How to Use Goal-setting and Visualization to Optimize Your Performance

Every day, life throws a whole range of challenges our way, whether it’s racing in a marathon, competing in your first triathlon, public speaking, or a stressful situation at work.

I want to share with you my secret to overcoming mental barriers and optimizing your performance. It’s one of my secret weapons: I pull this one out of the armory every single day.

The great news is that you can apply this to any aspect of your business or life. It applies to everything you do. If you read this, it will help you optimize your life - the mental, the physical, and the emotional.

Before I get stuck into how you can add this secret weapon to your own arsenal, let’s quickly take a look at some neuroscience. Then we’ll get straight into my techniques for setting goals.

The neuroscience of performance

The idea that our minds can interfere with and limit our performance is central to sports psychology. Finding the best mental zone when under pressure – whether that be training or racing – requires removing mental distractions.

The neuroscience behind this principle is that each neuron has a limited capacity for electronic signals, just like a processor in a computer. This means the brain can be flooded by internally-generated, unhelpful signals, making it much harder to process external information.

When we study the world’s most successful athletes and people. They all have three things in common. They focus on:

  • Goal setting
  • Visualization
  • Achieving “the zone” – the optimal state of mind for peak performance. This will be in a future blog post. Subscribe here if you want it to come directly to your email.

Let’s start on the core of optimizing your performance with goal-setting.

Does goal-setting work?

There is significant research that shows why and how goal-setting works. To put it simply, setting goals directs our attention. Goals motivate you. Properly structured long-term goal-setting allows you to monitor and evaluate your performance over a longer period, which helps you acknowledge the wins you have along the way. 

Someone without goals will likely lack direction, purpose, and adequate assessment criteria, which hinders their chances of optimizing their life.

Let’s look at some research from Lars-Eric Unestahl, who sets out steps for us to consider when goal-setting.

Goal awareness

It’s important to consider your former goals – both the ones you have achieved as well as the goals you haven’t been able to. Being aware of your goals, successes, and challenges helps to build better goal-setting skills and establishes a historical framework for developing more realistic goals.

Goal inventory

For an athlete, it’s important to establish a list of possible goals in consultation with coaches. This list should include all types of goals, including those with a low probability of attainment. This step is important to define the range of possible goals.

Goal analysis

The goal inventory should be evaluated with each goal being assessed for its appropriateness and possibility. A hierarchy of possible goals should be established for each classification.

Goal selection

Next, it’s important to evaluate the hierarchies of your possible goals and select them. When selecting your goals, consider the following criteria:

  • Make it as difficult as possible but still reachable (erring on the side of being too difficult rather than too easy)
  • Goals should be agreed upon by you and your coach
  • Establish priorities when more than one goal exists
  • Aim at improving performance, not merely maintaining it or causing it to regress
  • Goals must be related to performance, not vague entities such as pride or aggressiveness
  • Most importantly, all goals must be measurable

Goal formulation

Once your goals are selected, they should be formulated and analyzed according to the following characteristics:

  • Contain only individual self-control items
  • Be expressed positively (no negative or avoidance wordings)
  • Be appropriate for you, the athlete (not restricted to what the coach wants)
  • Have optimal probability (you should be able to justify why each goal can be achieved)
  • Have maximum believability (no doubts, all factors are controllable)
  • Be measurable and observable

Goal Setting

For many years I have used the S.M.A.R.T method as a way of setting goals. Another method I have borrowed from Dr. Jeff Brown is the following:

G: Can I feel my goal in my gut?

O: Is my goal objective and measurable?

A: Is my goal challenging yet achievable?

L: Will my goal help me learn about my performance capabilities?

Andre’s Tip: I work with many clients on achieving their long-term goals. I call this their “Compelling Vision” – a goal that could be anything from 36-60 months away, or their big prize. However, we do need to ensure continued motivation by setting mid-term, smaller performance goals. These sub-goals help us see our progress, help us feel less anxious, and allow ourselves to take some credit when we hit these goals. Importantly, they also allow us to slightly adjust the plan as needed as we move forward.

So what’s the next piece of the puzzle?


Research in sport psychology and other fields has verified that imaging and experiencing detail can dramatically affect performance. This principle is used to prepare Olympic athletes, racing car drivers, pilots, and many other athletes.

The science behind visualization shows that the pathways in the brain we use to undertake an activity (such as driving or swimming) are the same pathways used when we merely picture this activity. In both instances, we use our visual cortex. The part of the brain that sees is activated when we do the task – and when we visualize it.

Because the use of any circuitry in our brains strengthens that circuit, rehearsing a performance in our imaginations can prepare mental circuits in ways similar to enhancing a real performance. However, there are three things we need to think about when we practice visualization:

  • It must be correct.
  • It must be precise.
  • It must be repeated.

Let’s look at this in more detail.


What you visualize must be 100% correct. Otherwise, the visualization will only reinforce the incorrect technical behavior.

Andre’s Tip: Record your swimming, running, or riding when you are using excellent form and watch it over and over again as a reference for the quality of your form. Find a video of perfect form for your chosen activity. I watch swimming videos every day to focus on extending the arm and getting the correct body position.


The more vivid and detailed the visualization, the more connections are created in the brain. Precise visualization has become a standard tool in training Olympic athletes.

Andre’s Tip: I sit at the pool before and after laps and visualize what I’m about to do or what I’ve just done. I bring in all the senses, especially the smell of the pool and sounds of the water. When we develop a mindset of perfect form and mantras for swimming of “extend the body, rod through the spine, when breathing one eye underwater,” we really can optimize our performance.


Visualization is more effective when it is done in short segments over time. It is more effective to practice visualization – whether related to a great game or delivering a great speech – for three minutes several times every day rather than for 20 minutes in one day.

Andre’s Tip: As I head off to bed, I sit quietly and spend 10 minutes “playing the movie” of my training or race the next day. I focus on the movie of the long-term goal, but then also my running form or swimming form. I do this several times a day. Whenever you have some time, instead of spending it on social media, or when you’re on the train, get off your phone and spend some time at “the movies”.

I challenge you: If over 30 days, you practice visualization and imagine yourself experiencing something new or affirming an additional, recent belief like “I am an athlete” or “I am a great public speaker,” slowly but surely, you are creating a new mindset. In the end, it’s about where you put your thoughts and energy that allows you to change and perform.

During this visualization process, the brain is being trained for actual performance. It’s been found that mental practices can enhance motivation, increase confidence and improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow. More about flow in the next article!

However, visualizing is more than just thinking about an upcoming event. When athletes use visualization, they truly feel the event that is taking place. In their mind’s eye, they experience all of the elements of their race in explicit detail before executing their performance.

Controlling our thoughts

Our brains are central to everything we do, and the more we understand how our brains work and their impact on our ability to perform complex activities, the more likely it is that we will make choices to focus on controlling where our thoughts wander.

Pre-performance strategies

Rituals or mantras help establish an optimal mindset and help us engage in flow. For me, a key ritual is laying my gear out the evening before an event, next to my bed on a chair, looking at it before I go to bed, and starting to visualize my short-term and longer-term goals.

Likewise, having my legs waxed a week before a race is also a habit and ritual – some may think it’s a bit strange, but for me, this ritual is about taking on the mindset of an athlete. Rituals – no matter what they are – help to quiet the mind and focus on the task at hand.

Practical example of sports performance

Through repetition of a transition from swim to bike in a triathlon – practicing removing your wetsuit in a structured, planned, and disciplined process – you don’t even have to think about it. It just happens. 

We can make these actions happen by accessing our subconscious mind, where we are not using the limited resources of our conscious mind or our cerebral cortex (our decision-making/executive part of our brain). The ability to keep unwanted thoughts away and remain focused on the task at hand is critical.

As an example: when you are standing at the start of a 1.9 km swim, you need to focus on the best way to start, remembering the way you want to get into the water and break away from the crowd. 

These thoughts are resourceful. Letting your mind wander to the stage of the race where you are getting off the bike after 90 km and worrying about the transition to running the 21.2 km is not helpful. You need to simply focus on what you are doing then and there at that moment and quiet your brain. The ability to prevent unresourceful distractions is a key pillar in peak performance.

A real-life example

Laura Wilkinson was an Olympic diver. Several months prior to the 2000 Summer Olympics, Wilkinson suffered a serious foot injury that kept her out of action for a couple of months. 

During this time, she used mental images to visualize her dives. I understand she would sit on the 10m diving tower for hours, mentally preparing for her Olympic event. She would visualize her routines for hours every day. Her foot was not fully recovered by the time she started diving again, but she was able to qualify for the Olympics.

At the 2000 Summer Olympics, Wilkinson, who was still in pain from her foot injury, was in eighth place after the first of five dives in the platform diving finals. Remarkably, she earned the first gold medal for a female American platform diver since 1964. This is the power of the brain.

So what’s the moral of this goal-setting and visualization story?

  1. Learning about how the brain works and having respect for the brain and its complex structure and process can support us in reaching optimized performance.
  2. Operating in the optimal state of mind requires us to quieten our brains so we can focus on the moment.
  3. Goal-setting and visualization are two of the key elements of optimizing your performance.

Even though I have been practicing this for several years, it’s always something I continue to work on and love coaching my clients on. If you would like to know more, you can request more information about my introduction sessions for goal-setting coaching with dynamic powerful visualization of the future here.

About the Author

Andre Obradovic

Andre Obradovic is an ICF Leadership PPC Level Coach, A Primal Health Coach, a Certified Low Carb Healthy Fat Coach, & a Certified Personal Trainer. Andre is also a Founding member of the Dr. Phil Maffetone MAF certified Coach. He is an Ambassador for the Noakes Foundation, and a regular subject matter expert lecturer for the Nutrition Network (a part of the Noakes Foundation) Andre has completed 16 x 70.3 Ironmans and in 2017 he competed in the 70.3 Ironman World Championships. He has completed 18 Marathons and over 30 Half Marathons. Andre currently focuses his athletic competition on Track and Field with the occasional Marathon.

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