Goal Setting and Getting into the Zone

Success on the soccer field requires more than physical prowess and lots of practice. The mental aspect of the game is important too. That’s why we wanted to share some research Executive Director Rani Ghaziri’s done on sport psychology and goal setting to help athletes get in “The Zone” of peak performance.

Being in “The Zone.”

Have you ever experienced being in “The Zone?” Maybe it was a moment when you stopped hearing all of the shouting from the sidelines (wait, we’re not doing that any more), and you had the ball at your feet, and suddenly you felt unstoppable and could dribble deftly around several players to place your shot in the top bins.

Being in “The Zone” is the wonderful feeling athletes get when they achieve peak performance. Common experiences when in this happy place include:

•       Effortless performance

•       Fearlessness about failure

•       Extraordinary concentration

•       Heightened confidence and optimism

•       Increased energy

•       Mental and physical relaxation.

Those all sound great, right? Only getting to “The Zone” isn’t always as much fun. Athletes hoping to achieve that peak performance often experience challenges such as:

•       Performance inconsistency

•       Worry about performance

•       Performing below ability (choking)

•       Mental mistakes

•       Attention and concentration difficulties

•       Personal problems

So what’s the solution?

Focus on setting performance goals rather than outcome ones. Outcome goals depend not only on the individual athlete’s efforts but also on the abilities and behaviors of your opponent and others. However, performance goals focus on you achieving objectives individually. By comparing yourself to previous performances, you can set goals that are within your control and likely to cause less anxiety.

At the same time, even with setting personal performance goals, you want to be careful. There are three main pitfalls to avoid:

•       Failing to set specific goals

•       Failing to adjust goals

•       Setting too many goals too soon.

Adults in the business world will often talk about setting SMART goals, but we’re going to talk about SMARTER goals. It’s an acronym for setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Recorded, Time-Phased, Exciting, and Re-Evaluated goals.

Setting SMARTER performance goals

So, what does it mean to set SMARTER performance goals? Let’s walk you through it from a soccer perspective.

Imagine a teammate named Matt, a striker for the Development Academy team. Matt wants to improve his goal scoring record. He says to himself, “I am going to be the best striker in North Carolina” and also he decides, “I am going to score more with my left foot,” and “I want to ‘meg someone at least once per game.” When he has a dry spell of finding the back of the net (with either foot) for a few weeks he begins to feel defeated. His performance begins to falter up front as he starts to doubt whether he will ever score again. 

On the same team there’s another striker named Manolo. He says to himself, “I’m going to practice juggling at home so that I can better handle the ball coming to me in the air. I’ll be like Pele. I want to get up to 50 touches by the Winter break.” After school and on weekends, when he can, Manolo works on his goal. In games, he finds he’s more confident and his goal scoring is going up. Plus, within just one month he’s reached 50 touches. So, he sets a new goal for 75 within his same deadline. With perseverance he meets that goal too.

Why was Manolo more successful? Because his goal was SMARTER.

Matt set several, vague goals at once, and didn’t revisit them at all. On the other hand, Manolo had a specific goal “50 touches” that he could measure and that was attainable. He also helped keep himself motivated by identifying why this goal was relevant to him personally; “so that I can better handle the ball in the air.” His image of himself like Pele was exciting. Further, he set a time-phased deadline. And, when he reached his goal early, he was able to re-evaluate and set a new objective.

Getting in the zone and goal setting success also rely on motivation. In a future blog we’ll discuss intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and how aspiring athletes can achieve peak performance with a better idea of what makes them want to improve.

chris williams