You want to BE BETTER… New year, new you—right? As the clock nears midnight on New Year’s Eve, it marks the transition into a new era of endless possibilities. “THIS year, it’s going to stick,” we tell ourselves. We envision the canvas of the “new me” just waiting for the vibrant strokes of wholesale change. We will shed old habits and negative thinking, and that dang 20 extra pounds. It’s not just about setting resolutions, it is a profound shift in mindset and a fundamental change in our DNA! We will hunt down our wildest dreams with relentless passion, radiate only good mojo into the world, and improve every facet of our lives.
If you are like me, you might not make it to midnight. About 9:30, my brain wants to wind it down, and it doesn’t care what day it is. As for the resolutions, some of us may stick to them for a few weeks. Others get extra bacon in their breakfast tacos on January 1st and say, “I’ll start working on that extra 20 tomorrow.” The truth about resolutions is they don’t work.
As the first blog of the new year, and in the BE BETTER spirit, I thought I would talk about goal setting. That’s all a resolution is: a goal. And we usually fail on our goals, be they resolutions, athletic goals, or plans for world dominance, because we don’t fully understand there is a science behind it. In setting goals for an athlete, dialing into this science will help them develop quickly and holistically.
2 Common Problems
When I work with an athlete and their parents as a mental skills coach, two common problems arise with goal setting. The first is they haven’t set any goals. I’ll ask, “What are your goals?” Typically, someone will answer with, “Uhhhhh” and they will all look at each other awkwardly. The second common problem is they have only set an “outcome” goal. Outcome goals are where you want to wind up sometime in the future. They are things like making the varsity team or playing college. That’s a good start, but it is only the start. There is a lot more to it.
3 Types of Goals
There are three types of goals to consider when goal setting. Like an egg, the three parts (the white, yolk, and shell) comprise the whole. These three elements are outcome, process, and performance goals. Outcome goals show athletes where they want to wind up, process goals show them how to get there, and performance goals identify the qualities they want to improve while doing it.
Dr. J’s Lily Pad Theory
I have consolidated goal setting into an easy-to-remember model that incorporates everything you need. Imagine a frog standing on the shore. They strain their eyes to see the lily pad way across the pond. The frog might say, “What’s the point of this? I’ll never get way over there.” That lily pad is the outcome goal. Research confirms that only setting outcome goals is demotivating because they are so far away that the distance creates anxiety, stress, and a fear of failure. They are a great place to wind up, but they provide no direction on how to get there.
In good goal-setting practice, the outcome goal doesn’t need much attention once established. I like to say, “Set it and forget it.” Instead, figure out the steps needed to get there from where you are now. The steps you decide are necessary to reach the outcome goal are the intermediate lily pads. These are process goals. It’s best to be outcome aware, but process focused!
Keep Your Eye on the Process Goals
Process goals are really where it all happens. Think of the process as the lily pads stretching across the pond between where you are and where you want to be. One simply sticks to the process to reach any outcome goal, that lily pad across the pond. These intermediate lily pads offer direction and a clear focus on something in the present. An athlete just has to master the lily pad they’re on, then get to the next one. Unlike the demotivation caused by outcome goals being too far away, science shows that small victories provided by the process goals increase motivation. The athlete has very little control over outcome goals in the present, but they have full control of the process.
For example, imagine an athlete who wants to add 10 pounds of muscle in the next three months. It’s easiest to determine the outcome goal and work backward to today. That provides a time frame. Split that time frame in half, and you have the midway point. Figure out what progress toward the goal would be right in the middle. In this example, in a month and a half, the athlete should be 5 pounds heavier. Split the space on either side into equal chunks, be it months, weeks, or days, whatever is appropriate for the athlete and their goals. These are the process goals or the intermediate lily pads. An athlete only needs to figure out the steps to get from where they are to the midway point regarding exercise and nutrition and then from the mid-point to the outcome goal.
One of the most important elements in goal setting is feedback. You may have heard about the “One Degree Rule.” It states that an airplane one degree off its flight path goes off course one mile for every 60 it flies. If this happens, a vacation flight from New York to Paris might wind up in Morocco. This is like an outcome focus. You start toward the destination, but don’t get any feedback until the end. You might not wind up where you hoped. A process focus has assessment and feedback built right in. The incremental lily pads provide real-time awareness of progress and the ability to correct course. The athlete is meeting the process today, or they aren’t. Right then and there, whatever isn’t working can be adjusted. The athlete is always aware of where they are in the process relative to where they started and the outcome goal. If the intermediate lily pads are being met too easily, they can adjust the process immediately to be more difficult and speed up development. The outcome goal continues to grow closer and closer without having to think too much about it.
The Tipping Point
In the waters between each lily pad are what I call tipping points. They are a place where an athlete takes the next step or stalls. When motivation is lacking or the athlete gets off track, it's an opportunity to explore the tipping point when a bad habit or negative self-talk wins. The thoughts, feelings, habits, and behaviors that kept the athlete from moving forward can be explored and fixed as they happen. Falling short today in the process isn't failure. It’s feedback. And it’s a quick fix because the athlete is only one day, practice, or game off course. It’s an opportunity to try again, try harder, or try something new to nudge back to the process. By dialing back into the process, the athlete can double down on what works and dump what doesn’t. They can learn their tendencies at the tipping point and BE BETTER next time.
As a mental skills coach, I train the mental skills to win the argument at the tipping point more often. The first part of that is awareness it’s happening. Then comes an awareness of how it’s happening. There are only a few consistent mechanisms we use to talk ourselves out of things. When an athlete learns to recognize the bad habits that lead them away from progress or doing what they have always done, they can choose thoughts and behaviors that drive them forward. Instead of coasting or stepping back, the athlete will step up to the next lily pad. If your athlete needs some help with this, look me up! My info is at the bottom of the page.
Performance goals are the final part of holistic goal setting. They focus on improving a skill relative to an athlete’s own standard. It isn’t about the task at hand itself, but the quality with which it’s performed. This might be improving one’s batting average or on-base percentage for a specific practice or game. Those are easy because they are measurable. It might be something like only swinging at strikes at the next game. That’s harder to measure, so the athlete has to figure out how to tell if they met their goal. In the earlier example of trying to gain 10 pounds of muscle, an athlete might include one day a week to set personal bests on specific exercises. These kinds of performance goals can be applied to practice, performance, and process goals. Like process goals, reaching a performance goal depends very little on outside influence. A performance goal is flexible and within an athlete's control because it’s motivated by bettering a personal past performance.
The Lily Pad Theory’s Hidden Gem
The step-based nature of the lily pad theory offers a hidden gem. Beyond it being an easy way to sort things out, it uses one’s own neurology to build success. Each success moving from lily pad to lily pad across the pond creates an affirming squirt of dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that has us glued to our phones, sugar, and crunchy carbs. It is also the mechanism of learning and motivation. A small victory produces a chemical reward, and our brain says, “Let’s do THAT again.” As they reach process goal after process goal, autonomy and the feeling of competence grow. The progress made always motivates the next leap and the next. As athletes work their way across the pond, they groove productive habits into their brains and create a neurochemical pull that turns each day’s progress into sustainable motivation. If they master showing up for the process, the rest falls into place.
Putting it Into Practice
I've provided a Lily Pad Model template that I use with athletes to map out their lily pads.
Use the template above, a legal pad, or the back of an envelope — whatever works for you to put a plan to paper. Draw in the lily pad across the pond that represents your outcome goal. Draw in the lily pads that will get you there. Make notes, doodle, and be creative. The more parts of your brain you engage, the better! Attach what, when, where, with whom, and how many times into the intermediate lily pads. The more specific these process goals are, the better.
This model works with any kind of goal, and it is also a great foundation for an athletic development plan. If you need some direction in sorting it out, I would love to help. It provided my information below. I work with athletes in any sport at any level, from beginners to pros. I meet in person, in the field, and via Zoom for athletes and their families nationwide.
I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach and the founder of Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training enables an athlete to consistently perform at the upper levels of their ability. If you would like a consultation or to jump into mental skills training for your athlete, reach out!