How to Become a Smarter Goal-Setter

by SwimSwam 0

August 31st, 2015 Britain, Europe, Training

Courtesy of Jennifer Lager, Psy.D. via SwimSpire / Julia Galan

Watching the World Cup victory of the US Women’s soccer team this July was truly inspiring. One of the stars of the final and the tournament as a whole, Carli Lloyd, can teach us much of what we need to know about goal setting. For years, Lloyd has treated the mental aspects of her soccer game as being equally important to her fitness, and has set and accomplished specific goals for her mental training.

When setting training goals for yourself, it is important to also include goals for your mental toughness. Lloyd’s goal is to be a mentally fierce competitor who thrives in pressure situations. For her, this is achieved by practicing imagery on a daily basis. She repeatedly and exhaustively plays out any of the scenarios that she might face in a game, so that when one of those scenarios occurs, she has been there and done that before. If you can see yourself doing it in your mind, you’ll have a leg up when it comes to actually executing it in reality.

Setting goals plays a crucial role in accomplishing difficult tasks. What you may not know is that there are a variety of ways to create goals in order to set yourself up for success, some of which are more effective than others.

Many people focus on Outcome Goals, which are end result-oriented and are partially or completely controlled by other individuals or by outside factors. An example of an outcome goal is: “I want to finish among the top 3 in my age group”. While outcome goals are important, they are not optimally effective on their own.

Process Goals are another type of goal where the focus is placed on performance and accomplishing the goal is largely within the control of the goal-setter. Examples of process goals include: “I will stretch and ice my shoulder for 15 minutes after every swim” (working toward an outcome goal of a season with fewer injuries) or “I will go to bed by 11pm at least 5 nights a week” (working toward an outcome goal of having more energy by being better rested). In setting process goals, you are aiming to meet the goal with the understanding that properly selected process goals will help forge the path towards your outcome goals and make them more likely to occur.

The way to get from an outcome goal to a process goal is to ask yourself, “…what will it take for me to accomplish this outcome?” That question typically leads you to a goal that involves daily activities and habits – in other words, a process goal.

One of my favorite aspects of process goals is that they allow for winning even while losing. A swimmer might not win a race or drop time, but if they set a goal to be accurate with their flip turn and they do this successfully, then their goal for the day was met. This allows the swimmer to maintain a high level of motivation over the long term, which is important because we all know that training is much more of a long distance event rather than a sprint!
When you focus on improving specific aspects of your performance, you become more confident because you’re focusing on something you have control over. You can’t control outcomes — you may swim your best race ever and still lose – but you do have control over your own actions.


SMART is a helpful acronym to help you ensure that your goals are well-designed for achieving maximum benefit. You want your goals to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Limited. Let’s look at what each of these involves:


A specific goal has a much greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal. To set a specific goal you must answer some “W” questions:

*Who: Who is involved?

*What: What do I want to accomplish?

*Where: Where it will occur?

*When: When will I work on this goal?

*Which: Identify requirements and constraints.

*Why: Why is this goal important (it’s purpose and benefits)?


It is helpful to establish concrete and tangible criteria for measuring progress toward the attainment of each goal you set. This is important because when you measure your progress, you will be able to stay on track and tend to stay motivated. For example,

“I will improve my fitness” is a great aspiration but it is not clear how this change will be evident. A measurable way of stating that goal might be “I will run 3x/week for 30 minutes until I can run an 8 minute mile”


For a goal to be achievable, you must possess the attitudes, abilities, skills, time, and financial capacity to reach it. If you set a goal to do yoga for one hour, 4 times a week, but you are already struggling to fit in your swims before work and can’t leave work any earlier, then this may not be an achievable goal.


To be realistic, a goal must represent an objective toward which you are both willing and able to work. A goal can be both high and realistic if you want it to be and if you have the means by which to work towards it. You are the only one who can decide just how high your goals should be set. Goals that help maintain motivation tend to be somewhere in the middle – not too easy, but not so hard that one gets discouraged. Remember, you can have short-term goals (which might be more moderate) and long-term goals (that might be more lofty). By having short-term goals, you will keep yourself motivated by the progress you see in the present-term, without getting overwhelmed by the abilities you want – but don’t yet possess – to attain your greater aspirations.


Goals should be grounded within a specific time frame to help create a sense of urgency. When you anchor a goal to occur “by September 1st”, then you’ve set your unconscious mind into motion to begin moving toward the goal.

I hope this article will inspire you to make it a goal to work on your goals! Happy Swimming!

About Jennifer Lager

Jennifer Lager, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and mental coach who helps athletes improve their mental game in multiple sports including swimming, tennis, golf, figure skating, and gymnastics (to name a few). She is the owner of GAME- Get A Mental Edge, a performance enhancement business based in McLean, VA.

About Julia Galan

Julia Galan headshot, PhotoJulia Galan is a lifelong competitive swimmer and a USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. Julia’s passion for the sport, for coaching and for writing led to the creation of Swimspire, a coaching and swimming inspiration source geared towards athletes of all levels and goals.

Visit the Swimspire HQ here.

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