Process vs. Outcome Goals....and Your Self-Esteem

controllables goal-setting goals outcome process self-esteem Dec 09, 2019

What is your big, hairy, and audacious goal (stealing Jim Collins’ great concept from his book, Good to Great)?

I bet you it is likely some type of outcome goal. An outcome goal is simply something that you’d like to achieve. Examples include earning a starting spot on your team, getting a college scholarship in your sport, or being named to your All-Conference team at the end of the year.

There is nothing wrong with outcome goals per se, but they can pose a serious threat to your self-esteem and your motivation to continue playing your sport if those are the only goals you are setting. 

Why do I say this? 

Because if you only have a list of outcome goals for you to achieve, you are more likely to internalize failure if you don’t end up achieving them. This is a particular problem for athletes who have difficulty differentiating their value as a person versus their value as an athlete. 

In other words, they have grown up believing, “I am John Doe the swimmer.” They feel they have value because they are good at swimming. If and when they fail to achieve their outcome goal in swimming, they believe THEY are a failure. What they should think is “I am John Doe who is an awesome person. I also swim.” Swimming is not who you are. Swimming is what you happen to do. 

After all, we as individuals oftentimes have no control over these outcome goals. To illustrate this point, when an athlete tells me they want to be All-Conference in football, I say ok. I then ask them are they the head coach who determines starting lineups, playing time, and the game plan each week? No. Are they the offensive coordinator who determines what play is called and how many touches each player will get? No. Are they on the conference selection committee who will ultimately pick the All-Conference players? No. 

Well, that’s a problem for you achieving that goal then isn’t it?

So what can athletes do in order to safeguard against this?

1. First, as I said, I don’t think outcome goals are bad. After all, they are more likely to motivate us when we are struggling and when times get tough. They help us get out of bed in the morning to attack the day. Go ahead, make your big, hairy, and audacious goal an outcome goal.

2. Now ask yourself, “what can I do in order to maximize my chances of achieving that outcome goal?” I put the onus on the athlete. I usually encourage them to think about all aspects of their life, and to come up with 3-5 “bucket” areas that we can identify. Things like nutrition, rest and recovery, technical skills they want to improve, mental skills training, and balance. 

3. Once you identify these “bucket” areas, it’s time to then hone in on each bucket to come up with 3-5 specific things you can do on a daily basis. You may have heard others espousing the notion of “win the day.” Once the athlete comes up with this list, the blueprint is there. And that blueprint is made up of very specific process goals, not outcome goals. This allows the athlete to “control the controllables.” It allows the athlete to put his or her energy, attention, and focus on those things that THEY control and encourages them to ignore the noise and those things that they cannot control. This can be a powerful exercise for athletes because it empowers them to come up with the plan, and by breaking it down into manageable parts, it makes the process less intimidating. 

4. Once the athlete knows the blueprint, it is up to them to execute. And here is the beautiful part - if they execute their plan AND they somehow happen to fall short of their outcome goal, they are less likely to internalize that failure because they know they’ve done everything in their power to achieve it. And they know that they’ve worked to become the best version of themselves. Will they be disappointed if they don’t get named All-Conference? Sure. But they will know they’ve done every thing imaginable to become a better player. 

For an awesome articulation of what I’m talking about, listen to Coach Chris Beard, head coach for the Texas Tech Men’s Basketball team discuss the importance of process goals here.

Want to learn more? 

Go to and contact me at [email protected]

Thanks and have a great week!

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