The goal-setting “secret” top-performing coaches use to make big goals feel achievable

by Brian Cain, MPM

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The Mountain of Excellence is a symbolic concept often used in sports. The summit of the mountain represents your goal while the mountain represents the obstacle(s) one must conquer to reach it. 

The most interesting part of this analogy is this: While we all dream of what life will be like when we reach the summit—90% plus of our time and effort is spent climbing the mountain. 

And the reality is, most people get lost during the climb. They give in to distraction. They lose motivation. They forget why they started climbing and give up. 

You’ve seen it happen. At the start of the season, your athletes are pumped up and ready to go. Nothing can stop them. They’re working hard in practice, focused on making this the best season ever. 

But a few months later… things can be a different story. 

As the inevitable adversity of competition grows, things like motivation and focus start to wane. Complacency starts to set in.  When complacency sets in, catastrophe is soon to follow.

Those important goals that were front of mind just a few months ago, now seem impossible. 

But that could all change if you can learn how to help athletes learn a process for setting goals that not only makes them feel more achievable, but one that also guarantees more motivation, commitment, and grit every step of the way. 

The rest of this article will explore a goal-setting process that can deliver all of that, and more. 

“Coach, we don’t  have time to do another boring drill… we’ve got a championship to win!” (Or, the secret to effective goal setting)

Win a championship. Get drafted. These are the kinds of goals you want for your team—and your athletes want for themselves. 

And while it’s really good to know what your end goal is, you can’t stop there. Setting a long-term goal like “win a championship” and thinking that will be enough to sustain motivation and commitment is a huge mistake. 

Setting big, long-term goals seems overwhelming to many people, causing them to burn out before they see significant progress and because they don’t take time to focus on the process.

Suddenly, athletes lose appreciation for the fact that what they do TODAY is what’s actually the key to reaching that long-term goal they really want. 

Legendary coach Nick Saban of the University of Alabama football program once said this about goal setting: 

“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.” 

Nick Saban
Head Football Coach
The University of Alabama

So… how can we help our athletes focus more on the process? How can we help them feel like their big goals are more achievable by thinking about the task at hand?

The key is to break down big goals into smaller steps, connecting “someday” to “today.” 

Your athletes must know exactly how the choices and actions made today lead directly toward—or away from—the end goal. 

Big goals aren’t achieved by simply focusing really hard on what you want to achieve. Big, challenging goals are achieved by taking the necessary steps each and every day to get you there. 

Next, I’m going to cover my #1 goal-setting strategy for making big goals feel achievable by connecting “someday” to TODAY. 

Telescopes and microscopes: Connecting “someday” to TODAY

To achieve big goals, you need to begin with the end in mind—and then work backwards to today. 

This process is called “reverse engineering”, and if it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Yet so  many people skip the crucial step of working backward to today.

I work with a lot of high-level athletes in all sports and at all levels. Whether it’s a Major League Baseball player in the offseason, NFL football players in season trying to have a great week of preparation or an Olympic athlete 3 years out from the games, we simply reverse engineer and look at how they’re going to put together a great week. And in order to do that they need to have a daily plan.

The telescopes, microscopes, and reverse engineering process helps identify long-term goals. You can then break these down into a concrete, daily process and routine to follow.

Here’s how it works:

First: Think big… what’s the “summit” of your journey?

Effective goal setting begins with the end in mind. Going back to the metaphor of sports achievement being like climbing a mountain, think about what your “summit” looks like. 

You (and every single one of your athletes) must know precisely where it is you want to end up and why you want to end up there. Otherwise, you may end up climbing the wrong mountain—or forgetting why you’re climbing in the first place. 

This requires coming together as a team and asking the question, “Where do we end up?” 

Win the conference? Win a state championship? A national championship? 

There may be more than one “mountain” you want to climb. But your goal right now is to find the highest peak you’re aiming for in the next year or two. 

Everything else can fall under that as part of what we’ll cover next. 

Second: Think small… what steps will you need to take to reach the summit?

Now that you know where you want to end up, let’s reverse engineer this back to today. 

Ask, “What are the steps I/we need to get to the summit?” What can I/we do TODAY to be one step closer to the ultimate goal?”

From there, it’s just knocking down domino after domino, one day at a time. 

Think about it like this: You want to win a state championship this season. 

Well what’s a season?

  • A season is simply a series of good games.
  • When do you want to have a good game? Our next game. 
  • How do you do that? Have a great week of preparation. How do you have a great week of preparation?
  • You have a solid day of preparation. How do you have a solid day of preparation? 
  • You map out a plan for the next 24 hours of your preparation and then you attack the next thing in front of you.
  • You DOMINATE The Day!

How do you Dominate the Day? You have a plan and you set that plan the night before so when you wake up this morning and your boots hit the ground you wake up aggressive and you attack the day.

So tonight, before you go to bed and your head hits the pillow have a plan for how you’re going to Dominate the Day tomorrow.

As long as that plan is in line with your vision of where you want to be at the end of the year you’ve just reversed engineered the next 24 hours of your life—these are called your “microscope goals.” 

Think of how powerful it would be for you and every single athlete you coach if they woke up each day knowing exactly what they were going to do, and how that had a direct correlation with the goal the want to achieve “some day.”

Suddenly that boring drill in practice isn’t just something they go through the motions on… it’s honing a skill that will be the difference between winning and losing the next game. 

That 6am weights and conditioning session isn’t an annoying “have to do”… it’s giving them the physical edge they need to outlast the competition in the fourth quarter of the championship game. 

So ask yourself—and guide your athletes to do the same:

What’s the microscope goal that if you execute on today you will provide the best chance to achieve that telescope goal in the future?

You see, excellence in small things is excellence in all things. And how you do anything is how you do everything.

Your turn: Work through this goal-setting process with your athletes

Reading an article and learning a new process for setting goals is great… IF you actually put it into action. 

I’ve seen the reverse engineering goal setting strategy covered in this article work time after time with thousands of athletes. I’ve seen how much more motivated, how much more focused, how much more willing an athlete is to attack each day with purpose when they see how it connects to their ultimate goal. 

It’s a beautiful thing. And you—and those you coach—can experience the same thing. 

When you put what you learned today into action THIS week. 

Call a meeting with your team and work them through this process. Establish a unifying “summit” goal as a team, and then guide each athlete in reverse engineering that back to today. 

Create an environment where every day, your athletes are identifying the domino they need to knock over today so that they can position themselves to reach the summit. 

That’s how you make big goals feel achievable. 

Want to learn more coaching strategies to master the mental side of performance? Take this FREE 3-day course…

If you found today’s article helpful, and you’re interested in more cutting-edge mental performance coaching strategies, I’ve put together a free 3-day course for you. 

In this course, you will learn how to:

  • Get your athlete’s to perform their best when it means the most by using a SYSTEM to create an elite mindset. 
  • Compete at a higher level, more consistently—while managing distractions and adversity—by establishing the right routines. 
  • Create the championship culture you need in your program to develop elite athletic leaders and cultivate a clear vision that keeps motivated and juiced up. 

Drop your info below to learn the systems and secrets I use to help the top coaches in the world compete at an elite level—year after year.