You are currently viewing The Psychology of Performance, Part 2. Goal setting.

The Psychology of Performance, Part 2. Goal setting.

If you want to excel at anything, you have to learn how to manage your thoughts and feelings, both the good and the bad. Excellence is not normal or natural, and cultivating excellence in anything requires hard work and sacrifice. Physical talent is not irrelevant, but it is less important than self-discipline and mental strength. If you want to excel in riding, natural talent will help you out, but it won’t get you all the way there. To really succeed, you are going to need to get into the right headspace and have the right attitude towards training and competition.

In this series, we look at the neuroscience and psychology underlying high performance and discuss ways in which you can use knowledge of these elements to your advantage. In this article, we look at the role of goal setting and how goal setting is needed for progress.

Goal setting

If you are going to persevere through the hard work and tough times, you have to have a ‘why’ and that why needs to be clearly defined. Without a why, there is no ‘how’. However, goals can’t be set until you know your values.

Values before goals

Values are a consistent way of doing things and behaving. They are the principles you live by and are, in essence, your integrity. They provide a standard to which you hold yourself accountable. It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, how your horse is feeling or how the competition is going – you hold true to those values. You don’t achieve values in the same way that you do goals, but you need values to govern every aspect of your riding and life generally. It is helpful to write down your values, or describe them to someone close to you. You then need to be brutally honest with yourself and work out if you are living those values today and, if not, why not? Feelings and thoughts can get in the way of values, and you need to avoid the distraction these cause. Once your values are established, you then need to ask: ‘is what I am about to do in service of my values and moving forward, or is it to serve my comfort right now?’

Point to consider: How would you want people to describe you, your relationship with your horse and your values? Thinking about this can help you establish what it is you want to achieve and who you want to be in the process of achieving it.

Values don’t just provide direction, they provide energy. Riders who are focussed on values, which underlie their goals, train harder and more consistently than those who lack value clarity. They also make better choices, especially in the face of challenges. They are much more likely to persevere in day-to-day activities that ultimately contribute to goal achievement.

Only once you have your values, can you set your goals. If values serve as your compass, directing where you go, goals are your map for exactly how you are going to get there. Goals can increase motivation, confidence and focus, by defining exactly what you want to work on and what you want to prioritise. However, setting goals alone won’t fix all problems. Without emotionally connecting to why the goal is important, it doesn’t affect motivation, confidence or focus. However, identifying values alone isn’t enough either. You need both values and goals.

The elements of effective goal setting

Difficulty: Goals that are most effective are moderate in difficulty – challenging and realistic. Very difficult or easy goals don’t show any effect on performance in the literature. Easy goals don’t push you; they just protect your self-esteem. On the other hand, really difficult goals make you feel overfaced and often lead to you giving up.

Specificity: Absolute goals show that the greatest effect on performance. Absolute goals are those with specifically defined outcomes. Relative goals, on the other hand, are based on personal improvement relative to prior performances. These goals, such as ‘do your best’, inspire effort and focus but are less effective than having specific targeted outcomes to improve performance.

Proximity: Both short-term and combined short- and long-term goals improve performance the most. Long-term goals show little to no improvement in performance. Long-term goals are usually too far away to provide you with the motivation you need to take action today, and can allow you to ‘cheat’ as you are sure you will have the time to ‘make it up’. Linking short- and long-term goals creates a solid plan for achievement, with a long-term goal providing meaning to those short-term, ideally daily, actionable steps.

So, to summarise, the big three characteristics of effective goal setting are difficulty, specificity and proximity. Moderate difficulty, absolute, combined short- and long-term goals will best improve performance.


A lack of motivation is probably the biggest barrier to achieving goals and developing expertise. Most people get to a point where they feel they are ‘good enough’ and then have a tendency to cruise at this stage. They shut down to new ideas or approaches, and stop growing. This is often not conscious, but a natural consequence of being comfortable. To strengthen your motivation at this point, to avoid remaining on this plateau, you either need to strengthen your reasons for continuing, or weaken the reasons that you have for quitting. The problem is rarely the motivators – dreaming big is easy – but the issue is rather in coping with the inevitable costs inherent in gaining expertise and working towards goals.

Tips for motivation:

  • Plan your day in advance. This is a lot of effort but if you plan in detail, you can remain intentional with how you spend the limited number of hours in your day. This is a powerful way of making you feel in control of what you are doing, and where you are going.
  • Look for signs. Set things up so that you are constantly seeing concrete signs of improvement. An essential factor for motivation, is reinforcing a feeling of competence. Be consistently aware of your and your horse’s improvements, even if they are small.
  • Create a like-minded community. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people is an essential part of the process. You need to make sure that you spend time with people who believe in you and want to help you realise your goals. Negativity has no place in progress!

When life isn’t co-operating…

Life happens – you or your horse may get injured, you may be too busy at work, or you may have a family crisis that needs your attention. Whatever happens, just adjust your goals. Don’t cancel them entirely, and don’t beat yourself up about not being on track. Life shows up for everyone, so just adapt and try to maintain focus. Adapt your goals to fit whatever your new circumstances dictate, and you will still continue to improve