How Top Athletes Set Goals that Most People Don’t

by @deanyeong | Get free weekly updates here

I’m not a professional athlete (even though I train hard), but I’m very passionate in studying how top athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps, and Aly Raisman accomplished what they’ve achieved. I believe their approach to training, practice, and competition can give us a few valuable insights on becoming a better version of ourselves.

For instance, I was recently taking a deeply look into how athletes set goals for themselves to improve their performance and prepare for competitions. Goal setting is a popular topic among creatives and entrepreneurs. When I say popular, I mean debating and confusing.

Goal Setting for Creatives and Entrepreneurs

As a creative person, whether you’re a writer, designer, developer, or film-maker, goal setting seems invisible. Think about it, when is the last time you set a goal for your work? Part of the reason we never talk about goal-setting as a creative is because creativity is hard to quantify and measure.

What is good work? And what is excellent work? How hardworking we need to be to gain an extra edge? Is the time investment of time and effort always equal to the quality of work?

On the other hand, as an entrepreneur, regardless you’re running a one-man business (like me) or a managing a 150-employee team, goal setting seems unrealistic for you, at least for sometimes. Often, we keep setting goals that seem so far stretched and have no clue in moving ourselves forward to them.

How big should a goal be to be considered as achievable? How to take a goal and turn it into action? And how to stay true to ourselves when we set a goal?

The Fives-Step Process

You may be wondering, “five-step process?” This is not anything about the SMART goal setting, this is a goal setting strategy used by many world class athletes in their training and competition.

Most of us don’t go through all the five steps here. That’s why we don’t have total clarity and motivation. This five-step goal setting process connects our goals with our values and identity. Besides, completing these five steps helps you to turn your goal into an action plan.

Step 1: Connect with Your Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal is the combination of who you want to be, where you want to go, and how you want to get there. Making $1,000,000 or becoming a famous artist are two great “where you want to go” goals, and then, figure out who you want to be and what strategy and medium you want to use to get there. A lot of self-talks and reflections are required in this process. And it always changes. So, spend some good time with it, don’t dwell on the tiny details, define it quickly, and adjust it as you go.

Step 2: Define Who You Want to Be

Now, for a moment, break down your ultimate goal and focus solely on who you want to be. Figure your limitations and constraints physically, genetically, environmentally (if you think you don’t have these, think again). Stay true to yourself and give up on battles you 100% can’t win. This helps you to identify your strengths and weaknesses and from there, you shape your own identity.

Then, look at what you truly love, what matters to you, your life values, and your work ethics. Write them down. Practicing high level of self-awareness is important because it helps you find happiness and fulfillment. As Tony Robbins said, “Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.”

“Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.” – Tony Robbins

Step 3: Set Your High Result Goal

Most people start setting their goal here without going through the first two steps. It’s absolutely normal because these goals are something exciting and tangible that we have a better grip with. This high goal should be something extremely challenging to you, but you still believe in its possibility. Without this belief, you won’t have the drive to solve every obstacle that comes in your way.

Some examples are like what lifestyle you want to live, where you want to take your company, what recognition you want to receive, and how big an audience you want to create.

Step 4: Set Your Low Result Goal

The truth is, we don’t always get the best of what we want. Having goals that you consistently failed to achieve is going to make you feel like a failure, even you’ve already done your best and getting a decent or good result. Having a low result goal allows you to celebrate your effort, boost your confidence and happiness, and then, prepare for another battle.

Ask yourself, given that you’re becoming who you want to be and staying true to your values, what are the lowest results you tolerate for yourself. Maybe you don’t need that fame and recognition you always wanted, all you need is a steady growth in revenue and appreciation from your customers.

Step 5: Design Your Process Goal

This is what most people don’t do. Most people stop at their high result goal (some only set high result goal). The process goal is the work you need to get done regularly to achieve everything you have set above.

For an example, my low result goal is to make a decent income from my online business, my high result goal is generating 10x more revenue from it, and my identity is to spread wisdom and insights via my writing, but these goals don’t just happen themselves. To achieve all the goals above, you need to make a system—daily routines, habits, training, and practice—to move forward progressively. (For me, I write and publish an article every week.)

  • To win an Olympic gold medal, Michael Phelps trains 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • To bring his father’s wine business to the next level, Gary Vaynerchuk creates a YouTube video about wine a day, for 1,000 days.
  • To become the best comedian, Jerry Seinfeld writes jokes every day without breaking the chain.

The process goal pulls you back from the future to the now. You can’t work in the future, nor change the past. So instead of fantasizing your big dreams or dwelling on past mistakes, thrive to put in the work every single day. Looking at your ultimate goal and thinking about how far you have to go is overwhelming, take the +1 approach to focus on ONE single thing you can do NOW to make improvements.

how to set goals like athletes

Answering Difficult Questions

To achieve greatness as an athlete, one need to lock their eyes on the grand prize, push themselves beyond limiting beliefs and physical boundaries, be disciplined in putting in the work, and develop a high-level mental toughness. I believe this goal setting process helps them to perform at their peak state. And I believe we can implement this technique as a creative person and an entrepreneur to discover greatness in our work.

This five-step goal setting process forces you to answer difficult questions you may have stumbled across but decided to skip them. Answering these questions is crucial for your success in pursuing your goals. This process includes two things that most people missed or ignored in setting their goals:

  1. Knowing who we are, so that our goals aligned with our values.
  2. Putting in the ONE step you can take now to move forward.

With this, our ultimate goal becomes possible, our confidence rises, our performance improves, and most importantly, we find fulfillment in the entire journey.

Dean Yeong

Writer. Reader. Lifting weights & drinking coffee.