Q: For many years process goals have been much preferred by psychologists and by some coaches, who see them as a better goal and a more measurable idea than outcome goals. A process goal could well be how one does something. They are generally measured by feel, by something slightly esoteric, as opposed to outcome goals which are by nature simple to measure. Outcome goals could be ‘I want to shoot 580, I want to shoot 1250, I want to win the National Championships’ – but I’ll come back to that one. So what’s wrong with outcome goals?
They are much maligned in the psychological and coaching press, because they are seen to be too binary, too hit or miss. Strangely they are counted as too easy, the idea being that they are not in some way clever enough, however they are the natural way one sets goals. As a psychologist I believe there should be a balance of process and outcome goals but I believe that the outcome goal has had a tough time of it of late.
“What’s wrong with an outcome goal?”
A: We should be very careful not to pick an outcome goal that is not in the athlete’s control.
So, take “I want to shoot a 580”, (let’s not get clever with the 1250, the outdoor what’s the weather like round), but 580 indoors – absolutely, nothing outside the archer’s control effects it.
‘I want to win the National Championships’ – now that’s a bad outcome goal. Other things, other people, can have an effect. Things that are out with the control of the individual can come into force and alter whether that goal is successful or not.
A well thought out outcome goal is how we live our lives; it is how our bosses measure our work and how our whole lives are orchestrated. Very rarely do people go, “we will give you style points, we will give you points for how well you thought you did that.”
Process goals do have a place, but in my opinion they are overused. They are the method of the amateur, as they are very difficult to measure. Another problem is their lack of focus, a small increase in a process goal may cost the athlete a huge amount in effort and resource usage for actually achieving no tangible improvement. The process goal also pushes towards this culture of giving 100%, in performance effort, where often 100% isn’t needed. Going that extra mile doesn’t improve the service or the result and so is a waste of resources.
So process vs. outcome? I think that outcome goals have had a rough time of it and we should be happy to use outcome goals, especially if they are well thought out. Process goals are of use, but they are often more for our personal satisfaction. It’s very difficult to justify a process goal to a coach or the person standing next to you. The athlete needs to assess whether their outcome goals for that situation were attainable and adjust accordingly.