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Posted in: Coaching Top Tips

Is the S.M.A.R.T. format in need of updating?

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  • Ralph

    S = Specific

    I’ve said before in another post; ‘we categories things in order to understand them.’

    There a problem, it’s called reductionist theory. We break stuff down into small manageable pieces so we can analyse it, see how it works. Sounds like a good idea?

    S.M.A.R.T. contradicts another coaching idea; ‘whole-part-whole’. Where the whole point of sport is the game itself and all its complexities. ‘Show-pony’, is one of many examples where an athlete has ticked one part of the game but none of the others. ‘All the gear and no idea’ is another. Loads of research shows, if we as coaches keep telling an athlete how talented they are, they make the logical assumption; ‘I don’t have to train, I’m talented’; even if we add that ‘talent is not enough’ they will focus on the good bit as it stroked their ego.

    Perhaps a better word is ‘potential’; we know those that have ‘early on-set’ talent have an increase in ‘potential’; the probability of them being successful has increased, due to this early onset. Essentially, a bit of genetic luck. But not a guarantee; DNA isn’t destiny. You may be aware the Singaporean Gov. funded newly retired athlete’s child care cost to encourage them to have lots of children. The rational was, they would produce athlete offspring, but human DNA is far more complex than this. The Singapore national University study found the money would have yielded more success if they put it to the already competing athletes and the coaches.

    Reductionist theory states, as soon as you break something down enough, you lose its true meaning. Understanding the specific bits gives you a false sense of wisdom, as it doesn’t make connections with the whole but it separates it from the whole.


    M = Measurable

    We measure stuff in order to control it, to make it consistent and to predict stuff.

    There’s a problem, it’s called Entropy theory (from order to disorder). Try writing your signature 10 times, something you should be able to do, surely? Now try doing it 10 times each on top of each other. Banks know this problem, when the ask you to do a signature for your current account, they know over time, the signature now is significantly different from the one you originally signed all those years ago. An advantage Daniel Abagnale took advantage of in the film; Catch me, if you can.

    The problem with measuring stuff is it also means, we know who and what to blame, it’s a get out clause, when thing go wrong.

    Lowest common denominator: a certain high street coffee drinks company, let’s call them Barstucks, train their barista’s to make a certain cup, in a certain way, a minimum standard of acceptability, as long as you can meet the required minimum standard you get the job.

    “The Chinese philosopher Han Fei Zi (c280-233 BCE) had a deep influence on the development of Chinese bureaucracy, because he proposed that decision-making be taken out of the hands of individuals (with their unreliable intuitions and methods) and placed within a set of rules (simple, impartial and inflexible).

    Yet life is intrinsically changing, moving, disappointing and positively surprising. Meeting life with unbending expectations is a recipe for disaster. Those who expect the world to conform to their preset calculations and predictions are destined to be frustrated. They are uncomfortable with spontaneity, and rail against deviations.

    Below is the best sports related talk:- Yves Morieux: How too many rules at work keep you from getting things done


    A = Attainable

    The idea behind this is, success breeds success.

    There’s a problem, it’s called Chaos theory; when it’s just random, coincidental, perfect storm, chaos events that were going to happen, no matter what we did and were completely unpredictable. Also known as ‘Uncertainty Principle’. Life offers no guarantees, no matter how manufactured we make thing attainable.

    You may see, it’s not the fall the defines us, it’s how we get up. The only mistake is not learning the lesson; or Nelson Mandela quoted, “mistakes were meant to be a lesson, not a prison sentence.” We don’t develop ‘grit’ if we only use attainable goals; illustrated by the analogy of the Orchid and the Dandelion.

    Cambridge Uni Behaviour and Brain Science lab Professor Robert Kurzban showed; Gritty people have a strong appreciation of the connection between hard work and reward. It’s called the 80/20 rule, 80% hard work to 20% reward, which equates to 10% that requires no effort, 80% attainable with graded effort and 10% just out of reach and unattainable. Also known as ‘the almost winner’. There’s always more to achieve and always a point at which one fails, no such thing as perfection.

    Parents have ushered in an anti-failure age of supposed solutions and artificially force self-esteem—from participation awards and meaningless gold stars to showering children with praise, regardless of what they’d done. Entire cottage industries popped up selling superficial solutions to boost people’s confidence in 20 minutes or less by repeating positive affirmations to themselves. If we only do what is successful, might as well limit yourself to being Barstucks Barista.

    “There is no proof that high self-esteem improved academic achievement, job success, or health outcomes. What the self-esteem movement showed is that it’s not enough to simply be told you’re special.” Prof. Roy F. Baumeister Florida Uni

    As research from Angela Duckworth (author of Grit) suggests, “struggling builds character. Failure breeds wisdom and maturity. We need to fail and experience discomfort, and over time, build a track record of demonstrated success. Let’s learn to view confidence not as a personality trait but as an acquired skill—one that’s available to all of us, if we’re willing to put in the work.”


    R = Realistic

    This really is the same as attainable, so I’m not sure why it gets its own letter, I suppose who ever came up with this Mnemonic was trying to be smart.

    If there is a difference, there’s a problem…  where do dreams, hopes, desire etc sit? In fact being realistic can kill creativity. As I suspect does the whole of the SMART model; it’s very robotic and mathematical. As one of my mentors says; ‘be more human and less robot.’

    Being realistic can kill confidence, only do what you know you can do. But the truth is that confidence isn’t an innate trait; it’s a quality gained through experience. So we should take risks in order to build confidence—not the other way around.

    nd less robot.’

    Watch Ken Robinson, Do schools kill creativity; the most viewed TED talk in history.


    T = Time bound

    I can’t tell you how complex this one is, except it’s more complex than the other four put together (if you’re interested, google ‘Special Relativity’). It’s been overly simplified into goal setting dead-lines. Things have to be achieved within a time limit.

    The main way we mess this one up is ‘short term gain’. Roger Federer put it really well recently when he said; ‘I’m going to have to play less to win more.’ We get to a certain age, where quality is far more important than quantity. And yet we think it ok to drill our juniors being robots. We coaches were taught the wrong way around; practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect and there’s no such thing as perfect. The way around this problem is quality. Set the bar high, too high, just out of reach. See-able but not touchable. The most valuable thing we have is time.

    TED talk; Matthew O’Reily, Am I dyeing? An honest answer.

  • IanMahoney

    A= Agreed      between athlete and coach. The SMART goals lead onto one another. I er on the caution for updating the list.

    Since 1973 when they started into the science into training Competing the principles were set and haven't changed in 45 years.

    That is why a training dairy is invaluable. If you hit s plateau you cam look back and recreate sessions you did when you was improving 

  • grumpystu

    In Masters sport the 'T' has may connotations. In swimming, for example, it is expected that with the so-called aging process that our Times will become slower but there are very few that could not improve by emphasising Training on Technique; thereby providing Targets to Transcend the norm.

  • Neale.Brown

    I only use SMART or SMARTER as the initial action plan, before this I use a SWOT analysis for students to reflect on what they actually have to improve. For more reflection during and after the activity we use STARE analysis or a skills wheel. I think like everything else its what works for you and your students

  • BarbAugustin

    Thank you! I had thought I was the only person who dislikes "SMART" goals!

    One example:

    I used to be a snow skiing instructor. I hurt my knee and that put an end to my skiing. I tried setting goals around rehabilitation and recovery but no amount of goal setting can make the sun set in the East!

    Further, some things, e.g. relationship building, does not suit this format - how do you measure a relationship? I know there are some ways of doing this, but I don't really want to be getting my athletes to fill in a form every 6 months to score our relationship.

    Instead, I like my runners to:

    * have big dreams (which they can share with me, or not).

    * have goal time they want to reach this season. During training it will become apparent whether this goal time is achievable in the short-term

    * understand that they need to work to achieve their season goal (and their big dream).

    I have tried getting athletes to write down their goals at the start of the season, but very few of them do.

    I believe, the younger the athlete the less important structured goal setting is. If an athlete was in serious contention for an Olympic appearance, we would need to talk more, but getting them to fill in a pro-forma S.M.A.R.T. worksheet is just a bureaucratic "tick and flick" exercise. A deeper understanding and commitment is needed.


  • Ralph

    wow! amazingly put Barb,

    we should write a paper together or rather you summed up SMART far better than i did.

    i suspect you are a breath taking coach, must be the altitude

  • BarbAugustin


  • IainC

    Interesting article, but the SMART system is only one of a number of ways to encourage athletes to quantify what they want to achieve and when they want to complete it. I would be interested to know what tool set people use if they dislike the SMART system

  • Ralph

    Hi Iain,

    thanks for your input

    I'd go with Barb's comment above.

    for me, a tool makes you a tool.

    you may have heard of the maxim; "if you only have a hammer, you see everything as a nail"?

    smart is a paradox, in that intelligent coaches don't need it, 

    except possibly for the human who's brain works that way, and imo

    those that work that way are never successful at competing at sport

    but as it's a mathematical tool, can be useful for a coach

  • Golfista60

    I never liked the SMART system. I prefer to simply help every student to improve. Practice to improve. Coach to impart knowledge and understanding of the task at hand.  We are not all trying to deliver the next World champion. For me it’s a case of making the game of golf enjoyable to everyone that attends my coaching sessions. Everyone is different and develop at different rates. The time factor is counterproductive as it can add negative pressure on students if implemented.  I aim to make everyone competent enough to participate regularly. When a talented individual comes along they can be given different challenges to improve and develop them further.  I am a volunteer Coach Level 2.  Coaching is a passion and not my livelihood.  I work for a living doing something completely different.  Sometimes I read coaching material and think there are too many coaches spending too much time thinking and talking about coaching rather than doing coaching itself.  I think analysis overload is a dangerous road.  Some professional golfers have fallen foul of over analysis. Over thinking can cause tension which as we all know is counterproductive to a free flowing movement like a golf swing. Is this a coaching error?  SMART maybe not so. 

  • Ralph

    Thanks for replying Willi,

    My mentor, who’s job it is to work with the next world champion, always sates to parents “that producing the next world champion is child abuse, it sells them a dream and fantasy, based on very little probability, he tells them to buy a lottery ticket if that’s their only goal.”

    I’ve worked with 10 Golf pro’s, they all have the same view as you.

    Paralysis by analysis.

    “rather than waste time debating what is a good man, just spend time being a good man” Marcus Aurelius

  • IanMahoney

    Any coach who says their job is to work with the next world Champion should be shot and feed to the Lions. not everybody can be fastest, strongest, Highest and the coaches job is to inspire via knowledge to make an athlete the best they can be, Some bodies personal worst can be another PB, SMART provides an insight what the athlete wants, so (anyone who been on a coaching workshop knows) we can have an athlete centred training schedule.

  • bencross

    What needs to be SMART is the coaches approach to coaching, talent and ability is a start for an athlete but it doesn't do the work required to be successful if that's what the athlete wants. Coaching should be specific to the individual you coach, in terms of individual sports and team sports you need to learn to adjust your style from player to player and even in a collective group. Have coaching principles in place for your specific sport gives athletes a better understanding of what's required I believe for a specific task, coupling that with the opportunity for your athletes to fail many times in training and in performances/games to build knowledge and resilience to eventually surpass their previous capabilities this then becomes confidence building for them. I'm a high performance rugby league coach and we need to train our players specifically for different aspects of the game to learn a set of skill sets, passing catching, tackling, etc then I try to incorporate those skills into small sided games for them to gain confidence in their learned skill. 

  • Ralph

    well said Ben, but i want to pick you up on the word Fail.

  • bencross

    I understand your concern with the word, Fail. Fail In the attempt to achieve something to learn from it and surpass it one day, I like the term Not Yet, I can't do it Yet, I don't know it Yet 

  • Neale.Brown

    SMART is a tool that's used when necessary and I totally agree each student needs to be coached to meet their needs. Some students may not need SMART but some do its up to us to find the right way to get the best results for our students

  • Ralph

    thanks Neil

    how do you assess who needs SMART?

  • Neale.Brown

    Hello Ralph 

    It all depends on the conversation with the individual concerned, also knowing how that individual ticks helps, age is a factor. and what outcomes the individual sees or thinks they want to achieve, this sometimes needs to be clarified and focused. Its an individual thing 

  • dancottrell1

    Just been talking about this, so loved what you said Barb.

    I've stopped "agreeing" goals or even stating objectives.

    I'm interested in what people feel. Last night I was involved in a great discussion in one of Stu Armstrong's Conclaves, and the group built up some lovely and rich ways to outline behaviours (i learned so much from them).

    My current feeling is that if you are feeling right, then everything else will flow. That "right" might be competitive if you are aspirational, or friendship if your implicit goal is participation. 

    I do find that SMART works well in certain business contexts, framing workloads. For example, 1500 words and illustrations by next Tuesday! That's specific, measurable, agreed (or I lose my job!), realistic and time specific.

    I'm sure that you could use that in sporting contexts for more practical outcomes, like training loads?

    But for inspiration and growth? Perhaps a new acronym?


    Behaviour, Energisers, Supporters, Tingles

    Needs work!

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