Olympic Athletes Share Goal-Setting Secrets

The following is a guest post by Janet Stanton Burt from SEI Goal Investor.

The elite athletes gathering at the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro this August are experts in goal-setting and motivation. Could their mental strategies help you manage your money more effectively?

As competitors from around the world gather in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, we investigated the strategies these elite athletes use to stay motivated to achieve their goals. Could their mental techniques help the average Joe manage his money more effectively?

We uncovered five Olympic-level mind hacks that can help you to manage your money more effectively – without breaking a sweat.

Have a Long-Range Goal

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the fastest man ever recorded, is a big believer in goals. “If you want to be the best, or you want to strive for more, you’ve got to set goals in life,” he told ITV News. “I try to set the highest standard that I can for myself, that’s what keeps me going.”

It’s not difficult to come up with a long-range target number when you’re aiming to invest for retirement or any other far-off financial goal. Goal Investor has sophisticated planning guides that quickly calculate customized savings goals for retirement, your child’s college education or building an emergency fund.

Break Your Long-Range Goal Into Smaller Chunks

Once you’ve got your long-range goal in place, take a tip from American gymnast and seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller, who said that focusing on short-range goals kept her motivated to reach her long-range dream of competing at the Olympics.

“It’s great to have that ultimate goal,” she said, “but regardless of what that long-term goal is, you have to set those short-term goals. Think about what you can do each and every day to make that long-range goal happen.”


USA Swimming used the same technique by having its athletes focus on a series of “small wins” in training rather than on the larger goal of winning an Olympic medal. Studies show breaking big goals down into smaller, more quickly achievable increments provides a feeling of accomplishment that keeps you motivated.

So how does that relate to your financial goals? Let’s say you’re trying to build an emergency fund. If the thought of saving six month’s living expenses sounds like the financial equivalent of running a marathon, break it down into smaller, achievable increments — say, $500.

Track your progress on a regular basis, and each time you hit an interim goal, focus on the positive progress you’ve made rather than how far you have to go. Even if your investments grow in small steps, that sense of steady forward movement can give you the confidence to keep working.

Keep Your Goals Top of Mind Through Images and Words

Writing down interim goals and posting them in a prominent place helped Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Sr. maintain focus.

When I was 16 years old, training for my first Olympic games, my coach wrote all of my goal times down on the top of the kickboard I was using every day in practice,” Hall recalled in The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afremow. “I couldn’t escape them, but the result, after executing the plan, was that I made the Olympic team.”

Do you dream of moving to Costa Rica in retirement? Make your screen saver a picture of the villa where you imagine you’ll live. Trying to build your child’s college fund? Display a picture on your fridge of your baby wearing a Harvard onesie. You get the idea.

Give Yourself Positive “Self-Talk”

A positive outlook can also improve your motivation to stick with your goal. “Champions rehearse success on a daily basis — mentally, physically and emotionally,” said Bob Bowman, coach of Olympic swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps, in a speech for Chicago Ideas week.

A study backed up Bowman’s conviction, showing that positive self-talk improved performance in athletes.

When faced with a financial goal that seems especially challenging, creating a realistic investment plan and sticking to it can help you push back against those negative voices in your head that say your goal isn’t possible.

Consciously maintaining a positive frame of mind could boost your confidence and give you the patience to stick with your financial plan during periods of market volatility.

Remember Your Purpose

Elite athletes are motivated by their desire to win — that’s the purpose that helps them endure the grind of long hours of training. Mark Allen, six-time Ironman triathlon champion turned motivational speaker, says reminding himself about why he was working toward his goal gave him the grit to stick with a training program that wasn’t always pleasant.

“Often we do what is comfortable,” Allen said, “but the work our goals require from us can be very different.” If you start to lose focus, Allen advised, “step back and say, ‘What is it about this endeavor that has importance to me?’ We can use that vision to carry us past moments when other people may quit.”

You can use the same technique to make money management decisions. If you’re trying to decide, for example, whether you should bump up the contributions to your 401(k) or bump up your spending to improve your current lifestyle, take a minute to visualize your future self and picture your ideal retirement.

Chances are, reminding yourself why you’re squirreling away money for the future instead of spending it now will help you stick with your investing goals.

Train for Success


Whether you’re a dedicated jock, a weekend warrior or surfing the web is the closest you come to exercise, you can benefit by thinking of investing toward specific goals like athletic training. Practicing these mental strategies regularly as you work toward your financial goals could increase your chances for success.

This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide investment or legal advice. SEI does not claim responsibility for the accuracy or reliability of the information provided. 

Post Notes:

Mark Allen, Gold Star Speakers Series Speech

Psychological Science, Positive Self Talk Study

Swim Swam, Bob Bowman Speech

Bakadesuyo, USA swimming Small Wins 

Bakadesuyo, Seeing Progress Motivates Us Study 

Shannon Miller, Goal Setting Strategies 

Huffington Post, Gary Hall Sr.

ITV, Usain Bolt Interview 

Blogger-in-Chief here at RetirementSavvy and author of Sin City Greed, Cream City Hustle and RENDEZVOUS WITH RETIREMENT: A Guide to Getting Fiscally Fit.


  1. Great post! You have to be really dedicated and almost believe in miracles to succeed as an Olympic-level athlete. I do set goals each quarter and year and follow up on them. It helps!

    • Absolutely. I like to set near-, mid-, and long-term goals and every day I try to ensure that I’m spending my energy on meeting those goals and not on things that don’t contribute to their attainment, and certainly not on activities that are detrimental.

      Thanks for stopping by, my friend and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Love this post and can’t wait for the Olympics! I think the act of writing your goals (and posting them) is incredibly important. It seems like much deeper thinking and I believe you are more committed to written goals that you use to reflect on and monitor your behavior. Olympic athletes are a great example. I coached swimming with Ryan Lochte’s mom when he was little – he is an amazing example of setting your mind to something!

    • “I coached swimming with Ryan Lochte’s mom when he was little. …” Good stuff. Interesting! Absolutely agree that a significant factor in achieving your goals is to write them down; it isn’t enough to think or even say them.

      Thanks for stopping by, my friend and sharing your thoughts.

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