocate tiny, tickable targets – goals that relate to skill sets not destinations”
Jonathan Chapman, Eventer and coach

The other temptation is to over stretch yourself. Just because you’ve qualified doesn’t mean you have to go. Even if it’s one of your (outcome) goals.

“Set realistic targets – I think many riders feel they have to go to the higher profile shows and sometimes if the combination is not secure at the level, this can lead to bitter disappointment and a big gash in confidence.”
Isobel Wessels, Dressage judge

In essence, if you find goal setting helpful then try to ensure your goals are working for you and not against you. Are your goals building your confidence, triggering your motivation and improving your skills? Do your goals excite and inspire you?

Alternatively, if you’re beginning to wonder whether goal setting is for you, there may be another way of thinking about progression.

The Alternative?

“True long term thinking is goal less thinking. It is not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress”
James Clear, Atomic Habits

The fundamental principle behind goal setting is for you to assess where you are currently, where you want to be and what steps need to be taken to close the gap between the two. But don’t forget who you want to be and the way you want to do things. In other words, the context within which you want to live your life. Are you a do whatever it takes at whatever the cost kind of goal achiever? Are there consequences of this type of approach for your family, friends or colleagues? What happens if / when you achieve it? What’s next?

“If you’re not enough without it (the gold medal), you’ll never be enough with it”
Cool Runnings, Disney

Perhaps instead of trying harder, pushing or pulling in one direction we should pause, before simply waiting to see how things pan out, spotting opportunities as they arise. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t predict what might happen next and trying to bend the universe to suit me is asking for frustration and disappointment.

Do I think we should abandon goal setting altogether? No, absolutely not. But maybe having a broad sense of direction, without a specific goal or a precise vision of the future, we can meander forward with purpose, embracing uncertainty and see where life takes us.

This resonates for me particularly in the horse world. Yes of course I want to be successful and yes of course I want to ride and compete at the highest level possible but not at the expense of my horse’s physical or mental wellbeing. The following quote from Charles De Kunffy reminds me who I want to be as a rider and trainer.

“The goal is to develop horses on their terms, at their natural gaits through their natural tendencies and by natural means to unfold their natural talents”

Which is why I like the idea of setting the context in which I want to live, how I want to be as a person and the rough direction I want to take, then relaxing and letting life and the universe of possibility unfold – now that’s what I call exciting!


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