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Set goals the SMART way to achieve real success

  • By Ari Baquet
  • Published Jan. 24, 2013
Setting goals that are challenging enough to spur effort but achievable enough to preserve motivation requires planning and flexibility. Photo: BrakeThroughMedia

As the WorldTour season began Tuesday at the Santos Tour Down Under, so begin our own respective competitive seasons. And with racing come goals and objectives.

It’s often easy to look back on previous seasons to find room for improvement. Any metric — power output, time up a local climb, body weight — can be a target for improvement in order to bolster race results, grab an upgrade, or even finish the morning closer to the front of a race-paced group ride.

Setting goals for the coming season — at first glance a simple task, even for road seasons that extend well through the summer — can and should be nothing but motivating, especially when coupled with thoughts of meeting, or beating, those goals.

However, preseason enthusiasm can breed over-zealous goal setting, which “would be self-defeating, and lead to burnout pretty quickly,” according to clinical psychologist Julie Emmerman.

There are ways to make goal setting more effective — tools for long-term success, rather than mere digital Post-it notes on the computer screen at the office.

“I always recommend following the acronym SMART,” Emmerman, a former professional cross-country racer, told VeloNews.

That acronym dictates that goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-sensitive.

Accountability, to one’s self or to a coach, is also key, “not only in terms of your long-term objectives, but every workout broken down needs to be following that plan,” she said.

Specific

Specificity “applies to anything, if your goal is to finish the Triple Bypass (a climbing-intensive event that starts in Evergreen, Colorado)… or if your goal is to race the Tour, or your goal is to lose 20 pounds,” Emmerman, who now practices in Boulder, Colorado, said. “Everything needs to be designed so that you’re holding yourself accountable and making it reasonable and achievable.”

Emmerman did caution, however, against becoming overly committed and enslaved to numbers and data — an unhealthy, yet all-too-common scenario.

“For some people, it is important to back off and go, ‘you know what, let’s not pay attention to the scale, or pay attention to the numbers; let’s just re-gain love for the bike and go ride,’” she said. “By doing that we’re protecting your passion for the sport and keeping you healthy and, possibly inadvertently, just because you feel less stressed, [you will] lose your weight and up your wattage.

“It’s not as scientific, obviously, and so it’s probably not going to yield the same effectiveness.”

Measurable

To that end, measurable, quantitative goals are also critical. An open-ended, qualitative goal — “lose weight” or “upgrade to Category 3,” for example — is as effective as invisible rungs on a ladder, lacking benchmarks and clear objectives.

“You want [the goal] to be legible so you can keep tabs on where you are and if you’re meeting your goals or not, and if not, [understand] what’s getting in the way,” said Emmerman.

Achievable and Realistic

Furthermore, while the achievable and realistic aspects of goal setting may appear redundant, achievability — of specific workouts, for example — is in fact a building block for a realistic goal.

A realistic goal, Emmerman said, “has to be something that is feasible. And when you’re doing the day-to-day stuff to get there, those mini-tasks need to be achievable.”

Time sensitive

Time sensitivity, the final element of goal setting, can be as simple as setting a target date for the accomplishment of a goal, according to Emmerman. For example, a goal to hit 1,200 watts in a road-race sprint could come with a target date of July 3, 2013, the first day of the five-day 2013 USA Cycling Elite Road National Championships.

This aspect, in one sense the most straightforward, can impact intermediate planning as well.

“If your goal is more long-term, then it’s going to be important to keep in mind being flexible, and there’s more room for different variables to get involved that might really test your resilience and perseverance, simply because there’s more time [for setbacks],” Emmerman said. “And if the goal is short-term, usually that means there’s less room for variables and you can stay more sharply in-tuned to the progress.”

Setbacks do arise, however, some of which are difficult, if not impossible to control. Emmerman’s advice in such instances is simple: “You can only control what you can control… Some people do struggle with that, and I think it’s one of the great lessons that racing offers.”

Above all, Emmerman said, “It’s important to keep it fun and keep people around you who have that positive attitude, who can support your passion and share their own passions with you… reach out when you’re feeling discouraged, and talk to people.

“It needs to be fun, and if it’s not fun then [you're] not going to stay committed to [your] goals.”

FILED UNDER: Sports Psychology / Training Center

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