Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Goals - Richard A. Winett

Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu

The Art and Science of Achieving
by Richard A. Winett, Ph.D.

In this article, partly based on my book Ageless Athletes,  
I will talk about some of the science and art of goal setting that leads to personal success. I'm convinced that the overall approach and techniques - the science - within some realistic boundaries can help anyone to surpass their present performance levels. At the conclusion of this article, however, I will add some qualifications - the art in goal setting. There is, after all, a 'flip-side' to everything in life. Successful goal attainment has its obvious benefits, and perhaps not-so-obvious costs.

Choosing Goals

While the techniques of goal attainment are relatively straightforward, the actual choosing of goals is far from easy. I don not mean simple goals, e.g., saving 10 or 20 dollars a week, but goals that are so encompassing as to almost define one's life. As important as this topic is, exactly how a person sets a life course to be a great artist, a champion bodybuilder or a nuclear physicist appears unknown. Thus we have to apply some common sense.

One critical aspect of picking a long term goal is realistic self-assessment or assessment by others. For example, according to Michael Yessis, Ph.D., in Secrets of Soviet Sports Fitness and Training,
at a very early age youngsters in the Soviet Union and Soviet-bloc countries receive extensive evaluation for athletic potential. Children are matched to specific sports, and as time goes on, training becomes more formalized and rigorous. Only those who physically and psychologically are a best match for a given sport proceed up the Soviet system for elite athletes, e.g., special schools, coaches, equipment, nutrition.

The Soviets, according to Yessis, can also predict the levels of performance necessary to compete at the highest ranking 10 to 15 years in the future. Thus, an aspiring 15- or 16-year old elite Soviet athlete in 1989 will clearly know with a high degree of certainty his or her chance for an Olympic medal in the 1992 and 1996 games.

I am using the Soviet example not to suggest that we completely adopt their system, but to make an important point. Prior to fixating on a goal, there needs to be good, realistic assessments. The best assessments will not be made from an armchair or couch. Whatever the endeavor and goal, you must expose yourself to the field of play. For example, no amount of study of articles will answer the question about your ability to be a high-level bodybuilder or lifter. After about two years of training on basic overall routines and following sound nutritional practices, you will have your answer to the opening-round question, "Can I be good at this?"

Based on further self-assessment and feedback from others, you may be able to get a handle on a realistic long-term goal for yourself. Long-term goals, depending on realistic assessments, may be as disparate as placing in your club's annual contest or winning the Olympia title. However, if in all instances goals are realistic but will take considerable, if not heroic efforts to reach, then the techniques for goal attainment are usually very much the same.

Setting Sub-goals 

Once a specific, realistic long-term goal has been picked, the most important step is to carefully pick a series of sub-goals. This can be done in an ascending or descending way. I suggest doing it both ways too see if your series of sub-goals match.

For a descending set of goals, you work your way backward from the final goal to the present. That is, you backtrack from the final goal and figure out all the key sub-goals that involved in attaining that one main goal. For an ascending set of goals, you work forward from the present to the final goal.

The series of sub-goals you develop from one or both kinds of analysis should be significant ones that indicate personal success and achievement. The science (and art) here is to pick sub-goals that always remain interesting and challenging. The process of seeking to fulfill goals should be stimulating and confirm your ability to complete specific tasks and reach sub-goals. These self-efficacy beliefs will fuel your next efforts. And if each goal makes you reach and extend yourself a bit more than before, fulfilling sub-goals will bee highly rewarding.

The charting of sub-goals should be formalized. I urge you at the outset to not only write out your series of sub-goals and study them, but to develop a highly specific timetable and task analysis for each sub-goal. After all, sub-goals will not be accomplished automatically. It takes good planning and completion of a succession of tasks.

Time/Task Analysis

The overall objective is to devise a time/task analysis. Depending on your overall goal and the number of sub-goals, the unit of time in your time/task analysis may be as short as a day or as long as several years or more. The time/task analysis is your "road map." Without a road map, you won't know if you've gone astray; a road map keeps you on course.

While you will find that it is extremely satisfying to check off completed tasks and sub-goals, the road map must still be flexible enough to enable you to modify it according to your experience. For example, the time/task analysis needs to be modified if you discover some heretofore unthought-of task or some sub-goals that take less or more time to achieve.

However, even a well-conceived time/task analysis is only a first step along the way to goal attainment. In examining your sub-goals, tasks and time frame, you must ask, "Exactly what resources and support do I need to complete tasks and reach sub-goals?" I cannot emphasize enough that this question must be asked. If you do not have the resources and supports, more than likely you will not succeed.


Resources and supports do not just include money and friends. For example, among the most critical resources for athletes are enough time for training and recuperation and access to at least adequate training facilities. Clearly, if you are working 60 to 70 hours a week and sleeping five hours a night, there are tremendous odds against your becoming a great athlete, even if you do have access to the best training facility in the world.

One piece of the total picture of goal attainment and athletic success that I found fascinating in studying the lives and training of athletes for my book was how well these people set up an environment conducive to training. This is not to say that all the athletes were wealthy or were full-time athletes. As best as possible, they arranged their daily environment to help them complete tasks pointed toward goals. Some common strategies included more flexible (though often demanding) work schedules, the development over many years of a private/home gym, calculated risk-taking in new careers that allow more time for training or moving to specific parts of the country (even for specific segments of the year) to enhance training.

I am not suggesting by these examples that you quit your job or totally convert your dwelling into a gym. I am advising you to carefully consider how much time and money you need for all your tasks and sub-goals; what other kinds of help you may need; what settings, environments and equipment you need access to; what kind of nutrition and how much sleep you will require; and how much effort your tasks will require and, therefore how much effort you can devote to other aspects of your life. Briefly and to the point, you need to carefully plan how you will structure your life.


When you have your sub-goals and tasks specified and have optimized resources, supports and environments as best you can, you are more than halfway along the path to achieving short- and long-term goals. Several techniques can enhance these first basic steps and keep you on course. 

Many great athletes either formally or informally, continually monitor their performance and make adjustments in diet, rest, training, task or goal completion, or other aspects of their life. This self-monitoring, self-feedback process appears to be critical. Some athletes keep detailed training logs and can readily discern patterns related to optimal and sub-optimal performance. During a training session there is also a constant cycle of self-observation, feedback, adjustment, modification of performance and so on. The best athletes appear to be similar to exquisitely sensitive biofeedback devices.

Again, this process may be formalized in a diary of simply retained in memory. However, a written account or diary also affords the opportunity to plan particular training sessions in detail. During or after the training session the athlete can make notes to fine-tune subsequent performances and check off accomplishments for the day. This type of goal-setting feedback system is an excellent way for you to maintain a high level of motivation and sharpen your focus and intensity. This is particularly true when daily goals are difficult (so they are meaningful) but reachable (so you will be rewarded by your effort).


The following are some other techniques to make task performance ore proficient and to heighten motivation. Template matching involves finding a good example of what you want to accomplish and following it. This also involves behavioral modeling; for example, when you follow the training routine and diet of bodybuilders you want to emulate. Of course, this process will only be beneficial if you attempt to match and model a person and process that fits you.

For some individuals, making public commitments is highly motivating. Here, for example, you can tell people who are important to you about your specific goals and when you will accomplish them. Clearly, you can see how this strategy can provide you with extra motivation and a lot of positive feedback. Of course, as will be discussed later, public commitments also mean your failures will receive closer scrutiny. This kind of commitment is a double-edged sword!


Many, though not all, athletes use visualization strategies. These strategies are also called mental or cognitive rehearsal techniques. The basic idea is to visualize yourself successfully completing important tasks prior to actually achieving them in real life. It must be noted, however, that what you visualize must be realistic. For example, if you are currently pressing 150 pounds it would be foolish to visualize yourself pressing 300. And it would be even more foolish to go to the gym and attempt it! Realistic, clear visualizations (e.g., pressing 160 pounds) where you can virtually feel the entire process are the key.

There are psychological and physiological reasons why visualization appears to work. I am not suggesting, however, that you become lost in imagery and thought. Instead, use visualization strategies prior to particularly difficult training sessions, events or competitions. In addition, visualization strategies can be combined with a cue-controlled relaxation technique. With considerable practice (and that must be emphasized) many people can learn to elicit a relaxation response using a cue word (e.g., "calm") in situations that they find anxiety-provoking. I convert fear into faith.   

The combination of all these tactics - arranging your sub-goals; task and time frame; lining up supports and resources; tracking performance and making adjustments; visualizing optimal performance - can keep you incredibly focused and on-task. Your whole life then becomes centered on achieving specific tasks and goals you have chosen. As I noted before, however, there are both benefits and costs in goal attainment.


It is important that persons applying the overall approach and strategies discussed in this article realize that there is a downside to such tenacious, focused striving. First, no matter how systematic you are or how hard you try, it is naive to think you will always be successful. At a minimum, there are events beyond your control and/or tasks and goals that you miscalculate. If success was that easy to achieve, we would all be millionaires! Obviously, that's not the case.

It is important to focus on the process and enjoy the tasks and work you're doing. You can achieve certain goals, but some will remain elusive. In the end it may matter more that you enjoyed the process and journey.

When you make your goals specific and, perhaps, public, it is apparent when you have succeeded - and just as apparent when you have failed. The setting up of a series of tasks and goals almost assures you some incredible highs and lows. Most people who do not definitely set goals won't experience the "agony and ecstasy" of personal and public failure and success. In addition, when you channel so much drive and energy in one direction and part of your life, there typically is not that much to fall back on. Failure hurts more when there is no cushion such as enjoyment of life pursuits.

It is probably only possible to channel so much time, energy, effort and focus into one or two areas of your life at one time. When you focus on one aspect, such as success in athletics or the world of work, it usually means you're short-changing another part of your life. Not too many people can "have it all," much less be very successful in one or two endeavors, and claim to be leading a "balanced" life. 

The achievement of goals can sometimes be hollow (e.g., no one except you really cares about or understands your achievement), and sometimes the achievement itself creates new problems. Success often brings new, usually unthought-of expectations, responsibilities and pressures. For example, the idea of being on a continuously running treadmill, where the speed and incline are also constantly increasing, is more than just an analogy or metaphor for unswerving striving. Occasionally, it helps to turn the treadmill switch to "off" - if you can.

I've introduced these qualifications not to dampen your enthusiasm for goal setting and success, but rather, because you need to engage in planning and focused effort with your eyes open to all the benefits and costs. As I've suggested throughout this short article, the science of goal setting is relatively straightforward. 

It's the art of living that's a bit more complicated.

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