Score a successful goal

In today’s busy society, everyone is expected to set goals and succeed in many different environments: work, study, sport, parenting and even bake offs! The problem with having too many goals however is that very few are achieved satisfactorily. James Marshall looks at goal setting for success, and gives practical tips on how to focus on what matters most.

What’s your primary goal? Goal setting is an essential part of every athlete’s life. But goal setting in sport has often been the preserve of the sports psychologist – often done in a separate session without the coach, and where any goals written down are put in a folder somewhere and left on a shelf. I have seen this happen countless times. However, if you are leaving it for someone else to do with you once a year, how do you know what are you trying to achieve in today’s session?

Here’s a question: have you written down your number one priority for your training next season? If you have, then you are probably in the minority. Many people have a vague idea, or even a specific idea of what they would like to achieve, but few actually write that down. Downloading an app for your smartphone is more common with club athletes I see, rather than writing things down.

The first thing I do when an athlete comes to me to improve their performance is to get them to clarify exactly what they are trying to achieve. The easiest ones to coach are those who can write it down in one sentence. The most difficult are those who struggle to write less than three sentences and who use vague terms or abstract ideas. To put it bluntly, if everything is a priority, you have no priorities.

In the book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” (see figure 2) the authors use the phrase “Wildly Important Goals” (WIGs) to describe the overwhelming priority in a person’s life1. Business leader Jack Welch uses the analogy of someone coming into your bedroom at night, waking you up and asking you what are you trying to achieve, and you being able to answer in a clear sentence (providing you don’t have a heart attack!)2.

The WIGs are what drive us as human beings. ‘Trying to run a bit faster’ or ‘Wanting to lose a bit of weight’ are hardly aspirational compared to ‘Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade’ or ‘Run a sub 2 hour marathon’. Your WIG could be ‘Run a sub 18-minute 5km by December’ or “Finish in the top ten of the annual club cycling challenge”. As long as it is significant to you and overrides any other sporting goal, it will work.


Setting too many goals inevitably leads to less goal achievement overall.

Step 1: Take time out to think about the thing that is wildly important to you for your sport. Then write it down.


First you establish your WIG then identify your lead measures and act on them. Create a compelling scorecard and ensure that your actions are leading to progress (accountability).

What will help your reach your WIG?

“Will it make the boat go faster?” is the title of a book by Olympic gold medallists Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge3. In it they talk about eliminating any training methods or goals that are unable to answer this simple question. Asking yourself a simple question like this before you set out your plan could really help you focus on what matters most.

If your goal is to run a sub 18-minute 5km by December do you know what actions will help you achieve that and can you measure them? You can differentiate measurement into:

  • Lead measures: happen before the event
  • Lag measures: happen after the event

The most important measure will be what you did on race day, but that is a lag measure because once you have the information you are unable to change the outcome. Lead measures might include running four times per week and reducing your 1km time to 3mins:15 from 3mins:30secs. As another example, if you are trying to lose weight, measuring yourself on the scales is a lag measure. Counting calories that you eat and that you expend through training are lead measures.

In order to achieve your primary goal, it is vitally important to identify in advance the lead measures that will help you achieve it. This is really the crucial part of the process and, as you can see in the case study (later), it is easy to get distracted by things that can be measured but have little impact on your priority goal.

Some lead measures to consider for endurance athletes are:

  • Sticking to the plan: For example, planning to do 4-8 sessions per week may help you achieve your goal.
  • Mileage: if you do more miles than your opposition it may well help you as part of the process.
  • Intensity of sessions: if you know that you need to run three six-minute miles in a row, then some of your sessions should test your ability to do at least one mile in six minutes or less for example.

Step 2: Identify the lead measures that will help you achieve your goal.

Making the goals visible

Now that you are clear on what you are trying to achieve and what measures will help get you there, it is time to make a visual display – or compelling scorecard. Having a clear, visual reminder of what you are trying to do will help you stay motivated. If you think of charity fundraising efforts with a thermometer filling up towards a picture of a new church roof, you can imagine how this helps chart progress and remind you of what you are trying to achieve.

Whilst modern technology will allow you to create spreadsheets, or have an app to measure what you are doing, it may require you to have to log in or switch on a device to see how you are doing. A chart on a wall either paper or a wipe board works very well and is going to be there all the time. By all means use a spreadsheet, but transfer the data to something on the wall, on your desk or in your wallet.

Using visual images such as you stood on top of a podium or cycling up a hill can also help you stay on track. Colours help to identify whether you are on track: a simple traffic light system of red, amber and green blocks to show how your lead measures are working. For example, a lead measure for a rower might be working on pacing your work through feel to replicate the race and seeing how close you can keep to a target without using technology. You could use 500m splits on the water and have a green for within 3 seconds, amber for 3 to 10 seconds out, and a red for more than 10 seconds out. You can set up Excel to do this for you by adjusting the colours of the spreadsheet according to ranges (see figure 3). This visual data works well in terms of helping keep you on track – as long as you are measuring the right things. It also helps with step 4 of the process (see case study for further examples).


Step 3: Create a compelling scorecard.

Reviewing Progress

Whilst you may enjoy the loneliness of the long distance runner, having club or team mates to hold you accountable for your actions will help you. This ‘critical friendship’ is invaluable in helping you stay on track and offering you suggestions to help you improve4. If you have the right goals, set up the right measures and spend time creating a scorecard, you are nearly there. But, if it becomes another piece of paper in a drawer, or the spreadsheet is never opened, then it becomes meaningless.

Setting up a regular review date with a colleague, team mate or a coach is the final part of the process. Depending on the length of your goal, it could be a weekly or fortnightly review. Any longer than that and the processes may start to slip. This review does not have to be lengthy, but it does have to be frequent, and only involve the lead and lag measures. This may be as simple as showing your scorecard to your coach once a week at the beginning or end of the week. If there are any slips or if you are consistently falling short of targets, you can address these together. It could be that you have just lost focus for a couple of days, had to travel for work, felt ill, or the children kept you up all night; in which case you can get back on track easily enough. However, if you are consistently short, it could be a sign that either your goals are too challenging and need to be adjusted, or there is a lack of motivation. If that’s the case, you need to review this situation together.

Step 4: Hold each other accountable: all of the time.

CASE STUDY: Club runner

Kevin, aged 33, is one of our recreational club runners who has benefited from a focused approach to goal setting. Before he came to our club, he was trying to reduce his 5km run time down by running longer distances as hard as he could. Each session was measured by how hard it felt: if it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t good. Kevin had bought a Garmin watch and was recording all his sessions, as well as his weekly park run times. He had an armful of data, but it was all lag data: measuring what he had done – ie he had no plan. He was also easily distracted with multiple targets. He had recently started doing a 10-mile run on Sundays for endurance which was perfectly reasonable. However, he was measuring the time and was trying to ‘beat’ that time every week instead of using it as an easy long run. I asked him the question: “Are you running 10 miles to help your 5km time, or trying to be better at running 10 miles?”

When he started at our club, I told him to ignore what the Garmin was telling him and focus on the running. I saw his base speed was poor; his best 1km time was only 4mins:03 and he was currently running 22mins:20 for his 5km time. In order to improve his speed, we had to improve his running technique and practice running faster. That meant shorter distances with correct technique and with adequate rest. Kevin was averse to running any distance shorter than 200m because his Garmin wouldn’t reset properly between the intervals!#

We set up a 4-week plan to work on two lead measures:

  • Run 500m in less than 2 minutes, 4 times in a session, twice a week. This could be done as an individual work set, or as part of a longer session. For example, when running 4 miles, the first 500m of each mile is to be done in less than 2 minutes. The aim was to get Kevin used to running at race pace.
  • To run as many 200m hill sprints as he could in less than 45 seconds with a 2-minute walk back recovery. The aim was to get Kevin used to running faster and then recover. It also stopped him from relying on his Garmin.

We then set up a simple scorecard for him, showing the lead measures that would help him reach his goal of running a faster 5km. He also recorded his 5km park run time each week and we put a picture of a fast runner as motivation for him on the card. This scorecard worked because it appealed to his inner geek of tracking data. And having three things to record during the week helped him maintain focus on the key sessions. Previously he had just been looking at his 5km times every week and getting distracted by other data that was easily measured, but had little relevance to his 5km performance. The scorecard and the lag/lead measures we set up are shown below in figures 4 and 5.



The final thing we did was hold Kevin accountable at our training sessions; he had to bring his lead measures chart with him, and rather than talk about his 5km time, we all asked him about his 500m surges and his hill sprints. If he started to talk about his 5km time or his 10mile time, we told him to stop! This may sound simplistic, and perhaps a tad harsh, but we had to try and get Kevin focussed on things that would help him achieve his goal. However, the results showed this focus worked as he reduced his 5km time by 24 seconds in just four weeks.


Some athletes are good at planning. Others are good at doing. Few are good at planning and sticking to that plan for long enough to see real improvement. In this modern age it is easy to become distracted from our core purpose. By following this 4-step process, you will make progress in the areas that will make a difference to your performance. Once you have noticed the change and achieved your goal, you can start the process again for the next challenge. Incremental steps are easier to follow and add up to big results.

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