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

Effective Goal Setting in Sport & Exercise (Part 1)

Goal setting is perhaps one of the most fundamental psychological strategies that athletes and coaches can use in the domain of sport and exercise. In the realm of sport and exercise psychology, there aren’t many concepts that don’t incorporate goal setting within them. In particular, when it comes to optimising motivation goal setting is especially effective, and often provides a platform for additional psychological intervention. In this week’s blog I will show you how to set goals that are sufficiently motivating, appropriate for your skill level, and specifically suited to your performance domain.

Let’s start with the basics…What is a goal?

To begin with, a goal is considered to be something an individual strives to accomplish. The term ‘goal’ has been characterised as achieving a specific level of proficiency on a task, usually within a prespecified time period (1). A goal essentially represents a standard of achievement, which normally involves some extent of improvement, from one level of excellence to another. As mentioned above, a goal typically has a given time frame, which might be in the near future (e.g. 3 weeks time), or it might be further down the road (e.g. end of the year). By nature, the purpose of setting a goal is to provide an ideal to strive towards, a means of motivation and commitment. Relatively speaking, any behaviour carried out by an individual is usually driven by some kind of goal, whether it’s getting out of bed in the morning, or achieving a personal best marathon time. A goal might lead directly to a desired outcome, or it may be more of a stepping stone on a journey towards the final destination.

What kind of goal are you setting?

For certain there are distinct types of goals that can be set, and they vary in their specificity, what they are measuring, and the difficulty in measuring them.

Outcome goals are goals that typically focus on the result or outcome (unsurprisingly), such as placing first in a race, or winning a match. In this way, outcome goals are directly related to the end result, therefore are usually quite easy to measure. It isn’t difficult to tell if you have/haven’t won the race, likewise, telling whether you won/lost your match shouldn’t take too long. It is thought that outcome goals are particularly arousing, in a way that greatly increases motivation but at the same time elicits some feelings of anxiety.

Performance goals are similar in the way that they are focused on an outcome, but rather than being based on winning and losing performance goals are concerned with self-referenced improvement, typically in relation to a particular skill or performance. Furthermore, performance goals typically relate to changes in statistics, numerical data to be more precise. For example, a golfer may hope to increase the percentage of fairways they find during a competition, e.g. from 40% to 50% of fairways. So whilst they might not place first in a competition (outcome goal), the golfer could still accomplish their performance goal of finding more fairways.

Process goals are specifically connected to a particular skill or movement, usually measuring how well said skill or movement is executed. In some cases, a process goal might relate to a certain strategy or play, rather than a specific skill per se. Generally though, process goals are associated with the mastery of a technical ability, rather than the outcome that is derived from such an ability. For instance, a tennis player might set a goal such as creating more elevation on their serve by producing more top spin (what might be observed in a kick serve). And to do so the tennis player might need to work on throwing the ball further over their head, dropping the racket lower behind their head, or producing more topspin by brushing up on the ball. These are all example of process goals, which are typically more difficult to measure compared to performance and outcome goals. Mostly because process goals are usually based on precise details, moving parts, biomechanical properties etc., which (without video capture) are not easily captured by the human eye. However, a process goal, such as creating more top spin in a tennis serve (the example above), might be measured on items than can be observed, such as the height of the bounce.

There are probably some relationships that exist between these different kinds of goals, for instance, the success of a process goal might be translated in the success of a performance goal, and achieving performance goals may increase the likelihood of attaining an outcome goal. For example, a basketball player who has been working on a process goal related to their layups (e.g. using their legs to produce more flexion and extension, which aids with the efficiency of throwing the basketball) may find that, whilst their layups have become technically better, they have also achieved a performance goal whereby their percentage of successful layups have increased from 65% to 75%. Furthermore, now that their percentages of successful layups have increased, they are starting to win more matches and place higher in the ranks of their team, which may translate to the attainment of an outcome goal.

Whilst outcome, performance, and process goals each have their own merits, in terms of motivating a performer, it is thought that performance and process goals are optimally enhancing compared to outcome goals. This is because research has found that, compared to outcome goals, performance and process goals produce less anxiety, and increase levels of confidence, concentration, and satisfaction, which has been positively linked to improved performance (2).

The principles of goal setting: How should you set a goal?

Whilst the previous passage has illustrated that there are different types of goals that can be set, there is also a “right” way and a “wrong” way regarding how to set a goal. “Right” and “wrong” in quotations because I don’t want to suggest that the way you choose to set goals is completely wrong (or completely right), and I believe there is always some room for flexibility. However, if you set goals the “right” way you will be able to more effectively motivate yourself and/or others around you, define your goals more clearly with a better picture of where you’re headed, and be able to measure your progress more efficiently. And if you set goals the “wrong” way your goals may not motivate you sufficiently, and you may not be able to effectively motivate others either, your goals might be vague and difficult to aspire towards, and it may be unclear as to how and when your goals can be attained. Accordingly, I’m going to show you how to be SMART with your goal setting, so that you can set goals the “right” way. SMART refers to the five key principles of goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. If you can satisfy all five of these principles then you are setting goals the “right” way, and I will be explaining how to make sure you satisfy each principle with some accompanying examples of typical do’s and don’ts’s.

S M A R T goal setting principles

Specific goals

Whilst the “do your best” approach is to some extent motivating, and it provides people with a sense of accomplishment since they can always try their best, as far as effective goal setting goes the “do your best” approach isn’t optimal. The trouble with the “do your best” goal setting strategy is the difficulty in measuring goal attainment, how could you judge whether someone has actually tried their best? I suppose you could look at their work output, how tired they are afterwards, or how successful they are during a performance, but would that accurately translate to their best effort? Who’s to say? Similarly, if you were trying to motivate a rowing team to improve their 2,000m race speed, simply telling them to improve their “speed” would not be a well defined goal nor would it allow the goal to be measurable (at least not without knowing their previous race times). A Specific goal might be to increase their race speed from 5:50:00 to 5:40:00 (minutes:seconds:milliseconds), essentially telling the rowers to improve their race speed by 10 seconds. In this case, it will be clear to tell whether the rowers have achieved their goal, and if they surpassed or fell short of their goal then the progress they have made will be easily measured. And moving forward, the rowers can set a new goal using a different time, based on how they performed previously. Generally speaking, the more specific the better, in the case of this rowing team I’ve fabricated, should the margins for improvement become smaller and more difficult, then the goals can be even more precise, such as improving from a 5:48:70 to a 5:48:55 (for argument’s sake). So when it comes to setting goals, whether it’s for your own gain, someone else’s, or a team’s, don’t settle for a “do your best” approach, be Specific with your goal setting and push for a target that is measurable, not easily attained, and, importantly, able to be tracked in terms of progressing in the future.


Whilst it was touched upon during the previous passage, it is worth reiterating that effective goal setting relies on the extent to which the goal is measurable. When a goal is not measurable it becomes challenging to identify whether the goal has been met, how much progress has been made, and where to go from there. Without being able to measure a goal, the goal pursuer might be deprived of a sense of accomplishment, how will they be able to judge their progress if there’s no “feedback” regarding the journey they take to attain their goal? In some circumstances it can be tricky to measure goal attainment, particularly in team-based sports wherein there may be a collective goal that results from the contributions of several members. Feeding back about how the goal was met then becomes challenging, to what extent did each member of the team contribute towards the collective attainment of the goal? In these instances it might be more appropriate for each member of the team to have their own unique goals, which can be measured separately and distinct from the collective goal of the team. In terms of effective goal setting, being Specific and Measurable are interchangeable principles, since the satisfaction of one is rarely achieved without satisfying the other. A goal that is vague, not well defined, and misunderstood is difficult to measure. Likewise, when a goal is measured on a comprehendible scale, easy to track, and distinctly related to the skill/performance in question, some degree of specificity is required. The ‘M’ in SMART is essentially telling you that there needs to be a way for you to place your goal on a scale, of some kind, a scale that can be used to determine how you are progressing.

Achievable / Realistic

In some ways, the A and R in SMART relate to similar issues in goal setting, in particular, settings goals that are perhaps too aspirational, or on the other hand, too easily accomplished. An effective goal is one that motivates a person to strive towards being better, in a way that inspires them to improve, that they can actually envisage. When a goal is perceived to be too challenging, the person in question can become frustrated that they aren’t nearing closer to their goal, and/or they might place more pressure on themselves to improve faster. In addition, in not being able to progress towards their goal (because their goal is too far stretching) the person may become disheartened, fatigued, and long-term this may lead to withdrawal or burnout. In contrast, when a goal isn’t sufficiently challenging (i.e. too easy) the person in question may not feel appropriately motivated, disengaged from the task at hand, and even when the goal is attained they may not feel rewarded. A goal that isn’t challenging can lead to complacency and suboptimal levels of effort, which can negate progression and also reduce levels of enjoyment in the activity. Deciding what is an optimally Achievable goal whilst also being Realistic relies on having someone who is familiar with the performer in question, who knows what they are capable of and how they respond to goal setting. As some people tend to respond better to more difficult tasks (i.e. a more challenging goal) and others might prefer to begin with a more easily accomplished task. Finding what goal produces optimum motivation may be a process of trial and error at first, but over time goal setting will become more efficient and accommodating of the performer’s needs. A usual strategy is to start with a more achievable goal that can be reached with some additional effort, to elicit feelings of accomplishment and personal satisfaction, and then gradually up the difficulty, up until the threshold at which the performer feels optimally challenged but remains able to actually attain the goal set.

Time-bound Finally, it is important for goals to have a time frame, whether that be a long-term or short-term goal. Generally, it is acknowledged that long-term goals are fundamental as they provide direction as well as a destination to strive towards. Short-term goals however, they provide a means to fill in the gaps, and are perhaps more important. Short-term goals effectively provide people with an item they can move towards on a week-by-week/month-by-month basis, these short-term rewards offer a good source of motivation that might otherwise fade out if one were to solely rely on their long-term aspirations. Nonetheless, both long-term and short-term goals require a time frame, an exact time frame to be more precise. For instance, a long-term goal may have a time frame of one year, 8 months, at the end of a season, or even in 5 years time. Whereas, a short-term goal might be closer to 5 weeks, 2 months, at the end of a league or division, or perhaps midway through a training programme. Either way, a definitive time frame is paramount, as this provides people with a sense of closure since they will know after a certain date it will be time to review the goal and create another. What you don’t want is people trying to attain a goal that has no time limit, in these circumstances people may not feel inclined to push themselves any harder than they already are as they could always delay and stall when they’re going to attain the goal. Without the certainty of knowing when a goal must be achieved by, combined with a vague idea of when the goal might eventually be achieved, there might be times of complacency, lack of effort, and disconnection. If the goal is not achieved within the given time frame then that’s okay, it will just mean that the goal will need to be revised, and perhaps a different time frame is required and/or the goal might be edited/changed completely.


Each of the five principles in SMART represents an important aspect of goal setting, and I would advise you pay close attention to each. However, when it comes to goal setting individual differences and social/cultural factors are often overlooked. The SMART principles represent a generic and simplified criteria, that will not necessarily take into account a person’s unique circumstances, therefore it is important that a holistic account is considered. No two cases are ever the same, and whilst these goal setting strategies are useful, alone they may not be enough to guarantee effective goal setting. And during the goal setting process it is critical that the coach (or parent, guardian, teammate, captain, etc.) and performer produce the goals in a cooperative way, so that different viewpoints are shared and the performer isn’t being affected in a way that prevents them from pursuing the interests their passionate about.


1. Goal setting and task performance. Locke, E. A., et al. 1981, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 90, pp. 125-152.

2. Goal setting in sport and exercise: Research and practical applications. Weinberg, R. 2013, Revista da Educacao Fisica, Vol. 24, pp. 171-179.

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