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We all have goals in life, so what separates the novices from the professionals in terms of their goal setting?

How do their goals allow them to achieve the highest of accolades?

And how can we learn from them to do the same?


Article by Simon Boonham

Muhammad Ali is regarded by many as the greatest boxer to have ever lived. Not only was he fast, agile and technically skilled as a boxer, but he was charismatic, funny and intelligent as a human being.

In fact, it was his life outside of the ring that most people find both motivating and inspirational. His self-confidence and charisma filled others with the same energy he seemed to carry with him at all times.

Whether you’re familiar with boxing or not, you will be familiar with the name Muhammad Ali and what he represented throughout his prosperous life.

Take a look at this short clip for an insight into his bodacious character, wit and extreme self-belief.

“Imma show you how great I am!” – Those last words of Ali in the clip above are a testament to one of his most admirable and recognisable qualities – his unshakeable self-confidence.

But how can we achieve levels of confidence like Ali? Could it be that merely setting the right goals and striving to achieve them, is as simple as it gets?

As we will later uncover, this is exactly what Ali did.

In this article we will cover the following:

  • A number of quotes from Muhammad Ali.
  • How Ali used goal setting to achieve amazing things. 
  • The psychological mechanisms behind optimal goal setting.
  • How you can set your goals optimally too.


Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassis Clay under his birth name, was an extremely decorated boxer whose career spanned more than 21 years as a professional. He sadly passed away on the 3rd of June 2016, suffering from Parkinson’s disease throughout the final decades of his life.

Ali was a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, having lost and won the championship back a further two times after his first initial win over Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion in 1964.

Ali’s style really captured the sweet science of boxing; to hit and not get hit, or in Muhammad Ali’s case, to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”. Ali had an incredible ability to move and box at range, allowing his opponent’s punches to whiz past him and countering them with fast, powerful shots in return.

It was a style that saw him win Olympic gold in the Rome Olympic games in 1960, and after summitting the amateur landscape, Ali then went on to dominate the professional world in a turbulent and exciting career.

Ali defeated some of boxing’s most prolific heavyweights such as Sonny Liston, George foreman, as well as avenging his loss against Joe Frazier in their rematch and also doing the same with Leon Spinks.

But aside from his numerous achievements in the boxing world, Ali is perhaps best known for his life outside of the ring…

In his personal life away from Boxing, Muhammad Ali was a devout Muslim, father of 9 and a civil rights activist for the oppressed black population of America during the late 20th century. 

He refused conscription into the American military on account of his religious beliefs and overall opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. 

Having then been found guilty of draft evasion, which lead to his boxing license and championship titles being stripped, he did not fight for three years.

During this period of inactivity, Ali began to appear at a multitude of university talks to speak out against racism, profess his faith and explain his decisions to go against the military and risk a prison sentence in order not to fight in the war.

Many writers credit this period as being a formative time in Ali’s personal life, claiming that it was here he found his voice and started to become the icon in America that people now know him as.

He had stared in the face of the American government and those members of the public who at the time despised him and come out on the other side as the moral victor, intent on sparking change in America.

These and many other high-profile events of his personal life, together with his achievements in Boxing, are testament to the strength of his character and his determination to make a change in the world.

So, now that we have unpacked some of the significant aspects of Ali’s personal and professional life, it’s time to look at his mentality as a boxer.


Focusing on the latter of the two quotes presented earlier, it is time to unpack what Ali means through his words. Here we will try to identify his mentality as a fighter and how this helped him to perform to the best of his abilities.

‘Hating training’ and “Suffering”

These aspects of the quote relate to the hardships every boxer will experience in training. 

The physical preparation for Boxing is some of the hardest and most intense in all of sport. Not only because of the consequences of the physical contact between boxers and the durability this requires, but also because of the difficult balance of strength, speed and endurance that all boxers must have.

Getting into fighting condition is a process of gruelling physical training over the course of a 2- to 3-month training camp, where fighters must stay fit, agile, powerful and supremely focused under high levels of fatigue. 

Although not all boxers will proclaim that they hate their training, every boxer will admit to the hardships they go through in the lead up to fight night. Equating it to suffering, moreover, indicates just how brutal Ali found the physical preparation.

“Don’t quit”

Following on from the hardships of physical preparation for boxing, the added mental component to the sport is sometimes underappreciated by fans and fighters alike.

Most boxers will be able to cite a time in which they thought they might as well quit, when times were hard, and they didn’t feel like they were improving.

This is the inevitable internal conflict of all athletes.

Just as boxing requires entering into battle with your opponent, it naturally elicits a mental battle with oneself. You must combat the desire to give up with a drive to keep pushing your mental and physical limits. 

We all have the power to do this, but it takes immense will and determination.

“Now” and “the rest of your life” 

This mental battle is also time weighted. 

There is a sacrificial element to any form of physical training for sport. You must endure physical pain and mental fatigue throughout weeks and months of training, in order to reap the benefits further down the line – sacrificing your time and energy now for a reward in the future.

Over the course of a training camp, the pressure builds as athletes work towards a single goal – to be the better performer, to demonstrate superior ability, and ultimately, to be victorious.

“As a champion”

Finally, we have the goal itself.

Ali’s goal is clear in this quote. He wants to embody what it is to be a champion.

It appears from a quote like this, that the mental and physical turmoil he endures throughout his career is in the pursuit of something greater in the long run. He wishes to remain a champion in the figurative sense – to keep the character and identity of a champion long after he retires from that position.

To be a champion is to train like a champion and to think like a champion, and that is something that arguably lived on in Muhammad Ali for the rest of his life.


In answering this question, we will examine classical psychological literature to break down goal setting. In particular, we will draw from the prominent researchers in this field; Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham, who’s seminal work in 1990 outlined clear parameters for successful goal setting.

These 5 parameters are as follows:

1. Clarity – the goal should be clear.

When a goal is specific, it means we have the criteria for success and failure.

This is important because we must be aware of what is needed in order to succeed in reaching our goal. When a goal is unmet, it becomes clear that we have either failed, or that we need to mobilise more effort to achieve it.

An example of Muhammad Ali’s clarity of goals therefore comes from the phrase “live the rest of your life as a champion”. His goal is clearly to live like a champion, and whilst this may be a subjective matter, as long as Ali was clear with what he thought it was to live as a champion, it was something to aim at.

Having something to aim at is the whole point of a goal, and therefore we must aim at a specific target.

2. Challenge – the goal should be appropriately difficult.

When goals are difficult, they require more effort to reach them, and consequently more satisfaction can be taken from reaching a hard goal than an easy one.

By setting a challenging goal, we are more likely to put in a lot of effort to achieve it. Conversely, if we were to set a goal that was too easy, there is a temptation to rest on our laurels and under-exert ourselves in achieving even the easy goals.

Just imagine Ali had professed that his goal was to beat a few journeymen and leave Boxing. By aiming low, he might have underprepared for these fights and even lost. But through aiming to fight the best, he had to put in extreme amounts of effort to achieve these feats.

So, by setting hard goals, Ali brought the best out of himself.

3. Commitment – the relevant individuals must be committed to the goal.

The commitment principle refers to how engaged you or your team will be in the pursuit of your goal.

In a team, this would entail making sure every member is committed to a shared and common objective. However, as a fighter (where you only have yourself to rely on in the fight) this means being directly involved in the goal setting process set out by your wider team.

The reason for this is because when a fighter is involved in the goal setting process set out by their team, they are more likely to commit because it is viewed as their goal too, rather than just a goal imposed on them. 

So, for fighters like Ali, this would mean his wider network of team members consulting him and working with him to manage his goal of becoming champion.

4. Feedback – goal-directed actions require feedback to stay on course. 

Feedback is one of the key mechanisms in the goal setting process.

The feedback gained as a result of one’s actions is essential for regulating the achievement of a goal. This might sound obvious at first, but it can be easy to believe you are working towards your goal just by simply following the process you set out when the goal was made.

Feedback should therefore be provided after every significant event in the goal setting process. For example, a boxer might use their coach’s feedback following every sparring session to inform the next one, using this feedback to directly influence other aspects of their preparation.

Without this feedback mechanism, a performer might simply just be ‘guessing’ their way through training rather than ‘assessing’ their performance more precisely.

5. Task complexity – the goal should not be so complex that it interferes with the process of reaching it.

The process of reaching the goal should be as straight-forward as possible. This is because all effort should be directed to the attainment of the goal itself, not the management of the goal process. 

A way of handling this might be to break down the goal into smaller chunks that you can achieve successively, allowing you to manage your efforts more effectively.

For Ali, this might have involved looking at each of his sparring sessions individually and focusing on putting 100% effort into each one. Constantly thinking about the longer-term can seem daunting and harder to reach than taking your training week by week, or even session by session. 

Breaking the goal down can simply make it less complex and easier to work through.


In the final section of this article, we will present an example of an ideal goal for an aspiring boxer, and how it fits into Locke and Latham’s 5 key principles outlined earlier…

The Goal: “I want to win my first amateur fight”

The Process:

1. Clear – the goal is clear and precise. For any fighter just starting their boxing journey, winning their first fight will be of paramount importance.

Simply stating that they “want to perform well” in their first fight is not specific enough and could mean the goal won’t be reached because what constitutes “well” is too subjective.

2. Challenging – this goal is challenging simply by virtue of the fact that a young boxer’s first fight will likely be the most daunting experience they will have in the ring.

As the circumstances of fighting are entirely new in anyone’s first fight, the whole experience will be challenging both mentally and physically without needing to make the goal any more challenging itself. Simply trying to win will be hard enough.

3. Requiring commitment – for a beginner, they will likely not have a large team around them. Therefore, they themselves must be utterly committed to the goal of winning their first fight, as there is no one other than their coach(es) to help them once they’re in the ring.

4. Feedback – for an amateur boxer, the most effective feedback will most likely come from their coach or from filming their sparring sessions. 

This gives the chance to analyse their own performance from an outside perspective. Their coach can also give them advice to take forward into future sparring sessions in the lead up to their first fight.

5. Simplicity – this goal is simple. 

An example of a goal that might be too complex for a beginner would be; “I want to win every round of my first fight”. 

The reason this is too complicated is it could lead the boxer to over-focus on smaller aspects of their performance mid-fight. A better version of this goal would be to focus on winning in the first place, meaning they can be more relaxed during the fight not having to worry about each round on its own. 

Throughout his career, Ali’s only goal was to be the best. He believed in it and professed it so strongly that everyone simply started to believe him, even before he became champion.

Having had this goal from the beginning, and working tirelessly to achieve it, Ali’s ultimate goal was realised. Not only did he have the mentality of a superstar, but he is recognised all over the world as having had the heart of a champion.

Take-Away Messages:

In this article we have discussed:

  • A key quote from Muhammad Ali.
  • Ali’s qualities and characteristics.
  • How Ali demonstrated optimal goal setting.
  • The ways in which we can all optimise our own goal setting.