By Dr. Rebecca Hill
The idea of goal setting is common in BJJ, and research in sport shows that it’s a very valuable psychological skill. Setting yourself a target can give focus to your training and a boost to your motivation. Achieving the goals can add to your sense of self-confidence. This begs the question: If goal setting works so well, why don’t more of us consistently achieve our jiu jitsu aims?
The principles of goal setting may seem straightforward. We are often encouraged to make our goals ‘SMART’ (or even ‘SMARTER’). This can be a useful acronym for planning our objectives. There are variations in what it stands for but in general, our goals are more effective when they are specific, measurable, realistic, time-bound, evaluated and recorded.
Indeed Locke and Latham, the Godfathers of goal setting research, found that goals had more of an impact on performance when they specified exactly what was to be achieved in contrast to ‘do your best’ goals. The results of their experiments also suggested that moderately challenging goals were most beneficial. Too easy and the goals didn’t provide a sense of achievement. Too hard and the participants gave up before they even started.
Let’s imagine, for example, that you have set yourself the goal of winning the next national championships. Does this target pass the SMARTER test?
Is it specific? Yes it is. You haven’t just said you want to perform well, which could be interpreted in a number of ways. You have clearly defined what performing well means to you.
Is it measurable? Yes. It will be easy to gauge whether you have achieved your goal.
Is it realistic? Maybe. This is a little trickier to judge. It will depend on how your training goes, on your previous competition performances, whether you’re fully fit, and the other competitors in your category. The goal may need some adjustment over time as more information becomes available to ensure that it is still realistic.
Is it time-bound? Yes. There is a deadline to this goal. You know when the tournament is taking place and how much time you have between now and then to work towards it.
Is it evaluated? Yes. You will be very likely to review your goal after the tournament and reflect on why you did or didn’t achieve it.
Is it recorded? I hope so. Making a written record of your goals can help to foster commitment to them. Stating them publicly to family and friends can add an extra layer of motivation (But think carefully before doing this. For some, this just adds unnecessary pressure).
Even if your target checks all of these boxes, however, there are other factors that might undermine your goal attainment. In wanting to win the national championships, you have stated what you aim to achieve. But you also need to consider exactly how you will achieve it. It you really want to accomplish your goals you need to go beyond goal setting and figure out your action plan. Substantial goals are made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny actions on a monthly, weekly and daily basis. Goals like winning a major tournament do not happen with one heroic deed at some unspecified point in the future. They happen in the now. Ask yourself whether there is anything you can do right now to work towards your goal.
Long-term targets provide you with that initial motivation to get back to regular training, work on your cardio or clean up your diet. But sometimes that big goal seems a long way away and you start to doubt whether you can achieve it. When the going gets tough, it’s those short-term goals focusing on actionable behaviours that will sustain your confidence and effort levels through the difficult periods.
It is also important to pay attention to the type of goals we set. The interplay between long-term goals and short-term action plans hints at the motivationally fragile nature of an objective such as winning. Focusing solely on an outcome goal like this can be problematic, because medaling in a competition is not fully within your control. There are so many factors that contribute to the final result of a tournament, and there may be nothing you can do about questionable refereeing or whether you get a bye in the first round. If we perceive that we have little influence in the outcome of a match, then we are much more likely to experience a dip in motivation and withdraw effort.
In a research study with swimmers, sport psychologist Dan Burton found that athletes who set exclusively ‘outcome’ goals were also more likely to experience debilitating pre-competition anxiety (because of this lack of controllability). In contrast, athletes who set a mixture of goals are less susceptible to the negative consequences of an outcome goal.
Outcome goals are not bad as such but it is more useful from a psychological and behavioural perspective to set performance and process goals in addition. Whereas outcome goals are usually judged relative to others, performance goals are about achieving a personal performance standard independent of other people. In some sports, performance goals might involve personal bests, like lifting a certain amount of weight or running the 400 meters in a particular time. In Brazilian jiu jitsu, it can be tough to set performance goals since BJJ necessarily involves direct interactions with your training partners or opponents.
We can easily set process goals in jiu jitsu however. These goals are about the technique and strategy necessary for performing well. They are about executing techniques efficiently, trying to add a new dimension to your game, developing your mental skills. They are about making good food choices, taking care of your injuries and making an effort to enjoy competing (whatever the outcome).
This is the stuff of effective action plans. Process goals detail the specific steps along the path to achieving the long-term outcome. They are also fully within our control therefore minimising anxiety, and help to centre our attention on the process of performing. This ensures our focus is on the present moment rather than possible events in the future.
If you really want to be world champion then great, go for it! You might find along the way to the Mundials podium that it would serve you well to set that big goal then forget about it. Instead, focus on controlling the controllables every single day.
Dr Rebecca Hill is a Sport and Exercise Psychologist chartered by the British Psychological Society, and an Education Adviser at the University of Exeter. She is also a BJJ black belt competitor under Professor Victor Estima.