Being SMART With Goal Setting

Many of us who coach will both know the importance of goal setting with our clients and will have heard of and probably use the acronym SMART Goals. But is this the only model to follow? And if there are alternatives, are SMART Goals the best model to use? In this article, I investigate an alternative to this popular model and discuss when and where they may be useful both for ourselves and for our clients.

As we crest into 2022, the attentions of millions of people around the world will turn to New Year’s Resolutions. While the most popular among the wider public will remain resolutions such as losing weight or saving money, for many of our clientele this is often a useful time to set some goals for their climbing. However as we are all most likely aware, sticking to these goals/resolutions/plans in any guise can prove tricky and only one in four people keep all of their resolutions according to a YouGov survey.

Goal setting is hugely important for motivation so it is important for us to get this right: too easy and the goals lack the motivation to try hard but too hard and they can have the opposite effect to that which we are trying to achieve (we’ll come back to this later). Thankfully, there is a huge body of work dedicated to this subject, both in performance sport but also in business, education and many other subjects; for academic studies, seek out work by Locke and Latham.

Goal setting is such a broad area that one can very easily get lost down an enormous rabbit hole; with much of it incredibly useful to us. A later article will look at Outcome, Process and Performance goals but here, we will focus on specific goal setting models, in particular one popular model – both in the wider world but also one that has been adopted in climbing coaching – SMART Goals.

SMART Goals

First developed by George Doran in 1981, many of you will be aware of this acronym SMART Goals. Alternatives exist, such as PACT or FAST but these are variations on the theme and SMART remains the go to with academic research to back it up. Both for the uninitiated and as a recap, let’s go over what each letter stands for, with a brief summary of what they mean:

  • Specific. Goals should relate to something specific, ranging from achieving a new grade, perfecting a technique or even completing a specific route or boulder problem
  • Measureable. Progress should be able to be measured in some fashion, and the goal should allow a level of evaluation
  • Achievable. Goals should be within the grasp of the climber; for example one or two grades above current standards
  • Realistic. There should be an inherent challenge to the goal but still comply with the aim of being achievable
  • Timed. There should be a reasonable time limit to complete the goal

SMART Goals fit very well with rock climbing, especially once we adopt the TTPP Model of performance (technical, tactical, psychological, physical aspects of performance). Specificity can be found in routes or boulder problems; in particular techniques that are found to be a weakness; in physical traits such as finger strength; or even in part with decision making relating to tactical choices before or during a climb. All of these are easily measureable too, given the quantitative nature of grades and training. And creating a timeframe for improvement is also relatively straightforward, with many climbers aiming to improve in preparation for a specific trip and some even tailoring their goal setting per season.

Finding achievable and realistic goals becomes more difficult. Much work has been done recently on Flow State (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) including what is known as the Challenge-Skills Balance, which states that the challenge at hand must match the skill level of the participant in question. If the challenge is too easy, the participant becomes apathetic and loses motivation but if the challenge is too hard, it becomes demoralising and has the opposite effect to that which is desired.

Challenge Skills Balance, retrieved from Simoes (2015)

SMART Goals can be very effective and have been adopted to high levels of success. However they rely on a lot of specific information to be provided regarding the abilities of the individual in question. So what happens if we do not know enough information? How might we know if something is achievable or realistic? These questions become especially apparent both with beginner climbers finding coaching early in their climbing career and with climbers returning after some time away from the sport; perhaps because of injury or non-climbing related commitments.

Open Goals

In 2020, Hawkins, Crust, Swann and Jackman from the University of Lincoln conducted research comparing “insufficiently active” individuals with “sufficiently active” individuals; with “sufficient” relating to the task the groups were set. They built on the work by Swann et al (2019) who conducted a similar study but only looking at “insufficiently active” participants and both of these studies were interested in how effective SMART Goals are with people who do not exercise on a regular basis. Both studies discovered that insufficiently active individuals actually found SMART Goals to be detrimental to performance and that Open Goals had a higher success rate. Effectively, for insufficiently active individuals, SMART Goals were too complex.

Open Goals are more exploratory; often involving a “see what happens” approach. Another similar alternative may well be “Do Your Best” from the old Cub Scout motto; both of which have the same approach: give it a go and see how we get on. Hawkins, Crust, Swann and Jackman (2020) concluded that Open Goals were more effective for insufficiently active participants while SMART Goals were best for the sufficiently active for the task they had set.

This research doesn’t sit in isolation in academia, it does align with our experiences of coaching and instruction. As those of us who have run introductory courses for rock climbing can attest, standards of those first entering the sport – especially considering the wide breadth of age, strength and background of “beginner” climbers – can vary wildly, meaning simply attaching a grade to be specifically achieved in those first few sessions may not be achievable or realistic at all. Getting this wrong can deviate hugely from the challenge-skills balance and could potentially be the difference between a climber continuing on a long and successful climbing career or walking away after a single session.

A Combination

Realistically, any irregularities are amended very quickly but the question remains: with Open Goals as an alternative, why try to be too SMART too quickly? On those first few coaching sessions, why not remove the specificity etc. from the aims and try a more exploratory approach?

Likewise with returning climbers. Indeed, in this situation, where someone may well be measuring themselves against their pre-break standards, having SMART Goals may well become incredibly demoralising very quickly. That is not to say that we should not return to SMART Goals quite soon, more that by having Open Goals as a short-term assessment of current standards may enable us to create more effective goals.

It may even be possible to combine the two together. There would be no reason not to use Open Goals to ascertain the Achievable and Realistic aspects of our SMART Goals, before applying the Specificity, Measurements and Time constraints at a later date. Anecdotally as an example, I personally used this approach with a particular climb recently after a summer break. I wanted to try Rock Atrocity Wobbly Block start 7c+ at Parisella’s Cave near Llandudno but with no recent outdoor climbing to guide me, had no idea what would constitute success. I arrived with a “see what happens” approach, with some optimism that I could repeat my success on the stand start from years back but some pessimism regarding my current standards. After the session, I found where my current standards were – unfortunately much lower than I’d hoped – before using this new information to develop a bit of a training plan; one that was very specific, measured, timed etc. that copied the holds and moves from the project onto training apparatus.

While it wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, it turned out I’d adopted Open Goals to begin with, found the information I needed and then switched to SMART Goals at the end of my session. Unknowingly, I’d used a combination of both systems and it had worked incredibly well.

 

Summary

There’s clearly a reason organisations such as the NHS continue to use SMART Goals: it’s a very useful model for goal setting. This article isn’t suggesting not to use SMART Goals but if you really want to be smart about it, it is worth having alternatives for when specific, measured and timed goals aren’t that realistic. Open Goals offer an alternative and recent research suggests that for those who are not operating at a performance level, may be smarter than SMART. These may include beginners, those operating at a lower performance level or climbers returning after a break. In essence, the closer the climber is to their challenge-skills balance, the SMARTer their goals should be. And there’s nothing to suggest that both models are all or nothing; with the potential to switch between systems as needed.

References

Arnett, G. (2015, December 31) How long do people keep their New Year resolutions? Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/dec/31/how-long-do-people-keep-their-new-year-resolutions

Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management review70(11), 35-36.

Engeser, S., & Rheinberg, F. (2008). Flow, performance and moderators of challenge-skill balance. Motivation and Emotion32(3), 158-172.

England, N. H. S. Online library of Quality, Service Improvement and Redesign tools.

Ibbetson, C. (2020, December 30). How many people kept their 2020 New Year’s resolutions? YouGov. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2020/12/30/new-years-resolutions-2020-and-2021

Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports. Human Kinetics.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2019). The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science5(2), 93.

Psychology (n.d.). Goal Setting in Sports. http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/sports-psychology/psychological-skills/goal-setting-in-sports/

Simoes, J. (2015). Using Gamification to Improve Participation in Social Learning Environments. [PhD Doctoral Thesis]

Swann, C., Hooper, A., Schweickle, M. J., Peoples, G., Mullan, J., Hutto, D., … & Vella, S. A. (2020). Comparing the effects of goal types in a walking session with healthy adults: Preliminary evidence for open goals in physical activity. Psychology of Sport and Exercise47, 101475.

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