The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don’t define them, learn about them, or even seriously consider them as believable or achievable. Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them – Dennis Waitley
While I’ve never really had a problem motivating myself to play tennis in a general sense, I’ve been curious lately about why this is.
What motivates people to do what they do? Why is it easy to go out and hit for hours with a partner but so much harder to do drills on a weak shot when we know how helpful that would be. And why am I dedicated to rehabbing an injury until I can get back on the court but so resistant to doing exercises that would prevent injury in the first place?
I’m just scratching the surface of motivation psychology, but one theme that is coming up everywhere I look is the importance of goal setting. With the arrival of the New Year, goal setting and “resolutions” are all around us. Can goal setting and tracking help us achieve more in tennis?
Types of Goals
The two types of goals we hear most about are long-term and short-term. I like to think of these like this: a long-term goal is a destination, and short-term goals are landmarks on the journey to the destination. Without the long-term goal we would be wandering aimlessly with no idea where we might end up. Our short-term goals help us plan out our trip, breaking it up into shorter spans with enjoyable stops along the way. Without the short-term goals, the journey to the destination might seem too daunting a task or too far away to reach, and we might be discouraged from starting the trip in the first place. We’d also be more likely to take a wrong turn and not realize it, thus making our trip less efficient.
Dopamine and Goal Achievement
I read an interesting article by Monica Mehta titled “Why Our Brains Like Short-Term Goals.” I’d heard before that goals, both long- and short-term, are important for achieving something, but I liked this article since it explained the brain science behind why this is.
To summarize: We remember how and why we were successful at something better than we remember failure. When we are successful, our brains release dopamine into the reward pathway, which is responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation. Thus we find success enjoyable, our concentration is heightened, and we are motivated to do it again. When we fail, the pathway is drained of dopamine, which hinders our ability to learn from what went wrong and reduces the likelihood we’ll want to keep trying.
So basically the benefit of setting short-term goals is they allow us to experience small successes at regular intervals that increase our learning abilities and just plain feel good so we want to keep working towards our longer-term goals.
Another cool thing I learned from Mehta’s article was how setting detailed goals is important because it allows your subconscious to work for you. Mehta quotes Dr. Richard Peterson, a psychiatrist and neuroeconomics researcher, who says:
Vision creates a picture for the subconscious mind. Our subconscious is what makes us such good problem solvers compared to a computer. We can see 1,000 dimensions of a problem and sort it down to the most important very quickly.
Mehta writes that the subconscious is responsible for 90% of the decisions we make in day-to-day life. So by setting a detailed goal, you’re giving your brain a problem to work on while you’re not even conscious of it. The clearer your goal is (or you could call it your “vision”), the better the target your subconscious will have to work towards.
Sharing Your Goals with Others
Ok, so setting goals is important. But do we have to tell others? Or can we keep them to ourselves? Saying our goals out loud is scary. What will people think if we don’t reach them?
I remember that when I joined a running group to train for a marathon about 6 months from then, my running friends encouraged me to post on Facebook that I would be running the Ottawa, 2008, marathon. Saying your goals out loud holds you accountable to them. Come race day, if you’re not running, you might have to explain to a lot of people why not. Even just the possibility of having to do this (in reality your friends likely won’t care one way or the other if you run the marathon), will help you keep training when it gets tough and resist the temptation to quit.
Looking at this from another angle, I really like something that Lewis Howes says in one of his podcasts: that telling others your goals gives them an opportunity to help you reach them.
Thinking about my tennis game, if I don’t tell my coach that I want to compete at a much higher level than I’m at now, he might assume that, like many recreational adults, I want to make small improvements on my current technique that will allow the game to be more fun for me.
By not telling him my goals I’m not giving him the chance to help me come up with a rigorous training program or suggest that I tear my serve apart completely and start from scratch so that I can break through the ceiling that my current technique puts on it. If I tell him, I’m risking him laughing at me or telling me he doesn’t think I have a chance, but if he does these things I should probably find a new coach anyway, and more than likely he’ll do his best to help me.
You might find people help in unexpected ways when they know what you’re looking to do, but you’ll never know if you keep your goals to yourself.
Setting SMART Goals
SMART is an acronym that can help us choose goals wisely. There are different interpretations of SMART; here are some of them (from this website):
S specific, significant, stretching
M measurable, meaningful, motivational
A agreed upon, attainable, achievable, acceptable, action-oriented
R realistic, relevant, reasonable, rewarding, results-oriented
T time-based, time-bound, timely, tangible, trackable
Choose a word for each letter of the acronym that makes sense to you and go with it. For my goals I typically use:
Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely
Specific: Get clear about what your goal is. Saying “I want to get faster” isn’t as clear as “I want to shave a second off my 20 yard dash time.” By being specific we can define where we are today and where we’ll be when we achieve our goal.
Measurable: How will you know when you’ve reached your goal? Making your goal to increase your serve speed by 10mph would be great except unless you have a radar gun to measure it you won’t know you’ve reached your goal.
Attainable: This is a tricky one. We want our goals to be just challenging enough. Too easy and we’ll achieve them right away and they might not be significant enough to make an impact in our games. But too difficult and we’ll become discouraged. I think it’s ok to have long-term goals that aren’t necessarily achievable as long as you’re still motivated to achieve the short term goals that would theoretically lead there (and the short term goals do need to be achievable so that you get the periodic dopamine release).
Relevant: This might seem obvious (why would you choose an irrelevant goal?) but I don’t think it’s as easy as it seems. We can frequently get caught up chasing the wrong goals for a variety of reasons. Maybe we believe that increasing our serve speed is what will help us most, but perhaps we’d be better off adding spin. Or maybe we believe we need to add more running mileage to our off-court training to increase our insurance, when actually we’re already overdoing it an our bodies need rest or rehab. Whenever we’re choosing a goal we need to be really clear about what we’re ultimately trying to achieve to make sure we don’t, as the saying goes, put the ladder up the wrong wall.
Timely: To me this means setting a deadline for achieving the goal. I find this simply helps me avoid me procrastinating the activities I need to do to achieve the goal.
- Short and Long-term goals are both helpful. I think of long-term goals as our destinations, with short-term goals as landmarks along the trip. Long-term goals guide our direction and short term goals keep us motivated to stay the course.
- Dopamine affects our motivation to keep at something. If we experience success, dopamine is released and helps us stay motivated to repeat the success. If we experience failure, the dopamine pathway is shut down and we’re less likely to want to try again. Short term goals offer a way to continually experience small successes on the way to our longer-term goals.
- By setting goals our subconscious will work on achieving them without our even knowing it, thus helping the process along.
- Telling other people our goals holds us accountable to them.
- Telling other people our goals lets them help us achieve them.
- We should set SMART goals, which can have different meanings, but the one I like is: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.
To close, here is a quote I absolutely love on goal-setting by William Hutchinson Murray:
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
I’d love to hear if you are setting tennis goals or resolutions. Have you done this before and if so have they helped?