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Sport, exercise & performance psychology
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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

Effective Goal Setting in Sport and Exercise (Part 2)

Goal setting is fundamental in terms of producing motivation, therefore ensuring that goal setting is effective is important for athletes and coaches in the realm of sport and exercise. Previously in Part 1 I explained that there are different types of goals that can be used (e.g. outcome, performance, and process goals) and I also described how to use SMART goal setting principles. In this week’s blog I’ll be addressing more issues associated with goal setting, such as the intricacies and problems related to goal setting, and how to maintain a performer’s engagement with goal attainment.

The art of goal setting

For goal setting to be effective it is important that goals are visible (literally), ideally the goal should be written down and recorded on a piece of paper (it doesn’t have to be paper really, could be a sticky note or a whiteboard), and placed in a location where it can be seen on a day-to-day basis. This might be at home or at a place of training (e.g. gymnasium, swimming pool, clubhouse), as long as the goals are available for and important to the specific performer in question.

Unfortunately, however, simply setting a SMART goal (and hopefully writing it down and placing it somewhere visible) is not sufficient to guarantee goal achievement. While the latter does enhance athletes’ focus and motivation to some degree, if there are no relevant learning strategies put in place there may be no means for the athlete to actually improve and reach the goal(s) they desire. In other words, if one’s goal were to drive from London to Glasgow (best part of a 7-hour drive) without first having a map their chances of reaching their desired destination are slim. The key is here is the map, an effective learning strategy operates like a map, it guides the athletes towards their goal(s) and let’s them know how they are progressing.

The how of goal setting is probably the most important aspect, but often the most neglected. If an individual has a goal to lose 5kg of body weight over a 10-week period, what kind of learning strategies might they utilise? For example, if one were to consider the nutritional component to losing weight, this individual might decide to cut back on alcohol consumption (perhaps switch from wine/beer to spirits, which contains less calories – especially when combined with low sugar/calorie soft drinks such as slimline tonic for example). In addition, the individual might begin to track their calorie intake, specifically, track the number of calories they are consuming per meal. While the obvious goal here is to reduce calorie intake (at least if one is focusing on the nutritional aspect of weight loss), the key is how that person is going to achieve said reduction. In which case, tracking calorie intake provides a glimpse of where that person is at, in terms of how many calories they are already consuming, as well as where their calorie intake needs to be in the future to enable them to reach their goal. Without first knowing how many calories they are consuming at present moment (habitually), it might be challenging to reduce calorie intake safely, and also how would they know how much food/drink constitutes ‘less’ calories? I suppose they would simply take an educated guess, which would coincide with an effort to consume ‘less’ than they already are and hope for good results. This strategy might work for some people, but it certainly won’t be effective for most people. The point being, SMART goal setting alone will not be enough to ensure any given goal is met, a plan of action or strategy regarding how the goal will be achieved and how one will be able to tell when the goal is achieved is of upmost importance.

Practice makes perfect, right?

Many sports revolve around some kind of competition, wherein the aim is to win, whether that’s beating an opponent or improving on a personal best. Competitive events are typically the most important, and for the most part, is what gets athletes and performers out of bed in the morning. Competition is the reason why athletes practice with passionate and so much commitment, despite the sometimes arduous nature of practice. Athletes will typically spend the majority of their time training, usually in an attempt to prepare for a competition or sporting event. And goal setting might be considered the precursor to this. For instance (a simplified example):

An athlete performs in a competition, maybe they didn’t perform as well as they hoped, so they set a goal based on their current performance, so that, essentially, they can perform better the next time they compete, they go to training, they work hard to reach their goal, they compete again, they perform better but there’s still room for improvement, they make another goal, they go back to practice and the whole process starts over.

In which case, goal setting is the reason why an athlete goes to practice, which is informed by their performance in competition. Nonetheless, improvement takes time, sometimes a lot of it, ergo training can go on for weeks or even months at a time before performance in competition can, at least by a noticeable margin, improve. Resultantly, it can be challenging for athletes to remain motivated, especially when results are not easy to see or simply not going to happen for a while, either because the athlete in question needs more time to practice or they are struggling to grasp the skill/ability they are trying to take on. And this can be frustrating for all parties involved. Therefore, it is vital, at least from the standpoint of the athlete and their motivational profile, that goal setting is completed for each training session. And these goals don’t need to be complex, or particularly challenging, ideally in fact, they need to be quite accomplishable. Goals such as arriving to training on time, giving teammates positive feedback and being supportive, displaying good sportsmanship and high standards of behaviour, or achieving particular desired performance levels on specific drills during training. While seemingly inconsequential, these goals provide valuable sources of motivation for athletes during practice. Which will keep them more engaged and interested during times where training might typically be considered boring or undemanding. Importantly, also, these kind of goals represent opportunities for accomplishment, wherein the athlete can receive positive feedback from other players, coaching staff or sport psychologists. While longer-term goals take more time to accomplish, and are certainly important in terms of improving performance in competition, goal accomplishment during training provides athletes with more immediate gratification, which will make them feel better about themselves and less disheartened by the otherwise lack of goal attainment related to their larger and longer-term performance targets.

Designing a goal-setting machine

The planning stage

The beginning of any goal setting process should begin with an assessment of the individuals’ needs and abilities. The initial assessment can be carried out by a coach, instructor/trainer, or sport psychologist. Typically, the planning stage takes place during the off-season or pre-season period, which is arguably the best time to set goals as it provides direction for athletes heading into the seasons where the most amount of practice is likely to take place. Whilst the planning stage can operate with a group of people, such as a team of athletes, goal setting is more effective on a one-to-one basis wherein it can be tailored to the specific needs of the target individual.

The most important aspect of the planning stage is basing the goal setting process on the abilities and needs of the athlete. And ensure that the needs of the client are carefully considered. Such as what are the motivations of the athlete? Is there a strong focus on improvement, competition, enjoyment, wellbeing, fitness, or something else? Understanding the position of the athlete will inform the goal setting process.

The meeting stage

At this point it is advised that a face-to-face meeting is organised, whereby the coach (for example) can discuss with the athlete what goal setting involves, what it looks like, and ask the athlete to reflect on the goals they’ve set in the past. The meeting stage is an opportunity to address any internal or external factors that might act as barriers to the accomplishment of a goal. It is the duty of the coach in this scenario to provide the tools for the athlete to devise their own specific goals, while the coach can provide information on how to set goals and general education about goal setting (such as topics discussed in Part 1), the goal setting process should be largely athlete-led.

It is advised that athletes are given the chance to go home, think about the information they’ve received, and reflect on their priorities. In a second meeting then, the athlete might come forward with one, two, or numerous goals. At which point it is the coach’s responsibility to provide strategies that will enable the athlete to reach their goal. This is often a forgotten or neglected stage of the goal setting process, while the athlete is in control of the goal setting machine, the coach (in this example, it could also be an instructor or sport psychologist as mentioned earlier) needs to facilitate the athlete by suggesting practice techniques and drills that they can use to help accomplish their goal(s). As described earlier in this blog, the coach might be thought of as the map, or at least the person in the car holding the map, directing the athlete towards their destination, instructing them which roads to use, which to avoid, where their might be traffic or congestion (such as setbacks, technical performance issues, injuries, or mental skill deficits), and generally guiding the athlete along the way.

The evaluation stage

Ideally, the evaluation/re-evaluation of goals should be routine or scheduled. Someone, probably the coach in this scenario I’ve created, should be running point on the goal progress of their athlete(s). And, as common sense would suggest, if the athlete has exceeded their goal then re-evaluating the goal is obvious, the goal should be made harder or more challenging, but not out of reach entirely. And if the athlete has not made sufficient progress, perhaps they’ve been injured or suffered a few setbacks, then the goal should be adjusted so that it is more accomplishable. The evaluation stage is a great chance to reflect on goal barriers, are there any barriers cropping up along the way? Can those barriers be overcome? How might those barriers be broken down? It is likely that each athlete has their own unique challenges, hence the goal setting process operates more effectively when it is tailored to individual needs.

Feedback is crucial here, regardless of whether the athlete has surpassed their goal or fallen short, the coach (or whoever is working alongside the athlete) needs to make a conscious effort to be supportive and encouraging. One way to do this is by creating an action plan with an athlete. An action plan might be thought of as an if/then framework. For instance, if a cricket bowler is having issues with their knee, perhaps it's painful or inhibiting their natural bowling rhythm and negatively affecting their throwing motion, then more attention is given to their pre-rehabilitation, stretching, warming-up or even increasing rest. Or, for a more mundane, day-to-day example, an individual aims to do the couch-to-5k. An action plan needs to ask questions like: When will they go for a walk? Who will they walk with? How often will they go for a walk? If they miss a day what will they do? If their walking/running partner isn’t available what will they do? In a way, an action plan prepares athletes for almost every eventuality, so that, in theory, the number of barriers preventing them from reaching their goal is greatly reduced.

Part 1 and Part 2 of goal setting has provided an overview of some of the fundamentals of goal setting, like how it can be done, what makes it successful, and how goal setting can be implemented by just about any one. Goal setting is an important factor in terms of producing motivation, such that it should not be overlooked by any athlete or coach in the sport or exercise domain. In the end I hope you have found this information useful, should you have any questions or thoughts related to goal setting please do not hesitate to get in touch.

For more information please see:

Weinberg, R. S. (2013) Goal setting in sport and exercise: Research and practical applications. Revista da Educação Física/UEM Vol.24 (2) pages 171-179. DOI:10.4025/reveducfis.v24.2.17524

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