High performance sport is a complex construct of many individual parts.

Understanding and describing the holistic picture of an athlete’s performance requires: science, intuition and experience.

Only when we optimize each of those elements and assemble them harmoniously can we create an output that will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Preparing high performance athletes and coaches for championship events requires clear objectives and targets. If they are relevant, attainable, specific and timely, success becomes predictable and athletes/teams and coaches commit and collaborate.

Setting objectives and targets for athletes is the process of establishing an outcome that will serve the athlete’s actions.

In high performance environments and professional structures, objectives are relevant in a short-term, mid-term and long-term context. It ranges from daily objectives to multiple-yearly objectives that can extend up to four or even eight years.

Here are some of the benefits that I have observed and successfully applied in the last 30 years working in the field of human performance on the highest levels in pro sport.

1. Setting clear targets

The ability to set clear objectives and targets increases persistence and self-efficacy. In other words, clear objectives create confidence in athletes’ and the coaches’ ability to succeed in specific situations and to successfully accomplish a task. Being explicit with clear targets creates a tremendous level of clarity, which makes individuals less vulnerable to the effects of anxiety, disappointment and frustration.

A detailed and specific objective is also easier to evaluate and to monitor progress. I would like to emphasize at this point the importance of internal and external validation in equine sport. Athletes who receive external validation from their coaches have the ability to connect their internal validation to a more objective self-reflection of their current performance levels. Coaches who receive the athletes’ internal validation gain important data about emotional response, balance and tension from the rider and the horse.

Studies show that students who received a detailed objective or target versus a more general target show a higher self-efficacy. Many athletes have stated a higher level of clarity and certainty.

In summary, detailed objectives lead to higher level accomplishments.

2. The value of validation

Every athlete with ambitious goals and a strategy for how to achieve targets, sub-targets and breakthroughs requires a core group to help accomplish their objectives. The core group consists of individuals that have a high importance in the athlete’s success. Most likely, a core group consists of three to five individuals—some of which may not be related to the sport directly but have traits and experiences that have high relevance to the athlete’s career.

This core group builds a culture of value for the athlete with a high level of integrity and trust. As a team, they monitor and validate results, analyze performances and determine next career steps all relevant for the athlete. These conversations are openly discussed and are free from repercussions and fear of punishment. This creates an environment of marginal gains where athletes’ work constantly on improving situations and results. Results are being validated internally and externally and they create the next stepping stone in the athlete’s development and growth. The core group measures strength and weaknesses of the athletes and is result-oriented.

In summary, the athlete requires honest feedback from the core team to reach targets and set new ones that are higher, helping the athlete to reach his/hers individual and innate potential.

©Hippo Foto – Dirk Caremans

3. Meeting targets 

If the objectives are too difficult to attain compared to their value, athletes most likely give up on their goals. Athletes are highly motivated when their objectives will produce a positive outcome AND when they value these outcomes.

To achieve a higher level of performance we must understand the athlete’s individual threshold for new stimuli. We will not gain the expected outcome when the stimulus is below the threshold. Coaches have to understand the differences between a sufficient stimuli and insufficient stimuli and individualize their training, sometimes on a daily basis.

However, meeting objectives and targets requires a profound understanding of the athlete’s and team’s key performance indicators as well as analysis of inside and outside challenges that can influence performances negatively.

When athletes prepare for a championship event, they have to know how to adapt quickly to the unknown and at the same time apply AimUP principles. AimUP prepares the athletes for a higher target. Using the AimUP method, the athletes and coaches understand and consider the deviation caused by external factors and sometimes internal factors and still bring the athlete and the team to the desired target. If this method is not used, the athlete will often end up underperforming.

In summary, it is an art to determine threshold status-quo levels and it requires intensive knowledge and communication loops between the athlete and coaches.

©FEI/Richard Juilliart

4. Will it matter to me? 

If objectives have a high level of importance and relevance, if it matters to the athlete and targets are perceived meaningful and valuable to the athlete and coaches, we will find a high level of engagement and goal attainment. Relevance will create meaningful conversations between all stakeholders. Athletes attribute their commitment and reasons to pursue their targets to relevance and value—because it matters to them!

The importance has to correlate to the athlete’s and team’s context. If it lies outside of the athlete’s context, it will lose its efficiency and potency.

Once the value is communicated it can be internalized.

It is highly valuable to create a cohesive individual and team environment. Open, honest and a high level of accountability are precursors to demonstrate a unified target and its relevance to the overall success and achievement.

In my experience, and I share those with top performers in professional sport and on an executive level, there are three levels of “target setting” that look marginally different on first sight but can cause underperformance and disappointment for reasons most athletes may not expect. On the contrary, when correctly applied, the athlete will outperform his/hers expectations.

The three target setting levels are:

  • unspecific targeting (vague intentions)
  • specific verbal targeting and
  • written targets

The highest level of success and achievement results when clearly written targets are being formulated.

5. Time frames

Long-term objectives are important to see all parts within a specific and defined context. The long-term objectives can be as long as eight years (or more) and must be broken down in annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly and, when closer to a championship event, daily segments. This ultimately leads to a strategic briefing and de-briefing process that has phenomenal results on the athlete’s confidence levels.

A discontinuation in these specific time frames will ultimately result in lack of focus, lack of purpose and loss of morale.

I would like to emphasize at this point a structured process that I’ve developed and used with many Olympians in the past, called “BackwardPreparation”—a four-week procedure for optimization and readiness levels for athletes.

In essence, timely objectives increase the athlete’s likelihood of achieving the set targets.


Schunk, 1990 Educational Psychologist, 25, 71-86: Goal setting and self-efficacy during self-regulated learning

About the Author

Dirk Stroda coaches Canada’s dressage, eventing, and para-dressage teams as well as several of the top show jumpers in North America. His perspective as a former competitor, successful entrepreneur, physiotherapist, and mental coach uniquely qualifies him to understand the physical and non-physical (mental) aspects that go into a championship performance. Learn more at dirkstroda.com.