Training & Nutrition

The Sports Psychology of: Setting Goals and Achieving Them

We've been speaking to a sports psychology consultant to gather practical tips to help you to be your best

The New Year. Intrepid souls around the world settle down with pen and paper (or smartphone and app) to create a list of tasks that will unveil a ‘New Me’. Unfortunately, statistics show that over 40 per cent of resolutions last over a month and over 80 per cent last less than three months.

Well, that’s a lot of ‘New Me’ creations not quite making it out the box, isn’t it? If you want to stick to your resolution, you need to approach it with the right mindset. And a plan.

Over the past month, I’ve had two sessions with Sports Psychology Consultant Dr Josie Perry of Performance in Mind. She has been helping me to plan my own goals for the season ahead as well as sharing common techniques that all TWC readers can try. We’ve still got plenty of ground to cover, and I’ll be bringing more tips and tricks in the coming months.

What is Sports Psychology?

Sports Psychology has become more and more important to athletes in recent years. Or rather, it’s always been important – but the benefits are becoming more widely understood. Professor Steve Peters, author of  the Chimp Paradox (READ IT!) famously worked with Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, having a dramatic effect on both of their careers and Megan Guarnier recently told us she has worked with a sports psychologist “for years”.

At the dawn of our first session, Dr Perry she explained: “Most Sports Psychologists work from the same perspective, that it’s a version of cognitive therapy – it’s very practical, and only works if you do the homework – it’s not what you see from therapy at the movies where someone’s lying on a couch talking for hours. It’s much more practical, looking at specific issues and how to overcome them, or strengths you’ve got and how to extend them.”

Pro-Files: Megan Guarnier on the Importance Sports Psychology 

So far, we’ve mostly looked at goal setting – here are just a few of the useful nuggets worth considering as you set out on the journey to realise your potentioal in 2017…

Work out what your goals are and break them down

Fail to plan: plan to fail.

Anyone can start out with good intentions, but you need to work out a plan to help you realise them.

Dr Perry explains: “You start with an outcome goal – that can be your absolute dream goal. There is a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer, but those can be quite fluffy and not so measurable. Then underneath those you can set performance goals – these are incredibly measurable and have a set date. So for example ‘I will complete a 25 mile time trial in a set time by the end of September’. Underneath that performance goal you’ll then have process goals. These are the things you need to do to achieve the performance goals. Such as ‘complete time trial specific sessions, monitoring output, once a week’. Those are very specific actions that go into your training plan, so that everything in your training plan feeds into your goals – no session is wasted.”

Write these out, using a format a little like this:

  • Outcome Goal: this is your dream. It doesn’t have to be incredibly precise but it’s the thing that will keep you going during hard moments.
  • Performance Goals: there might be several of these and they’ll feed into your Outcome Goal. What do you need to achieve for this outcome? Achieve a set number of British Cycling race points, complete a time trial in a given time, complete half the distance of your goal event by July. Dr Perry suggests three of these – but remember they don’t all have to be sports related, some might revolve around your career or home life.
  • Process Goals: these are the things you need to do to achieve those performance goals. Ride hill reps once a week, get a bike fit so you can train comfortably without injury, complete a strength session once a week or eat your 5 a day.

How to Actually Plan Training and Stick to It

Make sure performance goals are measurable

  • “Lose weight” How much weight?
  • “Get fit” What is fit?
  • “Ride more” How much more?
  • “Race well” What do you consider well?

Dr Perry tells me: “It’s very hard to achieve something if it’s not a specific goal. Goals need to be measurable and they need an end date.”

Better versions of those goals above might be ‘lose 5kg by April’, ‘get fit enough to ride 100 miles by September’, ‘finish 2017 having ridden 5,000 miles’ or ‘achieve 25 points by the British Cycling cut off date’. Goals like this allow you to formulate a plan to get there.

Make sure goals are a stretch, but realistic

There is absolutely nothing wrong with dreaming big. In fact, dreaming big is great. However, if your goal feels like you’re on one side of a huge chasm, and achieving it is on the other side (and you’re afraid of heights) – then it might be good to set an intermediate goal to start with.

The best goals are those that will stretch you, but that are achievable with hard work. If yours is so big you already feel like you can’t do it, then maybe take a step back and plan something half way (then when you’ve done that, go for the big one!)

Your ‘Performance Goals’ also need to be things that you can control – for example ‘I want to win a specific race’ is not a good goal to set because you can’t control who else is there and you might be disappointed through no fault of your own if Marianne Vos shows up.

Look at what you need to achieve the dream and be inspired by others

During our first session, Dr Perry helped me create a ‘Performance Profile’.

She says: “Every Olympic Athlete will have done one of these. You normally do it at the beginning of a new training ‘cycle’. You set your goals, then – no longer looking at yourself – you look at the areas that an athlete needs to achieve those goals. For example ‘be incredibly fit’, ‘have a great sprint’, ‘have the time to train’, ‘have a great bike’, ‘have focus’. Grade each one, out of 10, where you would need to be in order to achieve your goal. Then where you think you currently are. That shows the gaps are, and what you need to spend the most time on.”

Dr Perry encourages me to imagine the riders I know who have achieved my goals, and look at what assets they have. Then we grade how important each one is, and where I think I am. Though we started with a long list of things I ‘needed’ we end up with just two things that I actually need to prioritise.

Negative goals do not help you

You need to fill yourself with confidence to succeed – rather than reminding yourself of past failures. So when you outline qualities, tasks and objectives to help you reach your overall goal, make sure they are positive.

Negative Thoughts on the Bike: Tips for Blocking them Out

Dr Perry says: “The thing with goals is they need to be positive. So things like ‘I won’t have cake’ don’t work, they need to be positive things you can tick off each day. ‘I’ve done my training session that focuses on my weak area’. ‘I’ve eaten my five fruit and veg.’”

For example:

  • Performance Goal: Lose 5kg by April. You might make the Process Goal: “I will eat fewer cakes” but this can be swapped for “I will make sure the calories I consume are those that will keep me fuller for longer and benefit my health”
  • Performance Goal: Finish 2017 having ridden 5,000 miles. You might make the Process Goal: “I’ll stop skipping rides” but this can be swapped for “I’ll make sure I complete all of my scheduled rides”
  • Performance Goal: Get 25 points by the end of the season. You might make the Process Goal: “Stop being rubbish at sprinting” but this can be swapped for “I’ll really focus on sessions that are about improving at sprinting and building strength.”

When you’re setting tasks, remember that the ‘you’ that is setting them wants ‘future you’ to stick to them – so make them things she wants to do and remember she won’t take kindly to verbal abuse.

Give yourself confidence

We all know that confidence is important – in so many ways. But sometimes we fail to recognise quite how much it impacts performance. Dr Perry tells me: “Sports psychology research that looks across the board finds that confidence is by far the biggest predictor of success. They do massively feed into each other. So the more confident you are, the better you perform.”

Confidence can come from many sources – but she explains that some are more robust and trustworthy than others: “There’s 12 sources of where you get your confidence come from and two of them are really robust whilst others are less so. For example, you can get a sense of confidence from being in a really supportive club, having a great coach you trust – but those can be lost easily – maybe you move area and leave your club or stop working with the coach. The two sources that are really robust are feeling well prepared for what you’re doing and having the evidence that you’ve trained really hard.”

Lizzie Armitstead on Confidence, (Self) Coaching and Climbing

How can you implement those, on a practical level? “So feeling prepared are all things in your control: knowing your bike has just been looked over, that you’ve got good kit you feel comfortable in. Things like that make a massive difference. So knowing you’ve done everything you can. The other element about giving yourself the evidence that you’ve done the right training – I often suggest people work with a specific training diary called Believe. It’s not just about what physical training you’ve done, but also how you feel about that training and the mental evidence that goes with it. And then if you’re event is on a Sunday, on Thursday you can look back over your diary and pick out three things you’ve done that will help you on the day.”

Got your goals set? Strap into your seatbelt – because 2017 is going to be an exciting year! We’ll be bringing you more Sports Psychology hints and tips in the coming weeks and months. 

In the mean time, check out… 

Negative Thoughts on the Bike: Tips for Blocking them Out

How to: Win the Mental Battle When Cycling Gets Tough

How Breathing Properly Really Can Make You a Better Climber

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