Goal Setting in Sports

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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