If I had one piece of advice to give as a psychologist to those of you who are setting goals for the coming year, it would be don’t set outcome goals, and I’ll explain what they are and why they are a sure fire way to disappointment. I think by now, everyone has heard of SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely), but setting a smart outcome-based goal is not the smartest way to set goals.
Outcome goals are the ones that specify where you want to get to, for example ‘win the bouldering aggregate’, ‘climb F7a’, ‘lose 7lbs’, ‘climb Strawberries’. These are not goals, these are wants, desires, dreams even. They tell you nothing about how you are going to achieve them, and most importantly, they are not under your control. I’ll say that last bit again, they are not under your control. A number of factors will impinge on these goals – suddenly an elite climber moves into your area and starts whizzing up the aggregate ladder; whenever you try to climb a F7a its too reachy/ too hot/ you’re tired; you keep dieting but those pounds just aren’t falling off; or its raining / you’re stiff and hungry/ a bee stings you halfway up/ a hold snaps.
What happens when you fail on successive occasions to reach your outcome based goal? You feel disappointed, despondent even, and before you know it, your motivation begins to slip. You put off trying that route, you skip a training session, start eating a few puddings here and there, and before you know it, you’re right back where you started, thinking about setting goals again.
Having outcome based goals is kind of a variation on whats called extrinsic motivation, generally considered to be the weakest form of motivation. Its when we need to get rewarded constantly for our efforts rather than our efforts just being part of who we are (that’s more internalised motivation).
So, what kind of goals should you set? Well yes, SMART goals are good, and short, medium and long term goals are also good. Its also important to state them in positive terms (ie what you will do rather than what you won’t do). Making sure you state them in terms of process and controllability is vital. Lets take the simplest example above, losing weight. How can we state that positively, ‘smart’ly, and in a process orientated way? First I think about all the things I know that will help me lose weight, and my weaknesses in terms of losing weight eg eating little and often, ensuring I eat plenty of veg and protein, not eating processed foods and not making it all so boring I’m tempted to cheat. Process goals might therefore look like this;
Eat 3 meals and 2 snacks per day
Eat non-processed food for 5 out of 7 main meals
Use a smaller plate
Make sure my plate is a quarter protein, a quarter carbs and half veg
Allow myself a strip of chocolate every day
Allow myself a glass of wine on Friday and Saturday nights
Do this for the next month and then review
These all tell me exactly what I need to do to achieve my aspiration of losing weight, they are all controllable and very realistic, and there are some rewards in there too to keep me going. Importantly, this isn’t a ‘forever’ goal; its one I intend to review to see how its going, so if I can see the end, I’m more likely to stick to it.
Some of the common mistakes I see climbers make with training programs is they never specify their success criteria (or if they do, it’s a grade rather than a completed training plan), they don’t monitor their progress and review, and they don’t specify how long this program will go on for, and they don’t build in rewards and rests/ off days. If you wanted to apply the process goals idea to achieve a climbing aim, do an honest appraisal of your weaknesses and work out what you need to do to get closer to your climbing dream. If your weakness is stamina, then your goals might be around completing a 6 week program to improve your stamina using specific workouts, and then at the end of 6 weeks, measure yourself to see how well you have done in sticking to your training program not necessarily whether or not your stamina improved. If it sounds a bit like I am asking you to pull the wool over your own eyes, you are right, I am – but its important in terms of fostering a longer lasting motivation to train because it helps you feel competent and in control of your climbing.
If 6 weeks seems a long time to you, then a quick check at the end of each session (did I complete the repetitions I said I was going to complete?) and at the end of each week (how did you feel from 0-10 on your test route?) perhaps on a graph on the wall to track your progress will help, but remember, the goal is to stick to the training plan, not to improve your stamina – that’s out of your control. Improved stamina will be a happy by-product of the training goals you set yourself. If you know you are a bit weak in the will power stakes, then build in some rewards for yourself when you think your motivation might wane (look back at your previous efforts – how long did you stick it out? Did you ever go training on a Sunday morning after a night in the pub?) – and try to factor in some rewards at times when your resolve might weaken and be sure to fit your training plan around the demands and current routines of your life as they are much more ingrained than any new habits you are trying to acquire.
Finally, its worth having a back up plan. With the best will in the world, things like snow (!), a long day at work, injury and car trouble can all scupper your plan to get to the wall. There is a lot of value to be gained from core exercises, eccentric exercises to iron out imbalances, and mental training (the brain doesn’t distinguish between imagining climbing and actually climbing), and these can all be better substitutes than doing nothing on evenings when the climbing wall is impossible. That said, I’d better stop sledging and get onto my pull up bar…