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Stop Setting Goals: Set Standards

Basketball is Psychology XXXIX


Most of us have been drilled on setting goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. While setting goals sounds like a good idea, this approach is actually holding you back from reaching your full potential.

Mike Neighbors:

“My second season as the Head Coach at the University of Washington, goal setting was a part of our very culture. We were returning a strong team off of a deep WNIT run. Expectations were high. Leaders were in place. On “Goal Setting Day”, we crushed it. Crushed it! We followed Goal Setting 101 to the letter of the law and emerged from our team room with “NCAA Bound” as our season motto.

Washington had not been to the Big Dance for eight consecutive seasons and this group of Huskies was determined to change that. With smaller incremental goals of “x” wins in the non-conference, beating certain rival schools, and finishing in the top half of the difficult Pac 12, we embarked on our season. We had NCAA logos plastered everywhere around the locker room. NCAA brackets were on our scouting reports. We had posters printed and t-shirts made. You name it, anywhere we could put a reminder of our goals, we did. The season was a success.

Checking off goal after goal, we sat in a room on Selection Monday waiting to find out if our ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament was to be reached. Bracket by bracket the field was being revealed on ESPN. Anticipation grew and grew as each of the first three regions were unveiled on national tv. With only one region remaining, the announcement finally came.

The Washington Huskies had reached their final goal… We were going to the NCAA Tournament!!! The celebration was on… Guess what happened next?

We didn’t play well again.

We didn’t practice well.

We didn’t travel to the tournament well.

We didn’t shoot around well.

We didn’t pre-game meal well.

BUT, because we had reached our ultimate goal none of us could really identify that until it was too late. The season ended with us being upset by the #11 seed Miami Hurricanes. But judging by the return flight home, no one really seemed to care.

It dawned on me, it was all my fault. They were simply doing what people do as they achieve their goals.

It was then and there I vowed to never let it happen again.

By setting goals, I/we had been limiting ourselves. Even if our goal had been stretched to the limit to begin with, we were limiting it in some form.

Fast forward to Goal Setting Day for the 2016 season. Same team room. Virtually the same roster. Same game plan going in. This team was once again laser focused on leaving a legacy at Washington by setting amazing goals that would get us there. We increased our number of non-con wins. We decreased our desired defensive FG%. We made all kinds of minor improvements over the previous season.

Then came the magic. Led by a group of upperclassmen who had experienced the NCAA upset the year before, the discussion was about winning games in the NCAA Tournament rather than just going. Some said winning one game would be a great goal. Some argued two games was the better goal. After over an hour of heated discussion, the team emerged with Sweet Sixteen as their ultimate goal for the season. It was perfect. It checked every box of Goal Setting 101 class. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

We burned them.

Goals were gone. Goals were no longer a part of our culture.

We as a staff had agreed that by setting a series of standards together with players and working together to hold each other accountable to them, we would no longer be focused on results that accompany goal setting.

We knew that once we had reached the goal of making the NCAA Tournament the previous year our team felt like their season was done. In focusing on the standards we could judge our daily efforts versus stated points of emphasis and allow the results to follow on that basis. We brainstormed areas that we valued within our program on and off the court. We asked our players to do the same.

Together, we concluded there were 28 areas of being a student/athlete that we needed standards for:

Classroom, Training Room, Tutoring, Training Table, On the Bus, On the Plane, In the Hotel, Recruiting Visits, On the Bench, In the Locker Room, Ipads, In Practice, Summer Workouts, In the Weight Room, Compliance, Community Service, Alcohol, Banned Substances, Sleep/Recovery, Team Meals, Pre-Game, Post Game, Truth, Appreciation of Others, Social Media, Emotional Management, Personal Budget, Communication

For each of these Standards, we came up with specific behaviors that we would hold each other accountable for upholding.

With these 28 guiding standards we started practice. Each day we confronted any behavior that was counter to what our players had set as their Leave a Legacy standard. We pointed out every small detail in any area. Nothing was too small to confront.

Selection Monday. This year the Washington Huskies were revealed in the very first bracket as the 7 seed in the College Park region. First round opponent would be Penn. The Ivy League Champions were riding a 24 game winning streak. The celebration this year was much different than the previous year. Penn had our What’s Next focus.

Using our standards we flew across the country to College Park, Maryland. The plane ride was Legacy Leaving. The hotel was Legacy Leaving. The pre-game meal was Legacy Leaving. We were on point. Result… Washington 65, Penn 63

What’s Next? The #2 seeded Maryland Terrapins on their home floor. Another two days of nothing but Legacy Leaving behaviors… Result… Washington 74, Maryland 65

The Washington Huskies were headed to the Sweet 16.

Remember back to Goal Setting Day? The Sweet 16 had been their stated team goal. We were about to find out if our Evidence of Excellence would carry us beyond where our goals would have taken us!!

Up Next were the Kentucky Wildcats who would be playing in Rupp Arena, sleeping in their own beds, and have 8,000 Big Blue Nation fans. Once again we had Legacy Leaving travel, preparation, and focus.

Any distraction that tried to creep in was met head-on by the players themselves. I don’t remember a single occasion in which a Coach had to step in during the entire trip.

Result… Washington 85, Kentucky 72.

I distinctly remember sitting in the locker room 100% certain this would not have been happening had we stuck to our Goal Setting. We would have fallen to the same mentality from the past. Instead, there was very little celebration. Just a sense of going back out and watching the next game to see who our opponent would be in the Elite 8.

Evidence of Excellence had proven to be a success for us. It would ultimately carry us to a win over Stanford to earn a trip to the 2016 Final Four. And even though that would be our last victory of the season, we were convinced the historic year would have never happened if we hadn’t changed our way of thinking.”

Action Step:

Set Standards, Not Goals

When we focus on goals, all we think about are the results, and our goals become more like a wish list than steps in that direction. There are a lot of factors we can’t control when it comes to goals; but we can control the level of excellence we hold ourselves to.

When we focus on standards, we focus on the process of getting where we want with our day to day commitments. When we focus on standards, we are focused on what is in our control. Burn your goals and decide what behaviors of excellence you want to uphold. Set standards, not goals.


Must Read:

Burn Your Goals by Joshua Medcalf and Jamie Gilbert

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