January 7, 2011

Goal Setting

2011! A new year, new beginning, new ideas, time to think about what we want to achieve in our chess career and make it happen.
Many people associate goal-setting with new year resolutions, and are quick to dismiss goal-setting as ineffective, since most well-intentioned, if vague, resolutions have failed before the end of January. Let's get one thing clear straight away: most such resolutions are perfect examples of how not to set goals!

Goal setting is a powerful process for thinking about your ideal future, and for motivating yourself to turn this vision of the future into reality.
Of course many of us dream about becoming world champion, but one should be aware of the fact that high and unreasonable expectations make impossible even the possible results. Also vague resolutions, unclear, unrealistic, difficult to measure, will make our task a hell.
Here is how I used to think: "Oh...it would be so nice to be number one of Roumania! Qualifying for the World Championship would be a dream come true!" and so on. But how exactly to do that was a mistery for me.
I knew I had to work hard but I was inconstant in my preparation, I was taking every single game with a very high pressure and that I must win in order to achieve my dreams...in other words: chaos in my head and in my results.
It became clear to me now that, while goal-setting is an easy concept to understand, its application needs more thought and planning than most people realise. One of the main problems is that not all coaches are aware of the principles of goal-setting and how to apply them effectively. So a key purpose of this article is to give coaches and chess players a better understanding of how to use goal-setting to enhance performance and avoid disappointments. But even if you are not a professional chess player, the following advices and techniques will help you to organize your time and your resources so that you can make the very most of your life.

Goal setting is a mental training technique that can be used to increase an individual's commitment towards achieving a personal goal. Having a short or long term goal can encourage an individual to work harder, to be more focused on the task and to overcome setbacks more easily.
Goal setting is a technique pioneered by Dr. Edwin Locke, not in sport but industrial psychology. According to Locke, setting goals effect performance in four ways:
  • focuses attention
  • mobilises effort in proportion to the demands of the task
  • enhances persistence
  • encourages the individual to develop strategies for achieving their goals
Reference: Dr Edwin Locke, 1968, "Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives"

Dream goals:
Dream goals inspire us and give us a target to aim for, but in order to deliver the goods they must be specific and realistic. Most new year resolutions are dream goals that will never be realised because people fail to plan realistically the day-to-day process required to make such dreams into reality.
If you only focus on your dream goal, you can easily become overwhelmed when you think about what it's going to take to achieve it. Research suggests that focusing only on long-term dream goals does not lead to enhanced performances.

Short-term goals - the key to success:
Top Grandmasters like Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand have understood that although dream goals, such as  becoming World Champion, are important in helping to direct our efforts, it is the day-to-day 'short-term' goals that provide the key to success. I like to classify goals into three types:

  • Dream goals are the ones that seem a long way off and difficult to achieve. In time terms, they may be anything from six months to several years away;
  • Intermediate goals are markers of where you want to be at a specific time. For example, if your dream goal was to lower your 400m PB by one second over 10 months, an intermediate goal could be a half second improvement after five months;
  • Short-term or daily goals are the most important because they provide a focus for our training in each and every session. Past research on Olympic athletes found that setting daily training goals was one factor that distinguished successful performers from their less successful counterparts.

For every week and each training session you should decide what you need to do in order to take another small step towards the next intermediate goal, and ultimately towards your dream goal. Don't just set goals for competition: we all spend more time practising and training, so set targets for these periods too.

Goal-setting is a smart move for the chess players who want to develop their self-confidence, increase their levels of motivation and achieve higher standards of performance. Remember that time spent in preparation is worth it and can prevent disappointments. To help remember the key principles of goal-setting you need to think SMARTER. That is, your goals should be:

Indicate precisely what is to be done. Avoid vague alternatives;
You should be able to quantify your goal;
Goals must be accepted as worthwhile, realistic and attainable;
Write your goals down. This is the basis of a contract with yourself;
Set specific time-limits;
Monitor your progress regularly;
In the event of injury, or failure to achieve over-difficult goals, reset your goals accordingly.

In the planning stages of a goal-setting programme, you should think carefully about factors that may hinder your progress. For example, most people set goals that are too difficult rather than too easy, which commonly leads to the rejection of those goals. Once rejected, the goals no longer direct our efforts or our focus. It is also important to avoid setting too many goals. Instead, focus on one dream goal, perhaps two or three intermediate targets and two short-term goals for today’s session. That’s enough to start with, but be sure to give your short-term goals the highest priority. Through achieving these you will naturally progress towards the intermediate targets.

Goal Setting Advices:
The following broad guidelines will help you to set effective goals:

  • State each goal as a positive statement: Express your goals positively – 'Check this line well enough' is a much better goal than 'Don't make this stupid mistake.'
  • Be precise: Set a precise goal, putting in dates, times and amounts so that you can measure achievement. If you do this, you will know exactly when you have achieved the goal, and can take complete satisfaction from having achieved it.

  • Set priorities: When you have several goals, give each a priority. This helps you to avoid feeling overwhelmed by having too many goals, and helps to direct your attention to the most important ones.

  • Write goals down: This crystallizes them and gives them more force.

  • Keep operational goals small: Keep the low-level goals you are working towards small and achievable. If a goal is too large, then it can seem that you are not making progress towards it. Keeping goals small and incremental gives more opportunities for reward.
  • Set performance goals, rather than outcome goals: You should take care to set goals over which you have as much control as possible. It can be quite dispiriting to fail to achieve a personal goal for reasons beyond your control! In chess, these reasons could include poor judging, bad playing conditions, injury, or just plain bad luck. If you base your goals on personal performance, then you can keep control over the achievement of your goals and draw satisfaction from them.
  • Set realistic goals: It is important to set goals that you can achieve. All sorts of people (employers, parents, media, society) can set unrealistic goals for you. They will often do this in ignorance of your own desires and ambitions. Alternatively you may set goals that are too high, because you may not appreciate either the obstacles in the way or understand quite how much skill you need to develop to achieve a particular level of performance.
Goal setting is not just about identifying what you want to achieve but also how you will achieve it (process goals) and measure that achievement (performance goals). Goals must be set according to the age, stage of development, confidence, ability and motivation of the individual. Beginners require very short term, easily achieved goals to boost their self-confidence, whereas the experienced individual need more challenging, yet realistic goals.

If you don't already set goals, do so, starting now. As you make this technique part of your life, you'll find your career accelerating, and you'll wonder how you did without it!

For the Dutch version of this article, visit Schaaksite.nl! 


  1. Singer, R, Hausenblas, H, & Janelle, C (Eds), Handbook of Sport Psychology, Wiley, New York, 2001
  2. The Sport Psychologist, vol 15, 2001
  3. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, vol 17, 1995
  4. The Sport Psychologist, vol 2, 1988
  5. Orlick, T, In Pursuit of Excellence, 4th edition, Human Kinetics, USA, 2000
  6. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, vol 11, 1999


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