“If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”-Yogi Berra, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer
Sarah bent over with her hands on her knees, gasping. “STAND UP or it doesn’t count,” yelled Coach Lang. Three punishment sprints down, two to go. She overslept and was late to practice. But that was only because she was up late cramming for her Algebra test — which she had to cram for, because she’d been doing the minimum all semester and now needed a B on the final exam to pass. But whatever. Coach would be on her regardless. If not for grades, then for something else. She got suspended earlier in the semester after someone spotted her out after curfew. But she was just trying to enjoy college like a normal student! And yeah, she got caught in a lie about getting her shots up. But that’s because she needed that time to finish her English paper…after leaving it to the last day. She came into college with all the right intentions: get good grades, be a good team member, make friends. She’s doing the best she can and it felt easy in high school. How do other college athletes balance all of this?
As a successful athlete, you are used to achieving your goals. And while your success is ultimately due to your own effort, you’ve probably had adults in your life — such as your parents, coaches, and teachers — who helped you define what a good goal is and how to achieve it. Now, as you head off to college, it is important that you learn to set goals. Your success in college depends on it, because bad goals are worse than no goals at all. If your goals are too easy and your expectations too low, you will underachieve. If your goals are unrealistic and your expectations too high, you will be disappointed and feel like a failure, even if you’re not. In this chapter we’ll break down the most successful strategy in goal-setting. We’ll give you a solid blueprint to help you set and achieve your goals.
The way that successful people set and achieve their goals can be summarized by the acronym S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Their goals are (S)pecific, (M)easurable, (A)ttainable, (R)elevant, (T)ime-bound, (E)valuated, and (R)ewarded. This chapter will help you understand what S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals are and apply these principles to your own aspirations.
Specific goals explain exactly what you are trying to achieve. If your goal is too vague or broad, it will be hard to know whether or not you have succeeded in achieving it. For example, the goal, “I will eat healthier,” is not nearly as good as the goal, “I will eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.”
A goal is measurable if you can quantify it. If your goal isn’t measurable, it will be hard to track your progress. For example, the goal, “I will improve my writing skills” is not easily measurable compared to the goal, “I will write a novel of 50,000 words.”
Making a measurable goal also increases your chance of achieving it. First, once a goal is measurable, it becomes easier to define the daily habits required to move you forward. For example, for a 50,000-word novel, you can work backwards to define how many words you need to write per day, week, and month. Encouraging yourself to sit and write for an hour each night is much more approachable than thinking about the whole novel and how much work it will be. Breaking your goal into bite-sized chunks makes it less intimidating.
Measurable goals also help you succeed by building endurance and momentum. Let’s say you need to write for an hour each night to finish your novel, but you are new to writing and an hour feels like eternity. You start dreading your writing time and begin skipping sessions. Your problem is not that you lack discipline; your problem is that your daily habit is too large. To build your writing endurance and confidence, you should start with fifteen minutes of writing per day. Once that feels easy, increase your daily habit to thirty minutes, then forty-five. Pretty soon, your “writing muscle” will be strong enough to consistently write for an hour per day. Along the way, achieving each small increase in your writing time will feel amazing, which will motivate you. Instead of beating yourself up for not writing for an hour and giving up, you adjusted your micro goal. And in doing so, you structured a measurable set of goals that not only advances you, but also fuels your momentum to push even harder.
Good goals are challenging but realistic. If your goal is too easy, you won’t be challenged to reach your full potential. If your goal is too big, any progress you make will feel tiny, making it hard to stay motivated. For example, if you have $100 in your bank account and your wage is $20 per hour, setting a goal to save $1,000 is more realistic than saving $10,000. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a big goal of saving $10,000 over a longer time horizon, but starting with the $1,000 goal will enable you to achieve something meaningful while also providing you with the confidence and momentum to tackle the big $10,000 goal.
Another component of attainability is how much of the goal is within your control. If your goal concerns something that others decide, then the likelihood of you achieving it may be lower than a goal over which you have full control. For example, if your goal is to be awarded Freshman of the Year for your conference, how well you perform is only one factor. If the head coaches in your conference like or notice another player more (e.g., because he or she plays on a better team, is at a college with a bigger media budget, has a flashier style of play, has a more successful or influential coach, etc.), then even if you are the best freshman athlete, you may not win. Compare this to a goal of improving your shooting percentage, running a faster mile time, or decreasing your body fat percentage. These are goals that are almost solely within your control, unlike awards or playing time.
To set your goal, reflect on where you are starting today, what resources you have to help you, and how much your actions alone influence whether or not you achieve your goal. Also, seek counsel from people you trust and who know you well to help you determine what is realistic.
The goal you set must be something that is important to you, and something that aligns with your values and your long-term goals. In theory, you could set a goal to do anything, but your goals are connected to one another. For example, let’s say that Taco Bell is holding a contest: whoever eats the most tacos over the next year gets Taco Bell free for life. You think Taco Bell is delicious and wouldn’t mind eating there every meal. While it might seem like a good goal — think of all the money you will save on free Taco Bell for life! — this goal affects your other goals. If you gain 30 pounds from eating a lot of fast food, that will probably hurt your goal to be a successful college athlete. Further, assuming you want to live a long time, eating a lot of fast food is not the way to health.
Besides being interconnected, good goals often stack to former bigger goals. If you only pursue the goal right in front of you, you might prevent yourself from achieving bigger goals in the future. Take your dream to play college sports. Let’s say your goal is to be a starter, so you spend all of your time in the weight room, watching film, and working on your game. You slack off in school and start taking steroids to quickly increase your strength. While you’ve done a good job doing everything possible to be a starter, your tunnel vision is unhealthy and counterproductive. When your actions cause you to fail your classes or an NCAA drug test, you won’t be eligible to compete at all, much less be a starter. Even if you don’t get caught, one day you will need another source of income (yes, even if you go pro). It will be hard to achieve your goals of getting a job you enjoy and being financially stable if you take easy classes and graduate with a low GPA.
Any good goal has a deadline. Otherwise, it is too easy to procrastinate working towards the goal or set unrealistic goals that you will never achieve. The time-bound aspect also helps you set the small steps you will take to reach your goal. For example, the goal, “I will read more books” is not nearly as good as the goal, “I will read twelve books by December 31st.” Besides having a specific number and a deadline, the latter goal has a natural progress meter. Twelve books in a year is an average of one book per month. If it is June and you’ve only finished two books, then you know you must pick up the slack to reach your goal.
You are far more likely to achieve your goal if you regularly measure your progress and hold yourself accountable to do the small actions that feed into your goal. Let’s say your goal is to get at least eight hours of sleep per weeknight. You could put a notepad and a calendar next to your bed. Every night, you write down the time when you get into bed. Every morning, you log the time when you get out of bed. On your calendar, you mark a star each day that you meet your sleep goal. If you review your calendar each week, it will be easy to see whether you are consistently getting enough sleep. It will be much harder to forget about your goal or avoid making changes to improve, than if you don’t review your progress. Plus, once you get a few stars in a row, you will become motivated not to break your streak.
Achieving a goal is hard work, and even the most committed person needs help sometimes maintaining motivation and discipline. Treating yourself with a small reward when you reach a milestone will energize you, especially for big or long-term goals. A reward doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. The most important thing is that the reward is something that makes you feel great. The reward also shouldn’t be something that derails your progress; for example, if your goal is to save an extra $30 per week, the reward you pick should be free or very cheap.
Achieving great things requires more than passion and desire. Worthwhile goals are often intimidating and require sustained energy and focus over long periods of time. Setting the wrong goal is worse than setting no goal at all, because achieving easy goals isn’t rewarding and chasing impossible goals crushes the spirit. If you carefully structure and track your goals using the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goal principles, you can achieve more than you believe is possible.
Want to learn more about Trey Athletes and how to get involved with SZN 3 programming?
Trey Athletes is partnering with high school and club coaches to deliver our SZN 3 virtual programming series to athletes anywhere. Trey Athletes programming focuses on leadership development, college & career exposure, and community & family engagement. This coming Spring, Trey will provide amazing speakers and content through a series of virtual events, similar to Trey’s virtual Q&As with Dirk Nowitzki and Jalen Brunson. After each event, coaches will lead a debrief conversation with their teams using Trey-prepared materials. The program is free and welcomes any coach, anywhere, in any sport to sign up. If you are a coach or know a coach that is interested in joining SZN 3, please complete our Coach’s Nomination Form today!