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Goal setting for athletes – the SMART way

At first glance, the worlds of sports and business appear to be rather different. However, a closer look throws up many similarities. The obvious ones are the concepts of training, performance and monitoring. Organized sports existed long before organized business and corporations came into being. So, it is more common to see the business world borrowing or adapting concepts from sports. There are times, though, that the business world has some good practices that athletes can learn from and use. One of these is how an athlete can set SMART goals.

The concept of SMART Goals was first proposed by three gentlemen (George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham) in an article they published in the early 1980s about setting management goals. What makes it relevant for athletes is the simplicity and applicability of the concept to sports – no matter how inexperienced or experienced the athlete might be.

Athletes have always been encouraged to define and pursue goals to get a sense of purpose and energy even as they pursue success. Then they lay down some steps to take them there. It sounds simple enough. But it is not always easy to define goals that are clear, energizing and actionable. An athlete may dream to win a gold medal in a chosen sport. This is energizing but has a lot of ambiguity. What kind of event is the athlete aspiring for – is it an international, national or local event? By when does she aspire to win it? What exactly does it involved and where is she today? … and so on.

SMART Goals help an athlete set goals that cover such aspects. So what exactly are these?

SMART is an acronym for five different and critical elements of goal-setting, namely:

S – Specific

M – Measurable

A – Attainable (or Achievable)

R – Realistic (or Relevant)

T – Timely (or Time-bound)

S – Specific – This is really about what you are trying to do. For instance, an athlete planning to compete for the first time in a district level tournament could simply state “Qualify for the ___ district-level games in _<month, year>__”. Create as clear a picture as possible of the precise goal. Notice, however, that you are trying to set a goal about a general direction that you want to head towards. Try to avoid words like “increase” or “improve” which are comparative words which should appear elsewhere in the template.

M – Measurable – While Specific goal may have some element of measurement (eg. Qualifying or not is in itself a measurement), you could set some other measurable aspects to your goal. For a sprinter or swimmer, this could be improving your time by __ seconds by Month 3. For another sport it could be something else.

A – Attainable – Is the goal (and measurement you have set) actually achievable? What is your present status? Is it good enough to attempt that district-level tournament or do you need access to some additional tools or equipment or training to reach there? If you are competing for a tennis tournament on a clay court, do you even have access to a clay court? What will it take in terms of time, resources and money to get that access? Whom should you contact… and so on.

R – Realistic – Can you ACTUALLY meet these goals? This is somewhat linked to attainable in the sense that if (for instance), you don’t have access to the tools and resources to actually meet your goals, how do you get that access? OR, which part of your goals do you need to modify or tweak a bit? This is also the time to the RELEVANCE of your goals. Is it in line with your bigger goal of winning a gold medal in your chosen sport; or are you getting too side-tracked with only a portion of it?

T – Timely – Timely here stands not only for the final timeline of the goal but working backwards to create interim time-bound milestones is critical. If you wish to qualify for a sporting event in 9 months’ time, what should you have accomplished by Month 2 or 3? These can be both your direct effort to gear up for something as well as the necessary procedures and timelines that you need to follow to reach there. For instance, if a particular tournament needs a particular blood test done xx months before the tournament, these should also appear in your Timely (or Time-bound) goals.

So that is what SMART goals are about. They provide focus and energy to your journey and help you identify who all you should involve in making your goals become reality. Write them down individually (S.M.A.R.T) on a sheet of paper and put the sheet up somewhere where you can see it often. Put each action in your diary/phone calendar. Sit down to review them at least once a week and think of what is going well or not. Fine-tune your SMART goals based on reality checks and do not give up. Remember that all the hard work you put into your practice or sport will only get channelized better with SMART goals.

This article is written by Nilanjana Paul. Nilanjana is a coach and adviser to many senior level corporate professionals across many companies. She is passionate about creating a long term impact in the sports ecosystem in the country.

About Simply Sport

Simply Sport is a sports policy research & development organization based out of India. Simply Sport’s vision is to promote sports as an effective tool for the development of the nation. It focuses on policy research, grassroot development and use of technology in sports. To subscribe to Simply Sport Newsletters, Research & Articles, please write to You can follow Simply Sport on the Twitter handle @_SimplySport for more sports related content.

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