Goal-Oriented Training: Five Keys to Athletic Success

May 1, 2008 | Featured in the May 2008 Issue

Athletes are known for their willingness to use unconventional training techniques, products and substances to improve their performance, from drinking pickle juice to prevent muscle cramps to far more serious and potentially deadly measures like using steroids. The search will likely never end to secure that elusive edge over an opponent. However, one simple and fundamental approach is often overlooked: goal-setting. Below are five goal-setting keys to help ensure that your long-term training plan is as effective as possible.

Before developing any training or conditioning plan, decide exactly what you hope to do. Write down your goals and share them with a training partner, a coach, your teammates—or even post them on your locker as a sure-fire way to be held accountable for working toward them. However, just slopping down a few non-specific goals like “play harder” or “get better every day” will make it difficult to track your progress.  Instead, identify at least two of the following “SMART” principles when goal-setting: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

When specifying goals, use who, what, when, where, why and which-type statements. For instance, modify “get better every day” to “shoot 100 free throws each morning” or “catch 50 passes at least three times per week after practice.” This will allow you to know when you’ve reached your goal and will keep your accountability person on track with what you’re doing.


Make your goal specific so it can be easily measured. A goal such as “win the conference championship” may seem simple, but it’s easily measured, because you either win or you don’t. Goals like improving your 40-yard dash time or vertical leap are also easy to measure. Replace a goal such as “become a better teammate” with an action-oriented objective like “lead a film session for the junior varsity team once a month.”

Attainable and Realistic
It’s easy to scribble down a few goals, but unless the goals are realistically attainable, they may do more harm than good. A prime example was when I worked with the ’99 Arizona Wildcats football program. The year prior, the team had its most successful season in school history, finishing with a 12-1 record and ranking fourth in the polls. Consequently, as we entered the season, goals were high: go undefeated, claim the Pac-10 title and ultimately win the National Championship. While these goals were rather lofty, most players seemed to think they were completely attainable; but the Wildcats failed to accomplish them throughout the season, ending with a 5-6 record. Missed goals did little more than serve as powerful reminders of what had not been accomplished. Looking back, it was clear that although many players returned in ’99, those who didn’t had been instrumental to our success in ’98. We bought into the hype and failed to recognize some glaring weaknesses that needed to be cured. It would have been wiser to shoot for something like “go undefeated at home” rather than “go undefeated.”

While it’s great to aim high, it’s also important to avoid setting yourself up for the disappointment associated with failing to attain a goal. Goals shouldn’t be easy, but they shouldn’t be impossible, either.

Avoid using terms like “some day” or “sometime.” You may find it easier to break down goals into seasons, months, weeks or even days. By making your goal timely, you ensure there’s a deadline that you’re working toward. Without a deadline, it’s tempting to put work off, which can lead to boredom. Set a date, and work toward it.

Dr. Toby Brooks is a certified athletic trainer, certified strength and conditioning specialist, certified performance enhancement specialist and a youth conditioning specialist. He has more than 10 years of experience training athletes at the NFL, NCAA Division I, AF2, international and professional baseball, junior college and high school levels. He’s also president and co-founder of Born Athletic, Inc. [www.bornathletic.com]

Topics: GOALS
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