Goal-setting Lessons From the Sporting World

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In elite sport, a carefully managed goals strategy is very effective in enhancing performance – far superior to vague aspirations or no goals at all.

By paying attention to what works, we can translate much of what we understand from sport into a business context. Psychological research demonstrates that difficult, high-level goals prompt superior performance much more successfully than vague ‘do-your-best’ or no goals.

Focus on the process

Crucially, many teams fall into the trap of setting the wrong goals without understanding why. So the challenge for executives, like sports coaches, is to understand how the process of goal setting works. And if we can understand more about the processes which lead to poor performance, we are in better shape to address them for next time.

For business, there are some valuable lessons to be gleaned from other performance domains such as sport, where attention paid by top coaches to small details result in significant performance gains.

Implications for managers

If outcome goals alone were so effective, we might expect smoking and obesity to be under control in Europe – but, of course, it’s a complex problem. Sustaining commitment at the individual level is about much more than having a cognitive understanding of the ultimate goal. In business settings, managers have to work hard to achieve a common understanding about key goals and the means to achieve them, especially when working with capable people who have strong opinions. Whether working in an individual or team setting, this can be a difficult task and in organisations, worthwhile goals are often sabotaged by a lack of commitment or competing agendas which impair progress.

  • At the individual level, self-control is an important dimension of goal attainment. In this regard, individual capabilities such as self-regulation (effectively managing one’s own thoughts, feelings and behaviours) and self-reinforcement (how I praise or reward myself against progress) are essential personal attributes. Top performers in all walks of life are able to realistically appraise their strengths and weaknesses and systematically review progress. They are also able to critique their achievements dispassionately and don’t require micromanaging to achieve their objectives. Whether in sport or business, elite performers are resilient when faced with setbacks and cope well with difficulties. In short, they are adept at unravelling a problem to discover mistakes and identify next steps.

Legendary athlete turned pundit Michael Johnson, when he failed to qualify for the 200m final at the 1992 Olympics, said: “Sure it was important to me, but to who else? The sun will be out tomorrow and the stars and the moon will be out tonight. It was only a race”.

The story was very different in 1996, where he set a record for the only male athlete ever to win both the 200m and 400m events at the same Olympics.

  • When working with teams, a useful starting point is to decide on a strengths and weaknesses profile for each individual and on the basis of this, to devise detailed plans which offer the best fit for the skills blend you need to achieve the end goal. Developing a system which supports short-term goal attainment is also important; a collaborative working environment will help to support progress so team members work with and for one another. Gaining a shared agenda for action, monitoring improvements and making performance adjustments along the way will help to optimise goal attainment.

For goal setting to work, simple clarity about the end point is insufficient. To make progress, people need to be personally motivated beyond the end goal for the process to work. Focus, tenacity and commitment matter a great deal and achieving collective buy-in to move forward is likely to require a great deal of effort and hard work to surface unspoken agendas and expose covert resistance.

 

Overall, it’s important to remember:

  1. The road to long-term success is paved with small achievements.
  2. Train with competition. Elite performers require elite training partners. Surround yourself with capable people who will push you to achieve your goals. Talent identification programmes are one such example. Bringing high potentials together for intensive development enables candidates to push themselves to levels they would never reach when working with less accomplished colleagues.
  3. Schedule and adhere to decision-making audits – where are we supposed to be now? If we’re not where we should be, stop and regroup.
  4. Goal achievement at the top level is by no means effortless, although some performers make it look so! On average, it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate (quality) practice to qualify as an ‘expert’ performer.

 

The final word should go to Johnson, holder of five Olympic medals and a nine-time World Champion, who says:

“Commitment and preparation are all that make the difference among an arena full of perfect physical specimens”.

 

Many thanks to Dr Veronica Burke, Programme Director of the BGP, Cranfield School of Management, for this blog content.

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