Goal Setting Activities of Olympic Athletes (and what they can teach the rest of us)

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Olympians can teach us quite a bit about goal setting activities.

Olympians are master's of reaching large, audacious goals, and every single olympian uses the process of goal setting to help them achieve their dreams.

What can Olympians really teach us about reaching our goals?

Let's face it.  99.9999% of the people reading this post are not ever going to the  Olympics, unless we buy tickets. Even with some natural talent for an event, it takes a lifetime of work to build the skills of an Olympic athlete. So what can Olympic athletes teach us about reaching our normal sized goals?  Actually quite a bit.

The goal setting activities of Olympic athletes focus on the process. They worry less about how far they have to go than building the skills that will help them get there.  With a massive goal, such as becoming an Olympian, there is a need to trust in that process. Just like Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come”.

Let's see what Olympian's can teach the rest of us about successful goal setting activities…

Goal Setting Activities of Olympic Athletes

Usain Bolt Olympics- Set Big goals

1. Set Big Goals

Olympians know the power of setting audacious goals. They have already made a greater achievement than most people by simply making the Olympic team.

The enormous goal of making the Olympics is often the culmination of natural talent mixed with decades of hard work and discipline.

Usain Bolt understands this and set his lofty goal a single notch higher: to run faster than anyone- EVER!

Going into what he says will be his final Olympics he discussed his lofty goals. “It is important to set goals in life. I set mine to the highest standard I can achieve“.

We can all learn a lot for this attitude. Shoot for the moon with your long term goals.  Most overestimate what they can complete with hard work and dedication in the short term, but they also underestimate what is really possible in the long term.

jessica-hardy-short term goals quote

2. Start small. Small wins lead to big goals

In an interview with the Muse, swimmer Jessica Hardy opened up about how she deals with her goals. “My short-term goals are obtainable on a daily or monthly basis. I like to make my short-term goals something that makes me feel better and sets me up to better prepare for the long-term goals

What Jessica is talking about is the power of small wins. While your long term goals should be audacious and challenging, your short term goals should be so simple, you cannot fail them.

These small wins make you feel better about the process of achieving your goals. They become a series of minor milestones on the way to achieving your dreams

Coaches support olympians in their goal setting activities

3. No one does it alone

It takes a small army of people to help an Olympian reach their goals. Their family taking them to practice for long hours for many years of their lives. Coaches to keep them training and offer constructive criticism. Teammates. Doctors. Physical Therapists. Sports Psychologists. Friends. Fans. The list goes on-and-on.

Don't think that you are somehow better than Olympic athletes in your goal setting activities? Of course not. Don't try to be.

Let others know your goals and let enlist them to help when they can. For instance if your goal is financial freedom, you are going to need your family on board to decrease spending and pay down credit cards.

Even if your goal is something more personal, like weight loss, you can use family, friends and even social media to help keep you on target for your goals.

It is all about accountability, and the support of others helps keep you accountable.

(Find out more about the power of accountability and how this can help you reach audacious goals with The Accountability Manifesto.)

positive thinking in goal setting activities

4. Understand the Power of Positive Thinking

Kellie Wells, USA indoor and outdoor hurdles champ understands the value of positive thinking “‘If you think you can’t, you won’t, and if you think you can, you  will.’ When I’m tired at practice, I tell myself that I’m not tired, and I can push through. If you tell yourself you’re tired or if you tell yourself you’re sick, your body is going to follow the mind.

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale first wrote his book, The Power of Positive Thinking 65 years ago. (Check out the book on Amazon.) It is as true today, as it was then.  Our minds out powerful things. They can either help us push through adversity or give us the excuses we need to quit when the going gets tough. (And the going will always get tough at some point)

Now there are limits to this. I am still firmly in the “do the work” camp of goal setting. I think the advice in Rhonda Byrne's book The Secret, is close to being dangerously misleading.

Because of The Secret many people take positive thinking to mean that you only need get your mind right and wish with all your might and the universe will provide for you.

This treats us like kids. Like Peter Pan saying, “Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough.”  Any Olympian will tell you the reality: dreams do come true, if you create goals, bust your butt making progress on these goals and keep a positive attitude.


(Unlock the Power of Positive Thinking Check out the book on Amazon.)

5. Keep your Goals Fun

Katie Ledecky doesn’t beat her opponents. She demolishes them. In a sport where first and second place is often separated by mere inches, she has been winning by body lengths. At this point she is rarely racing against her opponents, she is racing against her own personal goals.

Katie has stated numerous time that she is fond of setting goals and works hard to achieve them.  In an interview with NBCOlympics she shares one of her goal setting secrets: keeping it fun. Katie like to focus on the process of her goals. She has a passion for swimming so reaching incremental goal milestones is fun to her.

When you keep joy in the goals you are trying to accomplish they will never seem like work. This fun spirit and attitude is something that everyone can learn. Enjoy the process.  The end result is awesome, but when you focus of the joy of the process of achieving your goals it will never seem like work.

Make goal setting measurable

6. Set measurable goals

For a goal to be achievable, it must be quantified, or measured in some way. If a goal is not measurable, you need to break it down further until it can be measured.

This is the basics of goal setting. Olympian's never talk about wanting to run/jump or swim faster. They have specific times in mind. They want to beat the Olympic record. They want to beat the world record. They can recite to you exactly what the fastest time they have ever achieved and exactly how much more they need to reach their goal.

A goal without specific metrics is a dream, because there is no way to chart your progress and measure how close your are to accomplishing it.

Be specific in your goals. Tie them to a time when you want to complete them and specific numbers of what you want to achieve.

“Nothing is impossible. With so many people saying it couldn’t be done, all it takes is an imagination.” –Michael Phelps

7. Nothing is impossible

As the Rio 2016 Olympics opened one of the big questions on peoples mind was about Michael Phelps. Already the most medal winning Olympian in history, Phelps had to battle both some personal issues outside the pool and his increasing age. 

As I write this Phelps is 4/4 in Gold medals in his events, and he looks good for winning two more.

26 Gold medals in a career is something that would have been called, “impossible” by almost everyone as little as ten years ago. In a quote from Phelps himself, we get a great view of how we should feel when others call our goals impossible.“Nothing is impossible. With so many people saying it couldn’t be done, all it takes is an imagination.”

Use Self Talk in your Goal Setting Activities

8. Use Self Talk in your Goal Setting Activities

One of the most common goal setting activities of Olympians is self-talk. Self talk comes in two different forms. The first one is instructional, “straighten your leg” and “elbows up.” The second type of self talk is motivational, “you can do it” and “keep it up.”

According to a series of scientific experiments both styles of self talk help push athletes to greater achievements. The first style of self talk, instructional, helps them get the most out of training and reinforces the process of perfecting their goals. The second style of self talk, motivation, gives that extra push of strength or endurance when willpower begins to wane.

Many athletes use both styles of self talk quite often… and so should you!

Instructional self talk can help you perfect the process. We can all improve our methodology. By noting and correcting your process on the spot, you will continue to refine and prefect the processes on which your success if built.

Motivational self talk is a bit more of a controversy. It is important to never wait or reply on motivation to move forward with goals. On the other hand, a little bit of motivation can be great for some spurts of accomplishment, and can help to bolster your spirit, when willpower is sagging.

“Focus, discipline, hard work, goal setting and, of course, the thrill of finally achieving your goals. These are all lessons in life.” –Kristi Yamaguchi

9. Focus on your goals

“Focus, discipline, hard work, goal setting and, of course, the thrill of finally achieving your goals. These are all lessons in life.” –Kristi Yamaguchi, gold medalist in figure skating

Yamaguchi, the gold medalist in figure skating, reminds of of some very basic goal setting activities.

  • Work hard.
  • Stay disciplined
  • Set goals

The reason focus is important is simple. The brain does not work as a parrallel processor but as a series processor. This means that every action or thought takes a little bit of of effort.  If you are doing three different things, your mind does not deal with them at the same time, but does one, moves on the the next, then the next, then back to the first task. Each one of these activities means a little loss of efficiency. Since even though these thought changes take place at super quickly, there is always some loss.

When you focus, you are able to block out all the other thoughts that distract and break that total concentration. This is essential for many olympic athletes and can be a very important tool for anyone trying to reach their goals.

Set goals slightly out of your reach.

10. Set goals slightly out of your reach.

Ask any Olympic athlete what their goal for the Olympic games are, they will likely say to win gold. However, most athletes have to know the odds are stacked against them. Everyone wants to be a Ledecky or a Phelps winning gold after gold with apparent ease  But statistically most of Olympians are the ones completing against them. The people who are lucky to make the final rounds and have little shot competing against a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.

However, there goal is always still the same. To win a gold medal.

There is nothing wrong with setting a goal you may not be able to achieve. If you work hard at it, and get a little lick, you may shock the world and and achieve it, but even if you fail to reach the goal, chances are great that you have achieved something significant.

Look at the bronze medalist. No one has a goal of being the third best.  But this is third best in the WORLD. Meaning there are 7 billion people who the bronze medalist is better than in that specific feat. A pretty significant accomplishment.

No on strives for coming close.  But then you set significant goals, getting close still can be quite an accomplishment.

By aiming high, you ensure you will still achieve incredible results.

Visualize yourself achieving your goals

11. Visualize yourself achieving your goals

Set a picture in your mind of you achieving your goals.  This should be a picture the process of achieving the goal. Not basking in the afterglow of achievement.

For an Olympian this means visualizing them competing in their event. Not standing on the podium.

When you visualize the after effects of successful goal setting, such as standing on the podium or enjoying result your weight loss goal, your subconscious begins to think you HAVE completed the goal and begins to slack off. (Reference: 59 Seconds– by Richard Wiseman)

On the other hand, when you visualize the process and the things that will lead you to succeed in your goals your mind actually works out ways to perfect the techniques. In fact, scientific studies have shown that imagining the process is nearly as good as actual physical practice of the process.

The key to achieving your goals is consistency. Keep track of your progress on a daily basis and try to make minute improvements daily.

12. Consistency

An Olympian doesn't work on their goals when they feel motivated. They don't wait for inspiration to strike. They do work on their goals day-in, day-out.

This is an important lesson for goal setting activities. It is never enough to do the work when you feel inspired or excited about your goals. Real success is built when you work on your goals even when you would rather be doing anything but working on that goal.

To be successful with your goals, create a schedule where you do the same activity at the same time every day. The key to achieving your goals is consistency. Keep track of your progress on a daily basis and try to make minute improvements daily. Periodically review your goals and progress and adjust according to what you have experienced and any changes in your desires.

Start your day off the right way.

13. Start your day off the right way.

Average people get up at average times. People who achieve significant goals on a regular basis, are almost always early risers.

You rarely hear about Olympians heading to practice at noon. They usually start their days at 4-6am with an early morning workout.

Starting your day early, and on a positive note are important goal setting activities.

Mornings are when people are at their natural best.Not making the most of this time seems nearly criminal if you have big goals. This time is best spent on building your main goals. It is also a great time for activities that will help you start your day the right way. Things like: eating a healthy breakfast, taking time for meditation, quiet time to focus, exercise to energize you throughout the day and planning your day.

Habits make or break your goal setting activities

14. Practice habits

Your habits will make or break you. Most Olympians practice their craft again-and-again for years. They get thousands of hours of experience mastering their craft.

Malcolm Gladwell, in this book Outliers (see below), talks about how it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice for anyone to really master their craft. There is no way around this.  If you want to be the best, you need to practice like the best. This means putting in the time. And if you are going to put in a lot of time doing something , the best way to do that is to ritualize the process and make it a habit.

Tired of setting goals and not achieving them. Check out 8 steps to building new habits.

Interested in learning more? Check out Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Goal setting acitivities- interruptions and setbacks

15. Plan for the unexpected

Life is full of unexpected things that happen to us. Cars break down. People get sick. Emergencies happen.

It happens to us, and it happens to Olympians. Right now, as the Olympics are going on, there are Olympians sitting at home watching, due to injury, or a major mistake in the trials, that might have been able to win medals. No matter how hard you plan your goals, life can always throw you a curveball.

  • Research: Learn everything about the goals you want to complete.
  • Identify: Find problem spots that may hurt your chances for success.
  • Plan to adjust: even if you plan for problems you forsee, you will want to be ready to make further adjustments on the fly.
  • Guidelines: Remember that plans are guidelines. When circumstances change, your plans may change.
  • End zone: Keep the end goal in your mind.
Review your goals regularly.

16. Review goals regularly

As mentioned above, your goals will not always go as planned. Even in the rare circumstance that everything goes perfectly, people change, and your goals 1 year from now might not be the same as when you set them in the past.

Olympians understand that goals are living things. They need to be reviewed and tweaked quite frequently.

Take the time to regularly review your goals.  See what goals and strategies are working.. and which one s are not working. Re-prioritize your goals in order of urgency. This way you will know where to focus your efforts when you are short of time.

Hurdles and challeges of goal setting

17. Use Mind Maps to Get Over Life's Hurdles

Mind maps are powerful tools for planning, organizing and communicating long term goals.

In case you do not know, a mind map is a graphical way to represent information, ideas and concepts. This visual method of looking over concepts helps you use a different section of your brain to analyze data and come to conclusions. Using this different part of your brain can potentially lead you to making conclusions and seeing connections that you may have otherwise missed.

The importance of mind mapping specifically for goal setting is that it gives you a chance to identify the challenges that might hinder the completion of the goal.

Columbia fan- Get encouragment from others for goals

18. Get encouragement

Olympic Athletes play for more than themselves. They play for their countries and often millions of fans cheering them along.

Most average people can never complete with the amount of encouragement and support that any professional athlete will receive from adoring fans. However, nearly everyone has an important base of support that they can draw from.

Encouragement from others can help you achieve your goals. These can be family and friends and even random people you know from social networks. The more encouragement you get from others the more success you will have achieving your goals.

Take a moment to identify the fears that hold you back from chasing your goals.

19. Identify your Fears

Take a moment to identify the fears that hold you back from chasing your goals. Once you understand the fears that are keeping you from achieving your dreams, you can face them head on, then they lose their power.

You can be sure Olympians have fears too. They fear injury. They fear failing in the quest to win medals. Above all they fear embarrassing themselves and their country on the national stage.

A great example of facing your fears is Olympian Derek Redmond. For any runner the biggest fear has to be injury and not being able to finish the race they have trained for their entire life. This happened to Redmond, getting hurt in the 400 meter. However, pushing through his injury Redmond kept going, wanting to finish regardless of his injury. Then his father came out, supporting him across the finish line. Even though he lost the race, by facing his fears, he gained fame from one of the most iconic moments in sports history.

Olympians Have A Sense of Urgency

20. Olympians Have A Sense of Urgency

Most people have 70 years to reach their goals. If they get sidetracked or take some time “off” from hunting down goals, it means little in the big picture.

Olympians have to act with a sense of urgency. They have a small window for their opportunities of success, due to the fact that the olympic only happen once a year and due to the fact that age is often such a limiting factor in many olympic events.

Due to this sense of urgency, Olympian act with an intense awareness of their limited opportunity for success. They know the clock is ticking and this lends them an intense focus.

Most of us experience this intense focus when we are rushing for a major event. A massive project due with short time. Scrambling to get things done before vacation or a weekend. 

If we could channel this intense focus and energy when we are under a bit of pressure and make it our normal performance level, we could see a massive boost in productivity.

What we can learn from Olympians here is to set some challenging time limits. When we enforce time limits we gain the sense of urgency and focus that can help us increase productivity

Failure does not always mean the end.  Sometimes it can mean the beginning.

21. Welcome failure on the path to victory

Failure does not always mean the end.  Sometimes it can mean the beginning. Any Olympian who succeeds in winning Gold medal, they had failed to achieve in a past Olympics, invariably point to the previous failure as an important part of their current success.

Failing a goal, should be viewed as an opportunity to access and improve the process and use it as motivation to succeed on the next try. This is what psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset will only view failure as a temporary stop on the path to success

A growth mindset allows us to believe that our intelligence is a fluid entity and we have great control over how intelligent we are and how successful we can be. Those with a growth mindset view failure as a temporary stop on the way to success, in the same way that an Olympic cyclist views missing out on a medal as an opportunity to assess, improve and get that gold medal next time around.

If you learn to welcome failure and keep going, I think there’s nothing which can stop you from achieving your goals. I don’t know anyone who had an absolute smooth run and became successful. Failure is an important part of the entire process. Welcome it. Learn from it.

Learn how to fulfill your potential! Check out Mindset by Carol Dweck

22. Some things matter more than Olympic Gold

Finally, we have to remember that Olympic Gold is not the only important thing in life. Olympic medals can be one of the biggest goals in life for many, but most Olympians will point out that their spouse, children and family are just as important (or more important) than their medals.

The rest of us can learn a lot from the knowledge that their is more to life than your primary goal. It is common for many people to laser focus on specific goals, often things like their career. They may achieve their goals, but their lives may still be miserable because their work-life balance is out of whack.

There are 7 different types of goal setting. Which ones matter the most is a personal thing. We will all have areas that are more important than others, but it is important to draw goals from more than just one or two areas. Good work life balance means that you will have important goals from at least 3-4 different areas. It means spending time with family, as much working at your job. It means spending time focusing on your health and fitness as much as finances.

Here are the 7 Types of Goals:

  1. Career/Professional
  2. Financial
  3. Family/Relationship
  4. Intellectual
  5. Spiritual
  6. Physical/Health
  7. Personal Development

Get good work-life balance. Remember to take some time and focus on the things that REALLY matter.  Your family and loved ones.

Everything about Goal Setting Activities

Clearly from the above 22 examples, you can see that even the “common man” has a lot that they can learn from the goal setting activities of the Olympic athlete. (For more specific examples, check out our post on SMART goals for athletes.)

Goal setting gives you a far greater chance of being able to actually complete your milestones.  Setting goals and reaching them can be a huge challenge. It takes some hard work and dedication, and sticking to your goals for a long period of time. In the end, however, just like the Olympian will feel the time and effort is worthwhile when they stand on the podium getting their gold medals, when you finally reach your audacious goals, it will all seem worthwhile.

If you're a visual person, use a chart to help you keep track of your goals. Here are several goal chart ideas and templates for inspiration.

Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

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It takes a small army of people to help an Olympian reach their goals. Their family taking them to practice for long hours for many years of their lives. Coaches to keep them training and offer constructive criticism.

5 thoughts on “Goal Setting Activities of Olympic Athletes (and what they can teach the rest of us)”

  1. Michael has been beaten in Brazil… once.
    By a guy who looked up to him and used him as a role model!
    What an awesome story! I want to be beaten like that!!!!

    • Yeah, saw that. Had the picture with him and everything. Don’t think Michael even minded that much (since he did pretty darn well anyway). I did write that part of the post the day before he was beaten.. he seemed pretty darn unstoppable at the time. 🙂

  2. Hey Scott, again, a long and insightful article about goal setting.
    Just love it. You are right when you said that nothing is impossible.
    I have seen matches where the athletes did something incredible and have a comeback.
    As long as you do everything with your might, you may have an edge over your competitors.
    And it is true that some things are more than the gold medals.
    It is the journey that makes the medal worthwhile.
    Thanks for this great post.

    • Thanks Shawn.

      Glad you liked it. Personally I love the Olympics. I love how underdogs can sometimes truimph and all the work that goes into reaching the goal. Watching Olympics always gives me a boatload of inspiration

  3. Can’t agree more on the need for visualizing the process rather than the outcome. With that said, so many people are still being duped by traditional self-help ideas such as overly positive self-affirmations and unending willpower, all of which are more or less flawed. To know more about the dangers of positive thinking and how it is stopping you from achieving your goals, check out my website.

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