Why S.M.A.R.T Goals Are Not That Smart

Iain Highfield
  • Author: Iain Highfield
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Mountain with goal flags


While I do agree that goals should be specific, I would ask specific in what ways?

Quantifying specific outcomes can often lead to stress and decreases motivation, as the athlete is attempting to achieve something that is outside of their control. This often means good performances can be viewed as failures. An example of this would be setting a personal best in competition but a second-place finish.

I would suggest being less specific in quantifying outcomes and more specific in the emotional connection with your goal through visualizing what it will feel like and how it will look and sound when you are successful (success does not have to be result based.) Putting your focus on specific images is proven to increase motivation and your resilience to push on through any potential disappointment.


What do you measure a goal in? Centimeters? Lbs? Gallons? Or, is it a simple pass if you achieve your goal and a fail if you don’t?

I don’t think that any of the above are effective ways of measuring a goal; I truly believe the only metric we should apply to measuring the level of success is effort.


If I set a goal that is attainable, would it not simply be a task?

Goals should be unattainable and push a student’s learning sweet spot. The learning sweet spot is the optimal challenge point, and would mean the athlete is setting a goal just beyond their current level of ability. If the goal is too easy, it leads to effortless success. If the goal is to hard, it leads to demotivation. Both scenarios lead to zero learning.

Make your goals unattainable, but only in the short term. Put in the effort. Be resilient, and your immediate failings will aid the learning process. Eventually, the goal will be attained. Once this happens, the athlete and coach should repeat this process and push the learning sweet spot again.

Over time, if this process is invested in effectively, the accumulation of those short term unattainable goals will add up to the ridiculously unattainable goal that the smart among us would never set.

Soccer goal posts


Was it realistic for Michael Jordan to become the best basketball player the world has ever seen, when at one point he failed to get selected for his high school team? Was it realistic for Dennis Rodman to believe he could join Jordan and become a Chicago Bulls legend, when at 18 years old he was an airport janitor?  Finally, was it realistic for Muggsy Bogues - at 5’3 - to think he would play in the NBA at the same time as Jordan and Rodman, going on to become the Hornets' career leader in minutes played (19,768,) assists (5,557,) steals (1,067) and turnovers (1,118)?

It appears to me that the world is filled with great people who were unrealistic. So, I would suggest the “smart” thing to do would be to model them.


The average age of a major winner in golf is 32. After 6 years on the Ben Hogan Tour, Tom Lehman was 32 when he secured his PGA tour status. At 36, he became the PGA tour player of the year. Tom Lehman’s career would, therefore, suggest that placing a time frame on golfing goals is perhaps not a good idea. Simply giving it your all for as long as you can is more likely to lead to success than applying the restrictions of time.