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Reaching the Finish Line:  It Begins with Effective Goal Setting!

By Joseph Lenac, MA  Licensed Psychologist

Goal setting is one of the most important tasks that an athlete performs.  Goal setting is the most commonly used sport psychology technique (Versari, 2007) and the most effective (Anderson, 2000).  Good goal setting provides an athlete with a specific focus to which he/she can direct his/her energy.  Done properly, goal setting directs the athlete’s energy to a specific task within his/her control.  Focusing upon a task which the athlete controls, allows he/she to see improved performance, increased motivation, increased confidence, and improved skill.  Goal setting eliminates wishful thinking and compels the athlete to work towards growth and success (Murphy 2005). 

In order to set effective goals, you need to understand several key concepts of goal setting theory.  An outcome goal is the result an athlete wants to achieve, usually over the course of a season (or several years).  Placing in the top three at nationals is an example of an outcome goal.  An intermediate goal helps the athlete monitor his/her progress as they move towards his/her chosen outcome goal.  The ability to perform all skills at full speed by half way through the season is an intermediate goal.  A performance or process goal is a measurable, technical, skill that the athlete is in complete control of.  A performance goal is usually a technical aspect of some part of his/her athletic skill.  For example, follow through at the end of a golf swing, or visualizing the ball landing before beginning a tennis serve are performance goals. 

Because the performance goal is focused upon technique, it is directly within the athlete’s control.  Thus, performance goals provide the athlete with direct control over his/her efforts and provide immediate feedback about his/her performance.  When he/she is focused on regularly improving technical skill throughout the season, the athlete sees consistent improvement, grows confidence, gains new motivation, and builds consistency (Taylor and Wilson, 2005).  These attributes grow because the athlete can see improvement with, and feel control over his/her performance goals.  As you can see, the key to effective goal setting involves the athlete working on performance goals throughout his/her entire season.  Through direct daily work on performance goals, the athlete’s physical and psychological skills grow, driving them directly towards his/her intermediate goals and closer and closer to his/her chosen outcome goal. 

An effective goal setting plan includes outcome, intermediate, and performance goals.  The key to successful goal setting is emphasizing the use of performance goals in practice and competition.  By focusing on the small (but important) things you control, you will find that your performance improves and intermediate goals become easier to achieve. 

Putting your goals in motion involves several steps.  First, you will need to define and set specific, observable, and measurable goals.  If you cannot measure the goal, it is not an effective one.  Good goals are measurable!  Second, you need to set challenging, but realistic goals.  Something that is too easy will not motivate you, while something too challenging will only frustrate you and decrease your motivation.  Decades of research in sports and business indicate that challenging yet realistic goals create the most success.  So, choose a goal that will push you, but not overwhelm you.  Third, you need to have both long and short term goals.  The short term goals are motivating and keep you moving towards your long term goals, (which may not be reached for a year or more).  

Fourth, you need performance goals for daily focus.  Remember that your performance goals are emphasized in practice as well as competition.  Fifth, when you think it, ink it!  This means write your goals down and post them.  Research has consistently shown that individuals who write down goals are better at achieving them.  Sixth, you will need feedback on your goals.  Feedback comes in two forms, technical and encouragement.  Technical feedback from your coach lets you know that your technique is strong.  Encouragement is positive motivation from your coach.   We can all use a little extra support to help us through tough days!  Finally, you need to evaluate your goals.  If you never evaluate your progress you never know if your goals are working.  Evaluation requires you sitting down and assessing how you are doing.  Have you committed to daily work?  Are you requesting feedback and support from your coach?  Have you continued to consistently work after achieving an intermediate goal?  Or have you slacked off and returned to old habits?  Remember, if you are not achieving your goals don’t give up or through them out, re-write them and start again. 


Andersen, Mark (ed), (2000), Doing Sport Psychology, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

Murphy, Shane (ed), (2005), The Sport Psych Handbook, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.  

Taylor, J. & Wilson, G., (2005), Applying Sport Psychology:  Four Perspectives, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL. 

Versari, Cristina, Ph.D., (2007),Seminar Notes, San Diego University of Integrated Studies.     

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