Dreams to Goals: Outcome, Performance, and Process

Coaches and sports psychologists agree that athletes tend to set vague goals focused on uncontrollable outcomes like winning. These ideas are more akin to dreams than goals and may leave athletes frustrated or lacking motivation. Athletes can improve their chances for successful outcomes by understanding the nature of different types of goals and how they are related.

By Kristina Pattison

Three types of goals which athletes benefit from identifying are often categorized by coaches as:

  • Outcome Goals: Related to specific results of a competition, these goals are not controllable and will be an image or vision for where the athlete is headed, like a guiding light, versus a guideline for which to measure success of the athlete.
  • Performance Goals: Related to statistics that would help with the outcome goal, these are important stepping stones for the athlete to build confidence in their abilities while working towards a favorable outcome.
  • Process goals: Related to the focus of practice that will lead the athlete to developing the abilities and skills necessary for achieving their performance goals.
Kristina Pattison, Jenna Lyons, and Dakota Umbel hit the rugged trails among golden deciduous Tamarack Larch trees on Lolo Peak near Missoula, Montana in autumn. Photo by Ben Herndon.

Some coaches recommend the athlete start with developing process goals, working their way up to performance goals, and lastly, building outcome goals. However, most coaches recommend the opposite: the outcome goal is like a long range-target that gives the athlete a vision for how their path should be laid out. Performance goals serve as benchmarks for progress, and daily training process goals serve as guidelines for consistent athletic development toward each performance goal.

Experts do agree that athletes should develop goals which follow the familiar SMART acronym developed by Kirschenbaum (1997).

Specific: Precise and detailed goals that capture more of the essence of what you want to accomplish. Fleshing out the details of a vision allows the mind to truly picture the benefits of the goal’s outcome.

Measurable: Goals that can be measured or quantified help define where you want to be compared to where you are now, and allow you to notch progress lines along the way. With measured progress, your improvement will give you confidence you are capable of continuing toward your desired outcome. (*Note: Some coaches include “Recorded” in the SMART acronym to capture the importance of acknowledging these measurements with a record of progress along the way. The record of progress can be a strong motivator to continue for any athlete.)

Achievable: Realistic goals can be big and challenging, but will be logical enough for the athlete to know they are capable of the goal’s demands. If the athlete struggles to believe they have the ability to complete the goal, it will be easy to give up.

Relevant: Goals that are important to the athlete or the team, and are exciting to pursue, will keep the athlete’s motivation stoked for progress. If the goal doesn’t matter there is no motivation to continue.

Time-limited: A deadline is necessary for the achievement of the goal to keep the athlete on task. While breaking down outcome goals into performance and process goals, it will be clear that each of these goals will fall into several time-based categories:

Long term: This is likely where the athlete’s outcome goals will fall—dreams, projects, professional engagements, championships, etc.

Intermediate: These are likely performance-type goals, which will take months,  or a full season to a complete. For example, completing a qualifying race to earn a lottery ticket toward selection in a long-term goal race.

Short-term:These are process goals: daily commitments to training which require consistent discipline and hard work to achieve. These will be reviewed weekly and will help to evaluate if the athlete is on track toward an intermediate goal. For example, gradually progressing the weekly mileage to develop the ability to complete the qualifying race for a long-term goal event.

Now-goals:These are evaluated at the end of each practice. Also process goals, but very specific to the goals of each session. For example, keeping cadence above 180spm on every tempo run.

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Dakota Umbel running Lone Peak in Big Sky, Montana, while training for the Rut 50km, 2016. Photo by Kristina Pattison

Athletes can develop SMART goals by starting with a brainstorming session: writing, drawing or doodling all the possibilities for athletic development. From there, the athlete can identify their most important goals, including those that are the most relevant or exciting at this stage of their career. Finally, identifying details of each goal with process or performance goals per the above guidelines can help make vague dreams into concrete and achievable goals.


Kristina Pattison is an ultra endurance mountain runner and doctor of physical therapy from Missoula, Montana. She is currently focused on racing internationally in Skyrunning events and coaching select athletes. 

For information on coaching, please contact Kristina here.


Alan S. Kornspan Fundamentals of Sport and Exercise Psychology 

YSC Sports Mental Edge. A Sport Psychology Blog for Performance Enhancement. https://yscsportsmentaledge.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/goal-setting-outcome-performance-and-process-goals/

Brian Mac Sports Coach https://www.brianmac.co.uk/goals.htm




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