The process for setting goals, and crafting strategies to attain them, is as much about looking back as it is about looking forward. And honesty is key.
In order to optimize your progression as an athlete, you need to set effective goals. It sounds simple—it comes down to what you want to accomplish next. But many athletes skip critical steps in the process, which leads them to create unrealistic, unattainable, or unmotivating goals.
The process for creating productive goals includes several steps: It’s critical to look back at where you’ve been and what you’ve done, and where you want to go; it’s necessary to identify your strengths, weaknesses, and limiters; and it’s imperative to set achievable and ambitious objectives.
The best athletes and coaches use an organized, systematic approach to do this. That helps them conduct a comprehensive review of what has worked and what hasn’t—they leave no stone unturned. It also allows for a consistent process from year to year, which provides for a historical perspective on progression.
While there are numerous methods you can use, most comprise three distinct components: 1) a season assessment; 2) a gap analysis; 3) a goal-setting strategy.
Each of these components informs the next; the stepwise process yields a strategy that can then be incorporated into your annual training plan.
This process of reflection and prediction—looking back at what you’ve done, then using that information to inform your decisions about how to plan for the future—is the type of homework that will set you up for success. Honesty is imperative.
If you’re not honest with yourself, then the chances of you improving are less. If you are really honest, the chances of you getting to where you want to be are that much greater.
“The most critical thing is the athlete needs to be intentional and introspective,” says Trevor Connor, a longtime coach and cofounder of Fast Talk Labs, a coaching and training company. “The biggest mistake I see athletes make is they try to make their goals in a vacuum—they just go ‘oh, you know, this would be a cool goal, that would be a cool goal.’ And they don't do the analysis of, ‘Am I capable of that? What's involved in that? What do I need to do to be able to accomplish that?’”
Let’s take a closer look at the processes and strategies involved in setting and attaining effective goals.
Step one is simple: Look back on the season and ask yourself the question: Was the season a success? Yes or no? (There is no maybe.)
Connor likes to have his athletes write a paragraph explaining why it was or was not a success. The process of writing that paragraph elicits some introspection, based on a realistic judgment of that one simple question: Was it a good year or a bad year?
The second part of Connor’s assessment process involves selecting three to five things that you learned during the past season that you never want to forget. For example, “I learned the value of making my easy rides really easy.” Good, now explain that in a few sentences.
Look back on the season and ask yourself the question: Was the season a success? Yes or no? (There is no maybe.)
Finally, make a short list of the things that really worked for you during the season, as well as the things that didn’t work.
“The most important aspect is honesty,” Connor says. “Sometimes it's tough, because the right answer is not always the one you want to hear. But that honesty is key. Otherwise, you're just going to come up with goals without any reasoning behind them.”
A gap analysis comprises several components: your current level (be it Cat. 1 racer or gran fondo completer), where you are trying to get to (what is the next level?), and what is preventing you from already being at that next level. This is often where athletes, who are driven to find solutions, will struggle, because they want to jump immediately into goal setting.
“I’ve taken business school classes, I’ve taken sports psychology classes, and they always tell you ‘Don’t focus on the problems, focus on the solutions,’” Connor says. “And we’ve all had that ingrained in our heads. But if you want to do a successful gap analysis, focus on the problems. Don’t think about the solutions yet.”
Part 1 is to identify your current level. This is where you really need to be honest with yourself. Part 2 is a succinct, one sentence description of the level that is achievable next year. This should be ambitious but achievable in a single season. And Part 3 is identifying what is separating you from where you want to be—why is there that gap?
Good examples of gaps are: “I can’t stay with the best riders on short, steep climbs,” or “I don’t have the endurance to compete in a race that lasts over three hours.”
This part of the process gets broken into two parts. While different coaches use varying terminology for the two components, the intent is the same. The first part is performance-oriented goals (some will refer to these as outcome goals)—often geared toward a race result. Even if you don’t race, however, you can still create performance goals that are specific and measurable, such as a PR on a particular climb.
The second component is creating training-specific goals (or process goals). These goals inform what it is you need to do in training in order to achieve your performance goals. For example, if you wanted to win your state time trial championship, training goals might include raising your threshold power, or improving your aerodynamic position on a bike.
Not surprisingly, if you refer back to your gap analysis, the question about your desired “next level” will help define your performance goals.
“If you go through the process correctly, the goals are the easiest part,” Connor says. “Because if you’ve used introspection and intention, you answer a lot of the questions that define what your goals should be.”
Your training goals are the strategies for closing the gap. Look back at your gaps, and turn each one of those into a goal. Keep the goals concise, and make them measurable. In other words, create S.M.A.R.T. goals: S for Specific, M for Measurable, A for Achievable, R for Realistic, and T for Time-bound.
Create S.M.A.R.T. goals: S for Specific, M for Measurable, A for Achievable, R for Realistic, and T for Time-bound.
A word of caution: Beware of making your goal a specific result at a specific race. Putting all your eggs in one basket can often lead to failure or disappointment.
The importance of perspective
As with many aspects of athletic training, a coach can be an invaluable guide through a process like this, particularly one that demands so much introspection and honesty. But, according to Connor, this can be done without the aid of a coach.
“But I don't think you can do it completely by yourself,” he says. “I think you need an advisor, a friend, somebody to look at it and call BS on you. Because this is a thing where it is very easy to either delude yourself or just not fully think something through.”
That other someone will encourage you to ask those critical questions: Do you think this is realistic? Have you thought about this? Ultimately, it all comes down to the process and your willingness to be honest with yourself.
“Understand what you’re trying to get out of this, take the time to put the information in there and don’t rush through it,” says Ryan Kohler, a physiologist and owner of Rocky Mountain Devo Coaching. “You need to develop that 30,000-foot view to guide your season.”