Process Goals and Two Weeks of Fishing

This article by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole is about the beauty of having an unwavering commitment to the process (effort) regardless of the outcome (results).

Father and Son fishing – Family Time Together. Happy father and son fishing in river holding fishing rods

What Are Process Goals?

The best examples of real Mental Toughness happen well away from the spotlight. But we rarely hear about them. Even as sport psychologists and performance psychologists the bulk of the time we spend with our clients is focussed on their potential mental improvements not so much on their past achievements.

At a recent social event, I was part of a conversation that contained one of the best examples of Mental Toughness I can remember in a long time. And I will use this anecdote as a way of explaining what might be the most important ingredient of performance success ever discovered.

The father of a five-year-old boy told of his son’s sudden interest in fishing. So the father decided it would be a great idea to take the young lad fishing. This, despite neither of them knowing anything about the sport. After buying some basic equipment and getting some tips from the guy in the tackle shop the plan was to head out the very next day to see what they could catch.

So the father and the son woke before dawn and headed out all excited. All-day they fished, improving their casting technique and enjoying each other’s company as the hours ticked by. But no fish were caught that first day. So they decided to try again the following day. But once again they didn’t pull a single fish from the water.

This Continued For 14 Days Straight

Each day they’d wake before the sun came up and tried their best to catch fish. And at the end of every single one of these 14 days they came home empty-handed. Well empty-handed from a number of fish point of you.

When the father finished telling the story the obvious question had to be asked.

How did you maintain your enthusiasm/motivation day after day despite catching no fish?

The father thought about this for a while. After some careful reflection, he replied. His son seemed to be almost entirely motivated by the actual process of fishing. In other words, sitting on a riverbank holding a fishing rod with his old man. He quite literally was not doing it to take home a whole of dead fish. Any potential outcomes to this magical process would be considered is a bonus or just an occurrence. This young five-year-old boy, without anyone teaching him, had what we would call an Extreme Process Mindset.

A Lesson for Performers

There is an incredible lesson to be learnt here for those involved in sport and performance. Although “results” are important if you’re not enjoying the actual process then ultimately you’re not going to get very fast. The reason for this is rather simple. Results are only somewhat influenceable. Imagine the number of factors beyond your influence in trying to get a fish to bite a tiny hook. It is even possible that the fishing location chosen by the youngster and his father contained no fish at all.

Results are only somewhat influenceable. Imagine the number of factors beyond your influence in trying to get a small white ball into a four and quarter-inch hole in the ground. If you are unable to get some level of pleasure from the process in attempting to get the little white ball into the hole then you are in trouble. If this sounds like you get in touch as helping athletes with these kinds of mental challenges is exactly what we do.

Examples of Process Goals

There is a subtle difference between a process and a process goal. A reasonable explanation of a process is just an action or a task. Brushing your teeth is a process. Doing some visualisation is a process. Preparing your meals ahead of time is a process. Taking an ice bath is a process. But none of these examples qualifies as process goals. Having an intention of brushing your teeth twice a day for at least two minutes in the way the dentist showed you. Now that, my friends, is a process goal.

Process goals are slightly different. They essentially take these actions and tasks and asked the question how are you going to commit to them?


Repetition is the essence of success. Stop expecting miracles from activities you only do once or twice

Imagine a soccer goalkeeper. She has identified a desire to improve her ball distribution. She knows what processes are required. Practice hitting targets through both throwing and kicking the ball. A commitment to one weekly 60-minute ball distribution session is scheduled into the goalkeeper’s calendar. This is the process goal. The goal or aim is to spend 60 minutes trying to improve this particular motor skill. If this session is forgotten or done poorly then the goal is unsuccessful. If the goalkeeper manages 60 minutes of very high-quality practice in this area then this process goal is achieved.

Even if her actual ball distribution does not improve the process goal is still achieved!

Be Careful of Outcomes

Let’s be honest, a highly motivated goalkeeper who spends an hour a week specifically trying to improve ball distribution is very likely to actually improve their ball distribution. But as we learned from the young fishermen this cannot be the main reason behind the exercise.

If this goalkeeper was one of my clients I would try to make sure that the actual process itself was rewarding. Rewards can come in many shapes and sizes. Maybe she just loves the idea that she is working on something important. It might be that she is particularly fond of the person who is feeding the balls back to her. Or maybe she is just one of those people who would much rather be outside on a sunny day than sitting in front of a screen.

If your performance landscape is dominated by an obsession with outcomes then have a go at putting processes and process goal first. Put the horse before the cart so to speak. As the great Bill Walsh said, “let the score take care of itself”.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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