Plan Your Season Using SMART Goals

by Associate Coach Melissa Sanborn

Goal-setting is a common weakness for struggling athletes and a common strength for successful athletes. Good goal setting will improve your motivation and self confidence, while poor goal setting or avoiding goal setting altogether will greatly decrease your chances of success.

Let’s start with a research-proven fact: if you believe in yourself, you’re more likely to be successful. I know that’s not rocket science. But ask yourself: what affects your belief in yourself as an athlete?

Many years ago, psychologist Albert Bandura defined, studied, and expanded the concept of self-efficacy: the belief that you have the power to produce a desired effect. If, for a particular task, your self-efficacy is high, you’re more likely to engage in that task. You’re also more likely to work harder and be more persistent. And, you’re more likely to attribute failure to external factors (“My training wasn’t tuned well for this race”) rather than low ability (“I suck”). How can you increase self-efficacy and keep it high in your cycling? Effectively set, commit to, plan for, manage, evaluate, and re-set your goals. (Or, just win every event you enter.) If you set and manage your goals well, you create the conditions to maintain a strong belief in yourself.

Studies show that there is a relationship between how difficult and specific a goal was and people’s performance of a task. It has been found that specific and difficult goals lead to better task performance than vague or easy goals. The idea that is stressed is that all goals be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound.

Specific. Rather than defining vague goals (“Get stronger,” “Do well in races”), strive for precision (“Break 60 minutes in the 40k TT,” “Finish in the top third of the field in every race”). This will increase the likelihood that your plan to meet your goals will itself be specific enough. It will also make it easier for you to identify the resources you need to meet your goals.

Measurable. For each goal, ask yourself: How will I know I’ve achieved this? Once you’ve answered that question, make sure the answer is part of the goal.

Achievable. Use caution here. It’s important to have “stretch” goals – goals that truly challenge you – but don’t stretch too far; you may injure yourself. A leading cause of overtraining and burnout is the crazy pursuit of goals that are truly not achievable. (And don’t forget the converse: your motivation may take a hit from too many easy goals.) If you are having difficulty honing in on the right level of challenge, talk with your coach and also use this approach: Pick a goal that you think is just too hard to achieve. Then pick one that you are 99% sure you can achieve. Next, pick a goal that is hard to do, but in between. Evaluate it, and if it is still too hard or too easy, go in between again. Eventually, you will find one that is just right and works for you.

Relevant. Or, one might say “realistic,” but if thought about in this way, it seems more relevant. You could have a very specific, measurable, achievable goal (“Increase peak climbing power 30% by July 1”), but if you’re training to do well in flat races, that goal might be irrelevant or even counter-productive. One way of maximizing relevance is to have a small number of long-term objectives, and to ensure your short-term goals support those objectives. For example, “place top 5 at the Cherry Pie Criterium” might support a larger goal of winning an important event later in the season.

Timebound. One of the most common goal-setting errors is not having the question of “When?” addressed in the goal. The goal-setter should fully consider what needs to happen first in order for the goal to be achieved. The goal-setter must also think about whether the point in the training or racing season has an effect on the goal. “Break 60 minutes in the 40k TT” is much different from “Break 60 minutes in the 40k TT at the race on April 13,” which is different from “Break 60 minutes in the 40k TT by April 13.” You may often have goals for a specific workout, and it may serve you to have goals even in the middle of a difficult event like the 40k TT (“I’m going to get to the turnaround sign at this pace, using this cadence or power,” “Now I’m going to get to that bend in the road at this pace.”).

Once you’ve written down your goals, check them over. For each goal, ask yourself: Can I do it? If you are feeling uneasy about a goal, judge whether you should change the goal, or whether you’re anxious for specific reasons such as fear of failure or lack of sufficient support or resources rather than the content of the goal itself.

Make goal-setting a habit. Some athletes only focus on goals when things are going poorly. Evaluate and potentially reset your goals if you get sick, injured, or change your schedule significantly. There’s nothing wrong with revamping your goals as a result of forces beyond your control and there is also nothing wrong with re-evaluating your goals as a result of forces within your control.

Setting the right goals will help light the fire that gets you psyched about shooting for them and SMART goals can keep you going with the direction and feedback they provide. And, they can give you a swift kick in the behind when you might have otherwise given up.

Associate Coach Melissa Sanborn coaches road and cyclocross racers of all abilities, specializing in working with master racers.