Brian Hite, Ph.D.

Phone No: 818-430-4182
Email: Brian@BeginAgain

Without having some idea of where you want to go, it is very difficult to get there. Goal setting has been shown to be an excellent tool for focusing attention and energy in a desired direction by defining and clarifying the steps necessary to achieve a desired outcome. This article will first describe some of the benefits of goal setting, then identify factors to consider when choosing a goal, and finally, outline a specific process demonstrated to maximize the benefits of goal setting in academic, business, and sport settings.

Potential benefits of goal setting include increased levels of effort, intensity, persistence, motivation, and performance and decreased levels of performance anxiety (Burton, Holiday, & Naylor,2001).By instilling a sense of purpose, feelings of intensity, and a sense of autonomy(i.e. control over one’s environment),the goal setting process can enhance athletes’ levels of motivation and reduce performance anxiety (Gagne, Ryan, & Bargmann, 2003). Also, by focusing attention and energy in a desired direction; lowering levels of performance anxiety; promoting the development of problem solving strategies; and increasing levels of effort, intensity, persistence, and motivation, goals can substantially improve athletes’ levels of performance (Weinberg & Butt, 2005).

Goal Characteristics
In order to choose goals that will be most effective, coaches and athletes must consider several goal characteristics that can affect the efficacy of the goal setting process.

Goal Type
First, a type of goal must be chosen. Three types of goals are process goals, performance goals, and outcome goals. Process goals focus on personal improvement with regard to a skill or routine. These goals typically target technical (e.g. bent elbows), psychological (e.g. maintaining focus), and emotional (e.g. managing fear) factors throughout a performance.

Whereas process goals focus on the aspects of a skill or routine related to good performance, performance goals focus on the end result of the skill or routine and may be used to measure improvement in relation to oneself. For example, better event or all-around scores than have previously been achieved would be a type of performance goal.

Finally, outcome goals focus on the overall result of the performance in relation to other athletes. Winning a medal and qualifying for an event are examples of outcome goals.

While each of these goal types has been shown to be beneficial (Steinburg, et al., 2000), research has generally demonstrated process goals to be the most effective (Weinberg & Butt, 2005). One reason for this is the greater control, an important factor in both confidence and motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Gagne, et al., 2003), afforded the athlete by process goals. That is, the athlete has control over the aspects of his/her performance likely to result in high scores and/or a medal (e.g. stuck landings, pointed toes); however, he/she has no control over the deductions judges choose to enforce, the scores judges choose to award, or the performances of the other athletes in the meet. Therefore, though each type of goal can be beneficial and has its place, recommending process goals more often than performance or outcome goals is likely to produce more of the potential benefits listed above.

Goal Specificity
Second, athletes and coaches should consider the specificity of the goals chosen. In order to determine whether or not a goal has been reached it must be specific and measurable. Goals such as, “l want to do better on floor” are great, but how is the athlete going to know whether or not he/she actually accomplished the goal? Instead, goals such as, “I want to stick my double-back three out of three times” and “I want to hit four-for-four at this meet” define exactly what the athlete wants to accomplish and allows him/her to know for sure whether or not the goal was achieved.

Goal Difficulty
Third, the level of difficulty of the goal must be considered. Though research has not resulted in a clear understanding of the impact of goal difficulty on performance as of yet, it does seem to be clear that confidence levels play a key role in whether or not difficult goals will be effective (Burton, et at., 2001; Weinberg & Butt, 2005). That is, athletes with high levels of confidence tend to attribute success to internal factors such as ability and effort, while athletes with low levels of confidence tend to attribute success to external factors such as luck. As a result, difficult goals often motivate confident athletes regardless of whether or not the goal is achieved. For example, if a confident athlete achieves a difficult goal, he/she is obviously satisfied and motivated to set even higher goals; if the athlete fails to achieve the goal, he/she generally attributes this to internal, controllable factors and is motivated to work that much harder to achieve the goal in the future. Athletes with low self-confidence, however, often do not believe that they can achieve the goal in the first place and may engage in self-handicapping behaviors (Ryska, 2002). Moreover, if they do manage to achieve the goal, they may attribute their success to luck and not experience the same motivational boost experienced by confident athletes. In any case, research in the area of sport and exercise tends to support the use of moderately difficult to difficult goals as long as individual differences (e.g. confidence) are taken into consideration (Weinberg & Butt, 2005).

Goal Phrasing
Fourth, how a goal is phrased is important. Goals should be positively worded and define what the athlete is trying to achieve rather than what he/she is trying to avoid. For example, “I will not fall on my series” is a negatively worded goal, while “I will stick my series three out of three times” is a positively worded goal. Both phrases target the same skill and outcome; however, the first focuses attention on avoiding failure and the second on achieving success.

Goal Proximity
Finally, whether the goal will be long or short term must be determined. Benefits of short-term goals include more frequent feedback and greater flexibility (Getz & Rainey, 2001); while benefits of long-term goals include a detailed path to where the athlete would ultimately like to be and reduced possibility of excessive goal re-evaluation (Weinberg & Butt, 2005). According to Bandura (1996), however, a long-term goal combined with short-term goals designed to help achieve the long-term goal is likely to be more effective than long or short-term goals alone.

Goal Setting Process

Step 1: Set a Goal
The first step in the goal setting process is to choose an appropriate goal. This step should begin with a thorough assessment of the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses and take into consideration whether the goal is for practice or competition.

Step 2: Commit to the Goal
The next step is to develop goal commitment. This can be done by including the athlete in the goal setting process (e.g. allowing the athlete to choose his/her goals); emphasizing benefits associated with goal achievement (e.g. feelings of accomplishment; compete at a higher level); and bolstering social support (e.g. make goals public; encourage team support) (Weinberg & Butt, 2005).

Step 3: Identify Obstacles
Once a goal has been chosen and the athlete has committed to the goal, potential obstacles that may hinder goal achievement should be identified. Some typical obstacles include internal obstacles such as a lack of confidence and inadequate physical and/or psychological skills and external obstacles such as insufficient training time/equipment, work/family/personal responsibilities, and lack of social support (Burton, et al., 2001).

Step 4: Create a Plan
Then, after potential obstacles have been identified, a plan for goal achievement must be created. This plan should consist of measures the athlete can take to reach his/her goal that address the obstacles identified in Step 3 (e.g. more upper body conditioning; more time spent on flexibility).

Step 5: Get Feedback
Feedback has been demonstrated to be an important component of successful goal setting (Burton, et at., 2001). That is, in order to maximize the effectiveness of goals, athletes should be provided meaningful, positive, non-controlling (i.e. autonomy-supportive) feedback on their progress toward their chosen goals (Chen, 2001).

Step 6:Evaluate Goal Attainment
The next step is to determine whether or not the athlete has achieved his/her goal. If the athlete created a specific goal, this step is very easy; however, if a vague, subjective goal was chosen (e.g. improve my vault), this step will be more difficult.

Step 7: Reinforce Goal Achievement
Finally, if after evaluating the athlete‘s performance it was determined that the athlete achieved his/her goal, Celebrate! Praise the athlete for his/her persistence, effort, and improvement. Let him/her know that you are proud of and excited about his/her accomplishment. Also, depending on the athlete and the situation, material rewards may be appropriate; however, these should be used sparingly and with caution. Rather than enhancing motivation, research has consistently shown that material incentives can actually decrease effort, persistence, and motivation by limiting behaviors to those specifically required for task completion, sending the message that the task is not of value in and of itself, and by focusing energy on reward attainment rather than goal achievement (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003).

When the characteristics of goals are considered and the steps of the goal-setting process are foIIowed, goals can enhance effort, persistence, intensity, motivation, and ultimately, performance.


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