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#11 I am Focused on the Small Wins: 3 Considerations for Goal-Setting

The following post is the eleventh installment for the 13 Beliefs of Good Coaches. Despite the essential need to set goals, good sport coaches are aware of the paradoxical quality of goal-setting.

How many of you have one of those in-car navigation systems? I recently, as the caring and helpful husband I am, bought my wife one for her vehicle. Knowing how busy my wife is, running errands all over town as well as her sub-par sense of direction, I thought I was going to earn Husband of the Year honors with my gift. After hooking up the system, programing it to be as user friendly as possible, I sat back and waited for the praise to start coming my way. Well, two days later my wife informed me that it was either her or the navigation system… one of the two was going to go bye-bye. She hated it and demanded I remove it from her car immediately. Both stunned and a little hurt I decided to drive her car to a meeting I had across town to see for myself why this thing was so horrible. It only took me a few minutes to figure it out. When I programed the system I (unknowingly) set it in the “persistent” mode. This particular feature was designed to repeatedly remind the driver—over and over and over—not only the final destination, but also every twist and turn along the way. It was only a few miles into my journey and I was ready to throw this little talking box right out of the window.

I was reminded of this story when I sat down to write this post about goals. Many coaches think their job is to inspire their athletes with what some have called “stretch goals”. Countless leadership gurus have touted their books and strategies for how best to set clear objectives that will push followers to dramatic accomplishments. One example is Jim Collins, author of the bestselling book Good to Great, his idea of BHAG’s (big, hairy, audacious goals) is described in leadership workshops across the globe. However, good coaches know goal-setting isn’t as simple or SMART as the leadership manuals would lead us to believe.

There is no doubt, motivating your athletes to reach for ambitious goals are essential. But, I have found that good coaches understand that so much of the goal-setting process is counterintuitive. They get the paradox of goals. For example, good coaches know there is a time to just shut-up and coach! Sure, everyone understands that goals should be discussed, understood, and agreed upon by the athletes who must actually accomplish them. But the paradox is, constantly badgering athletes about goals often leads to very negative results. There are a few reasons for this:

It’s so damn obvious! Suppose I ask you to guess the goal of the New England Patriots? Win as many games as possible on their way to the 2018 Super Bowl… obviously! Does it really matter if the number of games they win is X or Y? Do you think that if Bill Belichick fails to mention the goal for a few practices the players will forget why they are playing? The same is true for your team. Most often the big hairy goal is so obvious that a coach seems silly for discussing it in terms of a goal or objective. Success in athletics is measured on well-known and accepted yardsticks. Sure, there are differences and they do matter, but ambitious goals rarely send a group of athletes off in a direction they didn’t realize they needed to go.

They are too daunting. Big hairy goals that are constantly thrown into conversation tend to scare the bejesus out of some athletes. Research shows this is especially true if the goal isn’t broken down into bite-size pieces. Wayward coaches too often announce some big hairy (and obvious) goal and then hope the sheer splendidness of the desired outcome will motivate their athletes to some superhuman state. Good coaches on the other hand not only outline the steps, they talk and act like each objective is not overly difficult—sending the message (usually through silence) that if their athletes keep moving everything will turn out fine.

It lets them off the hook. In this attached 3 minute video, Derek Sivers explains that simply talking about a goal brings a person a sense of accomplishment. Numerous laboratory and real world tests have shown that the good feeling generated by simply talking about some big hairy goal makes people much less likely to go out and do the work necessary to reach the goal. Sivers presents a case for keeping your goals secret, or at least talking about them in a different way than we normally do as coaches.

It may go against conventional wisdom, but constantly pounding your athletes over the head with some audacious goal may end up being counterproductive. Good coaches believe that it is essential to point their athletes into a particular direction, and motivating their athletes to stretch themselves is vital for any successful program. BUT, don’t be a wayward coach. Wayward coaches often are too SMART for their own good. No one likes a talking box… just ask my wife.

Weick, K. E. (1984). Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems. American Psychologist, 39(1), 40-49.


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