Chiang Mai, Thailand
Monday 7th October 2013

This week I was discussing the importance of goal setting with one of the physiotherapists that I mentor.  It’s not really an area I feel was well taught at undergraduate, or even postgraduate level for that matter & as such I have developed my own approach.

There are various reasons why formally setting goals is a valuable process but put simply, identifying what destination we are trying to reach, ensures that the individual or team will have a much stronger belief in & focus on the efforts we are putting in.

To this end, it is important that in a sports setting, the goals aren’t set in isolation.  If a physiotherapist, strength & conditioning practitioner, coach or athlete is the sole author, then it is highly likely that the integrity of knowledge will be compromised, whilst the chances that all parties will buy in are slim.  Consequently, maintaining motivation when the road becomes challenging will be nigh on impossible.


“Goals.  There’s no telling what you can do when you get inspired by them.  There’s no telling what you can do when you believe in them.  There’s no telling what will happen when you act upon them”

Jim Rohn


Of all the texts I have read on goal setting, there is a great deal of agreement regarding the theories as to why the process is important.

1.       Goals focus energy

The identification of a goal directs attention to the task that has been set, allowing a structured analysis of what needs to be completed in order to reach it & helps figure out what to do when the course of action becomes uncertain.


By analysing the steps that need to be taken along the way to the goal, it is easier to implement strategies that will help develop the various aspects of the overall project.


For example, to reach the goal of returning to playing competitive sport after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament rupture, you can separate out the victories that need to be won to reach the next milestone. 


Smaller goals suitable to the stage of the process can be set to satisfy progression criteria at the end of each block: 

-          pre-operative conditioning;

-          early post-operative exercises to regain range of movement, minimise muscle atrophy & regain basic functional strength;

-          early stage rehabilitation to develop proprioception, motor control & strength, whilst progressing uni-planar function;

-          mid stage rehabilitation where strength develops & power tasks are introduced along with multi-directional exercises;

-          end-stage rehabilitation to increase work capacity, develop sport specific function;

-          graduated return to training;

-          return to play.


2.        Goals give a sense of achievement

By being able to tick-off goals, we translate an expression of what is valuable to us into something more tangible & the sense of achievement is then accompanied by a sense of pride.

As a result, by setting challenging but attainable targets along the way to the overall goal provides continuous incentive & satisfaction throughout what could otherwise be a long, daunting slog. 

The analogies of scaling the peak of a mountain, with stages to be completed along the way; reaching a destination via stations along the route or building a house brick by brick are often used to paint the picture. 

These smaller victories in turn provide the motivation required to persist with all efforts, when quitting or losing direction might otherwise be a real risk. 

Indeed a study conducted by the management consulting firm, McKinsey (McKinsey Quarterly, 2010), surveyed 2,500 senior executives & concluded that programmes that set tough but achievable goals were 1.2 times more likely to be considered a success than those with incremental & easy to reach targets.  Furthermore, they were 1.6 times more likely to succeed than those whose targets were considered impossible to reach.

Back to the example of rehabilitating the severe knee injury to a return to elite level sport & by setting challenging but attainable goals on a session by session; a week by week; & a block by block basis, the likelihood is that the return to high level participation becomes a hard but satisfying learning process, achieved in the optimal time frame. 

Failure to provide a regular structure & means of achievement will slow the process, whilst draining the energy of all involved.

3.   Goals promote learning & growth

By taking action to achieve predetermined goals, it enables us to explore the territory & learn from the challenges that are encountered along the way.  It even enables us to identify pre-existing foibles & resolve them as part of the problem solving process, or introduce new strategies that are required to succeed.

 In the case of our injured sportsman or woman, pre-existing weaknesses can be identified & strategies built into the rehabilitation programme to enable them to return to the court, or field of play a better athlete than when they left it.


“All who have accomplished great things have had a great aim; have fixed their gaze on a goal which was high, one which sometimes seemed impossible.  The greater danger for most of us isn’t that our aim is too high & we miss it, but that it is too low & we reach it.”

Orison Swett Marden


So now that we have determined the need to set the goals, all that remains is to learn how to set effective goals in an appropriate manner.

Just about any course I have attended that has discussed the topic has used the SMART acronym, with some occasionally modifying that to SMARTS.

S – SPECIFIC – if the goal itself is too vague or broad, it makes it difficult to introduce any degree of objectivity into the process, whilst if the goal isn’t specific to the subject, the relevance will be reduced & a disconnect will occur.

M – MEASUREABLE – again, introducing scales, markers & numbers into the process ensures that objectivity is retained & the degree of progress can be ascertained.  This helps maintain motivation, when subjects can see just how far they have come & establish how far in relation they still need to go.

A – ACTION ORIENTATED – the goal must require the subject to take action & be responsible for conducting the task needed to achieve the goal, as opposed to be reactive & losing control of the task, which will only serve to diminish accountability.

R – REALISTIC – if the targets are deemed to be beyond reach, it is easy to become disillusioned, admit defeat & give up (Keller & Price, 2011).  On the contrary, if the targets are too cautious, they fail to create momentum or pressure to push the boundaries of possibility.

T – TIME LIMITED – the goal should have a target to be completed by to introduce a degree of timeliness & where necessary, urgency.

(S) – SELF-DETERMINED – the interested party (or parties) must be involved & driving the goal setting process, otherwise a lack of clarity in the route to the destination, or even the destination itself for that matter, will ensure that motivation is challenged from the outset due to a lack of ownership.


“You cannot change your destination overnight but you can change your direction overnight”

John Rohn


Once the nature of how goals should be formulated has been addressed, the structure of the goal setting process introduces more variability depending on the text you read.

Hunt-Davis & Beveridge (2011) break the process into four layers, describing the “crazy layer”, the “concrete layer”, the “control layer” & the “everyday layer”.  They argue that each layer does a different job, whilst supporting the others.

They describe the layers as:

The crazy layer – the exciting, overall goal that fires the imagination & kindles the desire.  Left without foundation, however, the crazy goal can seem daunting or out of context with current reality & so run the risk of simply being dismissed as pipe dreams. 

Crazy goals also run the risk of becoming rather demoralising as they can’t be ticked off your list quickly or as the result of one action.

To the player suffering the knee injury, lying there in the treatment room with a fresh diagnosis of a ruptured cruciate ligament, the goal of returning to playing their next match would surely fall into this category


The concrete layer – answers the question(s) of what actually needs to be addressed in order to achieve the overall target.

The player needs to undergo the reconstructive surgery, then recover from the post-operative phase before the rehabilitation process can begin & preparation for a returning to training, then playing can be considered.

The issue with the concrete goals, however, is that they might be outside our control. 

For example, the surgery can only be completed once the acute phase of the injury has subsided & the joint is in a suitable condition to be operated on.  This suggests that the swelling has dissipated, the range of movement isn’t limited to less than 90 degrees & the arthrogenic inhibition has resolved.

The control layer – focuses on aspects that are inside our control to achieve. 

These could be the application of ice & compression to the knee to control the swelling; attain a specific degree of improvement in the range of movement; or the number of straight leg raises/inner range quads raises/leg press pushes to complete in order to achieve the necessary degree of strength before the first goal of undergoing reconstructive surgery can be addressed.


The everyday layer – includes the methods or processes needed to achieve the layers above.

 In our example, this could now involve a plan of how many times a day to apply the compression/cryotherapy & conduct the exercises or treatment adjuncts to restore range of movement in addition to basic strength.  This can then form the basis of the initial week’s progressive plan.  


An alternative approach is the one described by Kingston & Hardy (1997) & recently quoted by both Knight (2013) & Harrison (2013) on the blog site.  This approach distinguishes between three types of goal to be aware of: the outcome, process & performance goals.

These three goals are defined thus:

1)      Outcome goals – these describe the end result, for example returning to full competition by a certain date. 

Just as Hunt-Davis & Beveridge (2011) suggest with their “crazy level” goal, however, you can’t expect to successfully achieve the target by setting an outcome goal in isolation (Gould, 1998).

I will refer to the same example of citing the goal of the player returning to competition at the time of diagnosis, as I did with the “crazy level” goal, therefore.

2)      Process goals – these are the specific behaviours that need to be addressed in order to execute the outcome goal correctly.

Our injured player needs to complete the pre-operative, surgical, post-operative, early/mid/late stage rehabilitation & return to training phases in order to achieve the outcome goal of returning to competition on the date identified.

3)      Performance goals – these are the standards independent of other variables, relating to the specific criteria that can help the athlete improve what they are trying to do.

As such these goals can be explained as the player satisfying the criteria stipulated to proceed from one phase to the next, for example, passing the prerequisite strength, landing, hop, agility & functional tests before returning to the training phase of the rehabilitation process.

If the performance goals are appropriately constructed & the subject has been encouraged to focus on the process goals, there should likely be less concern attached to achieving the outcome goal, the success of which will almost take care of itself.


What must be acknowledged, despite the difference in approach to structuring your goal setting pyramid, all the texts I have read underline the importance of committing the process to paper & ink. 

This encourages accountability as well as physically allowing the team to establish the extent of the progress & focus on the tasks that remain in hand.


The final point to consider, is the “what next”…the “goal after the goal”.  The road to achieving one’s full potential is reached by striving to meet the next challenge & succeed at overcoming that.

In the case of the player that has now returned to competition, it is assumed that he will have an injury prevention programme in place & further conditioning targets to reach. 

In the aspect of performance, once the player has regained a starting selection for a club team & is performing with consistency, the next set of goals might be related to the quest to achieve national team honours.


“Arriving at one goal is the starting point for another”

John Dewey


Gould, D.  Goal setting for peak performance.  In Williams J. (Ed.) Applied sport psychology:  Personal growth to peak performance. (3rd Ed; pp 182-196).  Mountain View, CA, Mayfield Publishers, 1998.

Harrison, D.  Goal setting.  www.TheSportInMind , 24.05.13.

Hunt-Davis, B. & Beveridge, H.  Will it make the boat go faster?  Leicester, UK, Troubador Publishing, 2011.

Keller, S. & Price, C.  Beyond Performance.  How great organizations build ultimate competitive advantage.  Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Kingston, K.M. & Hardy, L.  Effects of different types of goals on processes that support performance.  Sports Psychologist; 11(3): pp 277-293, 1997.

Knight, C.  Goal setting “If you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there!” , 09.07.13

McKinsey Survey.  What successful transformations share.  McKinsey Quarterly, 1, 2010.


“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe & upon which we must vigorously act.  There is no other route to success…”

Pablo Picasso

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