Robert Weinberg is a professor at Miami University in Ohio. He is perhaps best known for his authorship of the pivotal Foundations of Sport & Exercise Psychology text, something of a bible in our field. He is also a past president of AASP, a past editor of JASP, and a fellow of NAK. His sport growing up was primarily football, but he has since worked with every sport under the sun. His research interests lie in mental toughness, anxiety management, imagery, goal-setting, and attentional control strategies, and in applying these skills both inside as well as outside sport.
Bob opened up his lecture series with the interesting fact that 50% of people drop out of exercise programs within the first 6 months. This then led to a lecture on goal-setting, and how this skill could help intervene in these cases. The majority of sport psychology theories, Bob noted, divide people into like-characteristic groups (eg: high v. low achievers; task- v. ego-orientated). This dichotomy isn’t always good as people often fit into more than one — or sometimes neither! — category. This is partially the reason he supports Locke’s Goal Setting Theory from organizational psychology (1966, 1968, summarized in 1996): it doesn’t dissect populations; rather, it presents a system that has been empirically shown to work for everyone. For this reason the theory is also one of the most influential and most tested in sport psychology. One of Locke’s most prominent contributions in it was illustrating that challenging (but attainable) goals resulted in better performance than easy goals, than “do your best” goals, and than no goals at all.
There are three types of goals, each differing from the others through its focus and through the level of control it affords the setter:
- Process goals focus on technique/strategy mastery; on performing a skill correctly. They are controlled by the setter (eg: learning yoga poses).
- Performance goals focus on attaining a standard of excellence and are also controlled by the setter (eg: holding the above pose for a breath longer this time).
- Outcome goals focus on attaining a desired outcome relative to competition and usually culminate in a coveted end result (eg: making the national squad or becoming a yoga world champion). As such, the locus of control is not fully resting with the setter, for he cannot control how well his competition performs.
Each of the above has its uses. Outcome goals are highly motivating in the long-term but are limited (even demotivating) without complementing process and performance goals paving the way. Process goals facilitate confidence, reduce anxiety, and improve performance, and so are excellent in mapping out a route to an outcome goal… but are often too specific to propel an athlete to elite levels when used alone. Performance goals are an excellent middle ground, but lack both the high intrinsic motivation that comes with relishing all the little gains that come with process goals, as well as the strong, long-term resolutions that come with staunch outcome goals.
Goal-setting introduced, Bob then bit into the meat of his lecture. Goal-setting, he said, is used by athletes primarily to help them stay focused — to avoid drifting and doing the many other things that vie for their attention. However, people tend to make a few common errors when drawing goals up. First, many goals are missing action plans: how are you going to achieve what you laid out? The answer is, of course, through process and performance goals! Many people mistakenly focus solely on long-term, outcome goals, inevitably falling into the gaping abyss between “then” and “now”.
Secondly, there is “focus misattribution”: focusing so much on the goal that one’s performances becomes riddled with anxiety and tension. This is summed up in the neat adage, “the more you want to win, the less likely you are to win”, and countered by tennis legend Steffi Graf‘s advice, “You can’t win if you’re thinking about if you’re going to win or lose; just focus on getting better”.
Third, many goals fade because their implementation isn’t systematic. This is especially the case with student-athletes; they run into barriers like self-doubt, other priorities, and stress (money, time, sleep). These stressors get in the way of proper goal-setting. Goals are starting places, Bob continually emphasized — not ending places, and so should be regularly updated to reflect changing needs!
Before moving on, here is a video from USA’s golden boy and Olympic legend, Michael Phelps. The important message here is how his goals are personal and systematic, and how he only focuses on the controllables:
Why is goal-setting effective?
In a word: focus. A brilliant example was a second tennis star’s approach of squeezing focus into a tiny drop and then using this drop to infuse whatever needed work. Andre Agassi always had a note on his mirror, asking “What do I need to do today to become a better tennis player?” — this focus led him to goal-set so effectively, with such specific targets each practice, that he needed only practice 1.5 hours a day. Still, his training partners would compare those 1.5h with him as equal to 5h spent with any other player on the court (which is how long many pros spend at the court per day)… and this focus eventually led to Andre becoming a legend in the sport.
Returning to academics, Locke had found out by 1981 that goals perform four primary actions. They direct attention (and therefore action), they mobilize effort (read: “motivate”) and prolong it (read: “persistence”), and they foster the employment of new, relevant learning strategies. Bob added to this framework his own notes, namely that goals help maintain focus, highlight improvement, and motivate via providing a challenge. However, goal-setting is not isolated. Its effect on performance is mediated by self-efficacy, feedback, task complexity, and task importance.
How to set goals
Locke and Latham — two of the field’s pioneers — set up the following framework. First, goals must be appropriate (SMART, consisting of short- and long-term elements, challenging, and process-focused but with an eye on performance as needed). Next, you must be committed to them. This can be accomplished through publicly disclosing your intentions, through harnessing incentives like competition and rewards, through ensuring the one performing them also participates in the goal-formation process, or even through something as simple as writing the goals down. Following this, all potential barriers must be understood. These can be internal — a lack of confidence or physical ability, a poor feedback system, too difficult goals — or external — other priorities, or a lack of social support or time for proper training. Regardless of what they are, barriers must be realistically approached and dealt with before any plan can go forward; otherwise, they’ll continue cropping up and stunting development.
The next point deserves its own paragraph: action plans. As mentioned earlier, athletes and coaches are generally not systematic in their goal implementation, something that is reflected in their performance. Lack of time is the most cited reason (for this and for not writing goals down — a key element of an action plan), but this is most often nothing but a poor excuse. It is not a lack of time, but rather a mismanagement of time that leads to dropped goals, leading Bob to quip, “If you want something done, give it to someone who has no time — they’ll do it.”
The final points of Locke and Latham’s discoveries include the provision of feedback (Mento et al found that this, combined with goal-setting, increased performance by 17%), regular goal reevaluation (though the ideal frequency is as yet uncertain), and reinforcement that encourages starting the next goal (rewards!).
An anecdote to illustrate proper application of the above: John Naber, one of the most successful swimmers of his time, used the above to shave his time down until he was slamming records left, right, and centre. How did he do this? He compared his swimming time to that of where he needed to be (a disparity of just 4s) and then, through simple arithmetic, determined how much time he needed to cut in daily increments over the next 4 years to get there. Simple, and it worked. By the time he was competing at the ’76 Montréal Olympics, he not only won four golds but also set four new world records.
Next, some ink must be spilled regarding prioritization. Bob urges us to remember that — just because something is urgent — does not mean it is important. A good example is family: they rarely are urgent, but they certainly are one of the most important things we have in this life. And sometimes the most important things are also the most difficult to work on, so we keep putting them off, forgetting them or even just never starting them because of how much they overwhelm us. Do not fall into this trap, Bob warns.
In his personal experience, Bob has found that males tend to set goals too high while females set them too low — something to watch out for as both are problematic. Lastly, he recommends the benevolent dictator leadership style for effective coaching. Bob then closed this section up with a quote by Mary Lou Retton, a gymnastics hero in her own right: “Each one of us has a fire in our heart for something. It’s our goal in life to find it and keep it lit.”
Bob’s second talk focused on imagery, showing that it had positive effects in karate and many other sports, as well as in rehabilitation. This last included some neat research from Canada’s own Craig Hall suggesting imagery can be used alongside physiotherapy to facilitate recovery rates. The same researcher was also purported to have labeled a patient’s mental attitude as the best predictor of success after surgery, something imagery certainly can help build up.
The one thing imagery seems to build up most is automaticity. Great athletes “let the performance happen, rather than thinking about or helping it happen”:
Bob outlined the main uses of imagery (in sport) as helping rehearse a skill, adjusting arousal levels, increasing self-confidence, and relieving pain from injury, thereby pushing the body through the pain threshold. This last can be dangerous if not controlled carefully, but good athletes generally know how far they can push themselves. With all these benefits laid out, it is strange that most athletes still only use imagery in competition and not in practice.
How does imagery work?
A few theories have been put forth, from as early as 1916. However, the most current, accepted explanation is Lang’s Bioinformational Theory from 1977, stating that the mental image created is stored in long-term memory as a series of responses to a series of stimuli. Therefore, when an often-imagined stimuli is encountered in the real environment (eg: the feel and weight of a basketball from the free throw line), the resulting response is its equally often-imagined response in a very automatic and correct way (eg: sinking the shot).
Orlick’s pivotal text was then called upon to outline how to implement this mental skill. First, start with things you can do well and then move to the ones that need work, doing this 15m per day. Running what you’d like to improve upon through your mind on your way to practice is a good habit, as is doing a quick mental recap just before taking on that very task. Secondly, when given directions or feedback, you should immediately integrate them into your mental image. Sport psychologists have found a correlation between an athlete’s success and her using imagery more productively, extensively, and systematically than her less successful competition.
Bob then filled in that whether one chooses an internal or external image for the exercise (see Watt’s points on the PETTLEP model) is not as important as is the image being clear, controllable, and vivid. That said, an internal perspective appears to be better for closed tasks that contain little variation in movement, like golf, while an external one is best for open tasks where the situation is ever-changing, like soccer. For beginners, Bob recommends an internal perspective because it makes it easier to get a feel for all the elements of the image.
However, imagery can also be used for something other than good: it can actually hurt performance if you use the wrong image at the wrong time. The classic example of this is a pessimist or a person with a bad track record consistently imagining their own bad performance.
A final thought from Bob’s seminar was a short line tucked somewhere in one of his presentations that didn’t have much to do with either topic being discussed, but that really stuck with me. We watched a video wherein a volleyball athlete went through a mock consultation with a sport psychologist, saying: “I trained over the whole summer to feel really good about getting into season”. Wow. Contrasting this with my own judo performance over the years shows how far behind the elite I may have really been. For me, summer was a break… there was never any element of goal-setting or preparation for what was to come in the following months. That some people took sport so seriously was a real eye-opener, made all the more prominent by this volleyball player’s also being a university student (ie. having “no time”, just like me).
Q & A:
- Biggest career regret? Not becoming a licensed psychologist first. This really expands one’s horizons.
- Biggest career satisfaction? Starting out working in a small school like North Texas, leading to a big-fish–little-pond effect. This and the support I received there would have likely not been as prominent at a larger research university.
- First technique you use when counselling athletes? Goal-setting. This sets the stage for finding out where they want to go, from where I use other techniques to get there. Also, I always get consent from the athlete before I talk with their coaches or parents, even if it is a child. This is integral in setting up a trusting relationship.
- And throughout the season? Self-talk, with athletes identifying what kind of self-talk they have, the conditions that bring it about, and the frequency with which it occurs. From there, changing it is very easy and the resulting changes are almost immediate.
- How about judo-specific interventions? Hmm, reframing anxiety so it is facilitative and not debilitative would be key. For this, you would need to understand the type of anxiety they are dealing with — if cognitive, then relaxation techniques are in order; if physiological then perhaps some progressive muscle relaxation.
- What is a good book you’d recommend? Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence and Murphy’s The Oxford Handbook of Sport and Performance Psychology. Beisser’s The Madness in Sports was a great one that was around when I was just getting interested in the field, and McCarthy and Jones’ Becoming a Sport Psychologist is something great for a guy like you to get to know.
- And lastly, a movie? For Love of the Game: it’s a great movie about an athlete making a transition out of sport, something we should talk more about in our field.