A goal is simply something you are trying to accomplish; it is the object or aim of an action. Although goals can function at an unconscious level, the process of goal setting represents the deliberate establishment and refinement of goals and the evaluation of goal progress. The concept of goals and the practice of goal setting are well known and established within settings where performance enhancement is the objective. It is important to understand goals because they have such a broad function in terms of affecting the thoughts and behaviors of those to whom participation, productivity, and performance are important.
In the broader field of performance psychology where the objective is to enhance productivity in its varying forms, the effectiveness of goal setting as a strategy has consistently been verified across tasks, groups, methods for setting goals, and performance indicators. Although it was assumed that the positive effects of goals would be replicated within sport and exercise settings, research in sport has failed to illustrate unequivocally that goals function as effectively in this domain. The reasons why have been debated widely, with the consensus being that sample and task characteristics were markedly different in sport. Despite this, studies that have described the goal-setting practices in sport performers have confirmed that almost all athletes do set goals and the majority find them to be effective. This entry provides a brief overview of the current state of play with regard to goal setting in sport, and critiques, where appropriate, the transfer of goal-setting concepts to sport and to performers in that domain. The intention is not to present an exhaustive review, but rather to highlight those aspects of goals and goal setting that are most pertinent to the advancement of knowledge in this area from both a theoretical and an applied perspective. The following sections cover definitions and types of goals, proposed mechanisms of effects, parameters of goals, and dispositional and situational antecedents of goals, and the final section addresses future research potential.
Types of Goals
The definition of goals as an aim of action serves to portray goals as the drivers (or cognitive regulators) behind goal-directed behavior. Consequently, within the multilayered domain of sport, where the nature and level of engagement varies so much, these underlying drivers of behavior can take many different forms. For example, antecedents of behaviors (goals) might range from winning a gold medal at the next Olympics, through the bending of an injured leg an extra two degrees during a physiotherapy session, to maintaining form through a high knee lift in sprinting.
The sport psychology literature consistently distinguishes between three broad goal types: outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals. Outcome goals describe intentions relative to the performance of others involved in the activity. The key delineator of these to other goal types is the notion of social comparison. The objective of winning represents the predominant outcome goal; however, the objective of placing in a race, reaching a final, or simply beating a teammate in an individual race, also represent examples of outcome goals. Unlike outcome goals, performance goals are based on levels of personal achievement and are entirely self-referenced (subjective). Typical performance goals are to run a race in a certain time, to jump a certain distance, to lift a specific weight, or to do a number of repetitions in a training situation—perhaps within a certain time; they refer to products of performance. These goals are normally based on numeric criteria (e.g., to jump one meter and sixty five centimeters) and refer to a predetermined subjective performance standard. Process goals are similarly self-referenced but are distinguished from performance goals because their focus is on the process of performing rather than a product of performance. The variation in process goals is subsequently far broader than that of outcome and performance goals. For example, they might range from the breathing techniques designed to regulate heart rate in a pistol shooter, to imaging in the mind’s eye the flight of a golf ball before taking a shot, to focusing on maintaining position while executing a half-court press in basketball. In essence, process goals center on the execution of behaviors regarded as contributing to effective performance.
Relatively few studies have explored the specific effects of using different types of goals. Of those that have, some support, albeit limited, has been found for the use of outcome goals, while moderate to strong support has been provided for the use of performance and process goals. Moreover, it is suggested that combinations of goal types may be more effective than any single type alone. The benefit of performance goals (compared to outcome goals at least) lies in the fact that they are more controllable and flexible than outcome goals; they do not rely on the performance of others to be achieved. However, the achievement of performance goals may still be influenced by external factors, such as environmental conditions, luck, officiating, or even natural fluctuations in personal performance levels. Process goals, conversely, are almost entirely under the control of the individual, and so there is no reason why external factors should disrupt their achievement. Somewhat paradoxically, of those studies which have explored the goal-setting practices of athletes, the majority have found that performers report using outcome and performance goals far more than process goals. This may be a consequence of the less tangible nature of process goals (e.g. regulating breathing or creating a visual image of the trajectory of the ball) and the reassurance that many athletes have in being able to observe or monitor levels of performance directly.
Why Are Goals Effective?
Goal setting is widely regarded as the most popular basic sport psychology technique and is an integral part of any mental training program designed to maximize athletic potential. It is arguably the bedrock of athlete and coach education from a psychological perspective and supports or underpins many other strategies, such as confidence building and enhancing motivation.
In reviewing the literature on goal setting in sport, one is left with two inescapable conclusions: First, goals work; and second, the mechanisms behind their effectiveness are neither well understood nor particularly well documented. The latter has, on occasion, been attributed to early research into goal setting having limited theoretical grounding. Similarly, more recent research has been criticized for not moving beyond confirming performance effects: It has failed to consider factors that might mediate the relationship between goals and actual sport performance. It is to the mechanisms underlying the positive effects of goals that we now turn our attention.
There is an established view that goals facilitate performance through motivational effects. Seminal work into the application of goal setting to sport suggested that goals influence task performance in four main ways; they direct attention to the task, promote increases in effort, encourage persistence in the face of failure, and facilitate the promotion of new task-relevant strategies (In what other way could I achieve this objective?). Anecdotally, this motivational function of goals is supported, yet research in the sport domain is limited. While the motivational effect of goals on performance is largely direct, goals can also exert an indirect effect through changes in confidence. The successful achievement of goals over a period of time is regarded as pivotal in altering individual perceptions of capabilities. As goals are achieved, new goals are identified; as these new goals are achieved in turn, performers develop a stronger and more stable level of confidence. Repeated failure to achieve goals, on the other hand, undermines confidence.
Although it is suggested that the function of different types of goals may vary, there have been few studies exploring the relative effects of different goal types (e.g., performance vs. outcome goals). From the limited work that has been conducted, researchers within sport and exercise psychology have argued that focusing on self-referenced process and performance goals, rather than outcome goals, appears fundamental to the effective use of goals. Somewhat paradoxically, it is also suggested (and strongly supported anecdotally) that outcome goals (e.g., a desire to break into the world’s top 10 in a particular sport) appear to facilitate longer term motivation.
Considering the mechanisms of effects, the limited research that has explored the use of process goals suggests that their beneficial effects can be attributed to focusing more on the task, increasing confidence, reducing concerns about evaluation from others, and developing personal interest in learning about the task. However, the narrow scope of this work to date reinforces the importance of research into understanding how goal setting works and ensuring consequently that clear guidelines are provided to promote effective goal setting.
A Framework for Effective Goal Setting
As alluded to in the previous section, early theorizing in relation to goals provided an immediate stimulus for research in sport. This research did not, as one might have expected, attempt to explain how goals functioned to enhance performance, but rather focused on the specific content of the goal and its effects. Consequently, while not necessarily increasing our understanding of how goals work, this research did offer some clarity into the nature of what might be regarded as effective goals. At the very least, this provided practitioners with a useful framework upon which to base future goal-setting interventions. The following paragraphs provide a brief summary and critique of this work as it pertains to educating athletes and coaches on the nature of appropriate goals.
Research on goal content in sport has provided some support for the positive effect of goals and highlighted the importance of a number of qualities of effective goals. These aspects are often referred to as the moderators of the goal setting and performance relationship because they are considered pivotal to describing the qualities of goals that enable them to be effective. The aspects of goals include goal difficulty, goal specificity, goal proximity, and goal collectivity.
One of the earliest conclusions of research in organizational settings on the relationship between conscious goals and task performance was that individuals striving for goals that were both specific and difficult performed better than those who had goals that were specific and easy, those who had goals that were vague (e.g., “I want to do my best”), and those who had no goals. While there are obvious (and widely debated) contextual differences between business and sport settings, research in sport suggests that moderate levels of goal difficulty were most effective in facilitating performance. Furthermore, responses to extremely difficult goals in sport were very different—instead of withdrawing effort, individuals in sports settings, when faced with relatively difficult goals, modified them to ensure they remained relevant and achievable. Similarly, in terms of specificity, while specific goals are more effective than no goals or vague goals, those instructed to “do their best” in sport settings do not perform any worse. It is argued that this is because one of the fundamental differences in sport participants is that they actively engage in personal goal setting in response to this type of ambiguous suggestion.
Goal proximity refers to the time aspect of goals, and this can range from immediate intentions to future aspirations. Long-term goals have been described as those whose attainment is 6 or more weeks away, whereas goals of shorter duration are termed short-term goals. Goal proximity research conducted within sport settings has been rather limited; however, researchers do suggest that combinations of long-term and short-term goals are more effective than using either type alone. Arguably, much of the limited research in this area simply illustrates that having goals is better than not having goals. Nevertheless, in terms of effectiveness, the overriding message is that long-term objectives are most likely to facilitate performance and motivation when short-term goals represent flexible and controllable stepping stones to achieving them. In other words, long-term goals provide direction, while shorter term goals appear to provide opportunities to develop confidence and maintain motivation in pursuit of more distal objectives.
The study of goal collectivity concerns itself with the effects of team or group goals on collective performance. Early work on team goals in sport suggested that these goals can facilitate group performance and, in addition, promote team satisfaction, cohesion, and motivation. Specifically, team goals are argued to offer direction for the team and help individual members establish appropriate personal goals to support team objectives. Furthermore, it is logical that team goals should be accompanied by individual goals to ensure task focus and effort levels are maintained by individuals within the team. These individual goals should be based on the individual roles that each player needs to fulfill in order to maximize unit (e.g., a defensive group), and in turn, team effectiveness.
Dispositional and Situational Antecedents of Goals
One important consideration when seeking to more fully understand the nature and function of goals that athletes set is where do the goals come from and what factors lead to individual variations in goal preferences? The concept of the person by situation interaction has been used by many social scientists attempting to explain thoughts and behaviors. Specifically, and of relevance here, it has been applied in the sporting environment to explain variability in goal-setting practices; the personal and situational antecedents of goals are described in the paragraphs that follow.
At a personal level, the goals individuals adopt are argued to give meaning to their behaviors and energize their actions; they reflect the objective of striving and provide a framework through which an individual can interpret performance-related information. According to the predominant goal theory, two categories of achievement goals exist, and these are consistent with personal views of what is required to demonstrate competence in settings where the potential for competition and evaluation occurs. Goals, and the individuals utilizing such goals, concerned with demonstrating capability through personal improvement and learning about a task with reference to personal performance criteria are said to be task involved. Conversely, goals that focus on demonstrating competence with respect to others are described as being ego involved. The engaged reader may have noted a parallel between what are described here as achievement goals (taskand ego-involved goals) with what were earlier labeled as goal types, such as outcome, performance and process goals. Put simply, ego-involved goals, where the intention is to outperform others, are logically equated to the use of outcome goals. Similarly, task-involved goals are characterized by self-referenced intentions, which might focus on anything ranging from personal performance targets (a performance goal) to successfully executing a skill or action (a process goal).While the goals described reflect moment to moment targets, individuals are also predisposed to pursue goals reflecting their personal theory of what represents achievement. Researchers have labeled these dispositional (or trait-like) tendencies as goal orientations, for example, one predisposed to using ego-involved criteria to judge competence is said to be ego oriented, and those predisposed to using self-referenced criteria are said to be task oriented, and this aspect of achievement goals has stimulated the majority of research in this area.
Broadly speaking, sport-based research in this area has espoused the motivational benefits of a high level of task orientation, and regards high levels of ego orientation as placing the individual motivationally and behaviorally at risk, especially when accompanied by lower levels of perceived competence. One of the key characteristics of task and ego goal orientations is that they are independent. This means that an individual can be high or low in each or both orientations, and thus at a general level make judgments of their competence using a variety of personal and social comparison based criteria. Although these goal orientations may be regarded as relatively stable, the specific goals used by individuals are dynamic and can change from moment to moment in response to the ongoing stream of information presented within the context of their sport involvement. In other words, specific goals can change during a task or performance.
The preceding paragraph outlines a case for how dispositional preferences affect goal choice. In line with numerous other motivational theories, situational factors also play a role in shaping the goals one adopts. Specifically, in situations where performance is evaluated (achievement settings), the psychological environment (labeled as the motivational climate) created by the coach (or those with similar leadership roles), can emphasize or promote, within the individual, a variety of criteria for judging competence; unsurprisingly, these impact individual goal preferences. Based originally on work conducted in education settings, two types of motivation climate have been described and applied to achievement contexts such as sport. A mastery climate operates when, for example, individuals perceive that task mastery and self-referenced goals are promoted, effort is rewarded, groupings for training tasks are not based on ability, mistakes are regarded as a natural part of learning, and success is evaluated with regard to personal improvement. Conversely, a performance climate exists when, for example, individuals perceive that time constraints limit mastery opportunities, superior performance compared to others in the training group is rewarded, groupings for training are based on ability, mistakes are punished, and success is evaluated with regard to outperforming others. Although motivationally adaptive behaviors are most likely to be associated with a mastery climate, certain individuals, most notably those with high levels of perceived competence, may also flourish in environments that promote social comparison (performance climate).
There is no research examining the direct relationship between motivational climate and goal choice. Nevertheless, one might still predict that the relationship between motivational climate and goal preferences parallels that which has been proposed to exist between achievement goal perspectives and goal types. Athletes exposed to a strong mastery climate are most likely to consider using self-referenced goals focused on personal improvement and learning (performance and process-based goals), whereas athletes in a strong performance climate would more likely lean toward goals based on social comparison (outcome goals). Adopting an alternative perspective, recent research on motivational climate suggests that a mastery climate may actually be promoted by encouraging athletes to adopt self-referenced goals focused on personal improvement and learning or mastery of tasks, that is, performance and process goals, respectively.
Research specifically examining the predictive effects of dispositional and situational antecedents of goal choices has not been forthcoming to date— this is most likely a result of an absence of effective measure of goal choices. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence and common sense suggest that high levels of task orientation and a mastery motivational climate are likely to promote self-referenced performance and process goals, whereas high levels of ego orientation and an environment emphasizing social comparison are likely to promote outcome goals.
Goal setting is an established technique to increase motivation and enhance confidence. It is used widely across all levels of sport, and goals provide essential direction at both an immediate and long-term level. Goals can take a variety of forms, and they have both personal and situational antecedents. The consensus of research and anecdotal accounts is that an individual’s primary focus should be on personal task-focused objectives, rather than social comparison. Nevertheless, factors such as personality, perceived ability, the psychological environment, and support with goals by others significantly influence the motivational and behavioral consequences of goal pursuit. While there is some conjecture regarding the specific nature of effective goals, it is generally accepted that setting and using challenging, specific goals with subgoals formulated to act as stepping stones to longer term objectives seems important. Despite undoubted progress, many questions about goals in sport remain unanswered. More clarity is needed on the functionality of goals and which goal types influence different aspects of personal psychology. Perhaps most importantly, practitioners need to develop methods for process-based goals to be integrated into the day-to-day routines of athletes. Finally, there is a need for much higher quality, theoretically grounded research to provide practitioners with clearer, evidence-based guidance for effective goal setting at an individual and group level.
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