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Goal setting

I recently was a teaching assistant (TA) for a course in Sport Psychology at a major research university. The 200+ students were required to complete a goal-setting project with 4 written assignments. Since most students were not competitive athletes, many chose the goal of “adhering to a consistent exercise program.” I got to grade most of these assignments describing goals and progress toward them, and in the process I learned a number of interesting things.

  1. Many people have no clue what they’re doing with exercise. But we knew that.

  2. People with the most specific and measurable goals invariably made the most progress. The project required specific, measurable goals. Even if their original outcome goals were unreasonable, the constant measurement along the way made them realize that they had to make changes in order to see progress. After 3 or 4 weeks, many had changed their goals appropriately – all because of the power of MEASUREMENT.

  3. People with vague goals such as “get in shape,” “look good in a bikini for spring break,” etc. generally get nowhere.

  4. Contingency plans are crucial to success. The project required a high-level outcome goal (what do you want to be able to do when you’re done), intermediate-level performance goals (steps to the ultimate outcome goal), as well as process goals (i.e., “action steps” necessary to get there). The contingency was for any case where the original goal(s) became untenable. People who were successful had planned, ahead of time, what they would do if ABC happened.

  5. Self-talk and imagery are amazingly powerful. One assignment was to create an imagery plan and a self-talk plan. Over and over I read words such as, “When I had such-and-such negative thought, I tried thought-stopping and said to myself this-and-that. I can’t believe it worked, but it did!”

Lastly, but I think most importantly, over and over I read about how people realized that the process of writing goals down and writing progress down was amazingly powerful. I’m sure most T-mag readers already know and do this (keep workout logs, etc.); but I bet many of us could take our progress to a new level if we would harness the power of writing our goals down to this detailed degree.

I, for example, always keep a workout log and know in general what my next 12-week-or-so goal is. But as I did each assignment myself, I had to think about things and report on them in much greater detail than I usually do. When I hit an unexpected setback (surgery), I immediately had to devise a contingency plan which I never would have done otherwise. In fact, I historically have a horrible time getting back to the gym after something (travel, illness, etc.) gets me away from it in the first place. This was the first time I really got right back into it when I should have, as soon as I got my doctor’s OK.

Here’s a great way to set your goals if you are overweight.

Take a picture of yourself naked or in your underware and put it in your wallet,purse or somewhere you’ll see it everyday and soon you’ll be think do I really want to look like that? And you change your habits real quick, like start eating right, going to the gym or staying at home and working out… Living a healthy lifestyle etc.

And when do change keep that picture in your wallet, purse or where everelse you see it everyday to remind yourself that not to go back to square one.

is it the actual clear and concise goal that made those individuals perform better/achieve better results. or is it perhaps the fact that the type of people that set goals are generally more succesful by nature? hmm…did that make any sense? bare with me its my cheat day.

P-Dog I agree w/ u 100% but my suggestion is for the people that are overweight/obese or don’t have the motivation to set goals this method will force them to set goal. Because they can’t stand looking like that day in and day out.

thanks for sharing that with us andersons. Interesting how those with measurable goals fared better maybe i will have to look over some of the goals i have set for myself and see if there is a way to measure my progress.


Thanks for sharing. It is easier to achieve your goals when they’re measurable consistently because you can track your progress better. My observation is that most personality A type people are very number-oriented and want something that are numbered and measured, whiel personality B is less number-oriented.

But also it’s important to be realistic AND flexible. For example, some people are so number/goal driven that they’ll disregard everything to achieve their goals. I’m talking about people ignoring signs of overtraining, fatigue, small injuries here and there, etc. until they accumulate and finally blow up. I was one of them (literally collapsed one day), and I’m still like that at times (not just with training but with other aspects of my life), so it’s been my goal to be more flexible, stop on my track, and smell the roses.


It was undoubtedly clear that some of the students were no strangers to goal-setting. However, there were numerous students who stated that they had never done anything like this before, and still experienced phenomenal success with it.

Bottom line:

You have to set clear goals. But those goals have to be able to be incorporated into your lifestyle in a realistic manner.

Andersons, this is a very interesting post.
Could you elaborate on point 5? I’m not sure what an “imagery plan” or “thought stopping” are.

Could you outline the four assignments very briefly?



Andersons, this is a very interesting post.
Could you elaborate on point 5? I’m not sure what an “imagery plan” or “thought stopping” are.

Could you outline the four assignments very briefly?



Some of you might be interested in something we use here at work. It’s the SMART system for setting goals and objectives. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Based. I took the liberty of bastardizing the instructions from our HR manual for your perusal below.

Every goal and objective should meet the SMART criteria.

Well-written objectives are stated in specific terms to avoid any confusion over what is to occur or what is to improve. Research has shown that specific objectives lead to better performance than vaguely defined objectives. When objectives are specific, they leave little room for misunderstanding or interpretation. Examples of specific objectives are:

Perform 90% of all planned workouts.
Reduce body fat percentage from 11% down to 9%.

Some objectives have only two possible outcomes and are “all or nothing” objectives. Here’s an example:

Attend a renegade training seminar

Do your best to eliminate “all or nothing” objectives . For example, instead of the above, you might state “Attend a minimum of one skill-building seminar to improve technique in one or more lifts.”

The M in SMART represents measurable. It is important to define measurements that enable progress to be determined and results to be measured. A measurable objective defines quantity or quality. Quantitative objectives answer the question “How many” or “How much” To measure quantity, check things like number of reps, number of pounds, percent bodyfat, etc.
Quality objectives measure how well something is produced or performed. To measure quality, you might consider injuries, recovery rate or professional evaluations.

Objectives should be attainable and challenging. An attainable objective requires some effort or “stretch” to achieve and motivate. Conversely, people are usually not motivated by objectives that are too easy or too difficult.

One purpose of establishing objectives is to link a person’s priorities to their actual activities. People need to understand the relevance of their activities in the larger context of their personal priorities. A goal of learning conversational Spanish is not very relevant if the highest priority is health.

An objective must have a time deadline, or else the objective might never be achieved. Realistic deadlines can be motivating. Setting time bound objectives encourages you to commit to accomplishing the objective within a set period of time.

Well, i dont have very specific goals at this time. NOt very specific that is.

But its more on the short term to me, like losing a %Bdf per week. But as im getting into single digits that might not be possible any more but i will change them. Off course this is while maintaining LBM.

The last time i set very specific goals, senior year of HS, i acheived only a small amount of them.
They conisted of things like, squat xLB, bench xlb, clean xlb. Run for 1000 yards, make all county, have this bodyfat%. lead the team in this this and this. etc.

Maybe some of them were out of reach.

I think maybe somewhere in the middle with goal setting is best, short to medium term.

Excellent Yorik!

It would actually be nice for T-mag to release an article on this subject. I’m sure it would help alot of people, and it’s a subject that they havent covered much to this date.

this has already been discussed. A book was written on it called Body For Life. hahahaha. just kidding. i adhere to the quit being a pussy and do it philosophy. Ive called myself more names than everyone in the world put together.

Yes, yorik, that’s all great stuff that was covered in the course.

Self-talk just consists of statements you say to yourself to improve your motivation and performance. Invariably it seems hokey, but in conjunction with goal setting, really seems to work. For example, you might identify problems that might arise as you try to reach your goals. For me, getting up early in the morning, and low arousal (i.e., feeling like I want to fall asleep) during workouts are problems. At first, to comply with the assignment, I tried saying to myself, “I love getting up, I want to work out,” etc. This was so patently ridiculous it didn’t work, but the old Nike standby, “Just do it,” helped. Even better was , “I WANT to be fit. I WANT to be lean and strong. It’s not going to happen unless I get to the gym TODAY.”

Thought stopping consists of ways to stop negative thoughts.
Example: You’re in the gym and a fabulously buff guy walks by. You think, “I’m never going to look like that.”
Example: “I don’t have the genetics for. . .”
To stop them, it’s helpful to increase awareness, making mental notes or even keeping records. Then plan in advance what you’ll say to yourself instead of the negative thought. Some people find it effective to use a stimulus, like snapping a rubber band on the wrist, every time they become aware of the negative thoughts. Most of my students were incredibly plagued with negative thoughts and found this exercise really helpful.

Imagery is simply imagining, using as many senses as possible, what you want. For example, imagine yourself squatting X pounds. I actually tried imagining myself getting up in the morning, feeling reasonably alive and happy. There is evidence that imagery is more effective for people with more skill, and when practiced consistently.

All of this stuff, I know, sounds like hokey Muscle-Media pop-psychology, but I was truly amazed at how many of my students had never set goals before, and how much they benefitted from the assignment.

The assignment basically consisted of setting a final outcome goal, along with performance “milestone” goals along the way, followed by specific action steps to achieve each performance goal.

In following assignments, students had to document and comment on their progress.

For the third assignment, they had to create an “arousal regulation strategy” using self-talk and imagery for some problem area that could benefit from it.

For the final assignment, they had to do a “needs assessment” of various psychological skills; this was a great exercise but too technical and lengthy to describe here. They also had to assess their goals, what they had learned about themselves, and what their future goals would be based on what they had learned.

I don’t know if T-mag will be interested in publishing an article about goal setting, but there is a ton of stuff out there already. There are websites and books galore.

I think that this is the sort of topic that should be covered in the book Iron Mind.