By definition, goal setting is a mental training technique which involves ascertaining specific, measureable and time targeted objectives. Sound a bit confusing? Well, the reality is that each and every day we set ourselves hundreds upon hundreds of goals – sometimes without even really knowing we’re doing so. These can be anything from picking up milk from the local shop, making some toast or simply setting the alarm clock or changing the channel on the TV (short term goals) to graduating from University, becoming a millionaire within the next ten to fifteen years, or saving for an around the World trip of a lifetime (long term goals). What I am trying to say here is that goal setting is something which you strongly rely on to function normally as a human being. However, goal setting is not just an integral part of successful everyday life, it is also a proven method (and subsequently an indispensible component) of successful sporting performance – used by almost all sports performers Worldwide!
“At the beginning of each year I often write down my goals and put them somewhere safe”
Paula Radcliffe (My Story So Far)
Why Use Goal Setting?
Goals have been found to increase levels of performance by an average of 16% (1). The instalment of goal setting into your training regime can influence your performance in four distinct ways:
1. Goals provide direction
They set up the direction of your training by focusing your attention towards goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
For example, if a marathon runner sets out to improve his cardiovascular fitness, running economy and muscular strength then he should focus on improving these areas (goal-relevant activities). He should not focus on other tasks such as improving his throwing capacity or free-throw ability (goal-irrelevant activities). This approach would allow him to focus on the most important aspects of his training and in essence, ensure his training is as efficient and effective as possible.
2. Goals provide feedback
3. Goals provide motivation
Goals allow for an easy assessment of performance and enable you to learn more about your training abilities which can subsequently help to replace boredom with challenge i.e. goals serve as an energiser! As you start achieving your goals you will build your own self-directed motivation and replace fear and tension with focus and confidence. These factors combined often lead to more rewarding training.
For example, an overweight man seeking to lose 50 lbs may view this as an impossible task, particularly as he has been overweight much of his life. However, by setting a goal to lose two pounds a week and recording this sub-goal accomplishment, he can stay motivated and remain on track (persist) with the weight loss programme until the end goal is accomplished. Similarly, a middle distance runner looking to shave five minutes from her 10 km race time may not feel like putting in the required mileage day after day. But by setting short term goals i.e. by reducing her run time by 5-10 seconds each day, this allows her to view her progress towards her long term goal regularly, thus providing a daily purpose to her training while allowing motivation to be maintained on a daily basis as well as over time.
4. Goals allow for the development of relevant learning strategies
When goals are set, the individual and coach can devise and implement strategies that are aimed at reaching the individuals short term and long term sporting goals. For example, if a novice swimmer wishes to improve their core stability, they (the individual and coach/personal trainer) may invoke the strategy of performing two to three core exercises at the end of every other gym workout or of changing their core exercise technique so as to make their routine more efficient and effective.
A Research Perspective
An interesting study published in the Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis (2) applied the principles of goal-setting to the competitive sporting environment by assessing the effects of a goal-setting intervention on five collegiate rugby players over an entire competitive season, the results of which are outlined below:
5.12 ball carries per game -> 9.10 ball carries per game (78% increase)
7.87 tackles made per game -> 10.40 tackles made per game (32% increase)
4.23 tackles missed -> 1.90 tackles missed (55% reduction)
8.70 successful kicks -> 11.00 successful kicks (26% increase)
1.33 turnovers won -> 2.90 turnovers won (118% increase)
The scientists concluded that goal setting interventions (i.e. goal determination, goal setting, and goal reviewing) provided an effective method of improving specific performance measures of rugby performance.
Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology (3) assessed the impact of goal setting techniques on speed skating performance and noted two main outcomes of their intervention:
1. Goal setting improved practices by increasing the number of laps and drills completed and decreasing the number of off-task behaviours.
2. Goal setting improved racing times in both practice and competition.
The effects of self-set goals on athletic performance of five collegiate football players was studied by Ward and Carnes(4). They found that those who set their own goals showed an immediate increase in their performance at practice and subsequently this translated into an enhanced performance during competitive games.
Looking at things from a more general sport and exercise perspective, a review of goal-setting research by Burton et al.(5) revealed that 44 of 56 (78.6%) studies indicated that goal setting had moderate to strong effects on exercise performance.
Types of Goals
So far we have discussed the importance of goal setting for exercise, but in order to make the most of what goal setting has on offer, there are a few things you will first need to consider. We talk about this in more depth in our ‘How to Remain Focused on Your Gym Goals’ article but for the time being let us focus on the fact that there are three distinct types of goals (outlined below). The key point to remember here is that ideally you should acknowledge each type of goal when goal setting and that your focus should not be driven entirely at reaching your end goal (as is often so easy to do).
‘It is often the process of getting to the end goal which offers the most rewards’
(1) Process Goals
This involves mastering a task and increasing your skill level. You are in complete control of your process goals and as such these can be very useful in reducing anxiety before an event. Examples include:
• Enhancing your knowledge about your training programme
• Improving your nutrition
• Performing a pre-performance routine i.e. self-talk, listening to your favourite song on your mp3 player
• Getting enough sleep and rest so as to aid recovery
• Following your training programme as closely as possible
• Communicating with your coach regularly
• Ensuring your equipment is in good shape
(2) Performance Goals
Performance goals specify a specific standard to be achieved (typically based on your personal standards). These can be anything from losing a certain amount of weight in a set amount of time or running on a treadmill for a specific distance. Performance goals are not affected by the performance of others and thus are totally under your control. They can make you feel satisfied even if you do not achieve your desired outcome goal.
(3) Outcome Goals
These are goals which relate to the finished product, or put differently, the desired end result i.e. winning a race or beating an opponent. These are highly motivating goals but as opposed to process goals, the individual is not always in control of these. Rather, they are affected by how others perform and how well you implement your process and performance goals.
• Winning a gold medal at the Olympics
• Winning a championship
• Defeating a rival in a swimming race
• Winning the Tour de France
Putting 1, 2 & 3 Together (A Retrospective Example)
A runner who was looking to win a 10 km race (outcome goal) and break the 40 minute barrier (performance goal) started out by advancing his knowledge on the race itself, after which he explored exercise and nutritional strategies which could help him achieve his best performance (process goals). On the day of the race unfortunately he did not reach his outcome goal (he placed second) but he did achieve his performance goal (he completed the race in 39 minutes). From this he felt satisfied with his performance even though he did not win, his confidence remained high while the knowledge he gained from his pre-race research was used as a baseline for further establishing his knowledge on 10 km running.
Goal setting is an extremely powerful technique for enhancing performance that can be applied by absolutely anyone – from elite athlete to recreational gym-goer. Goals help you to establish your ultimate destination, they offer a prudent method of identifying the roads you can take to get there, and indeed, they let you know when you have arrived. It is important to consider the different type of goals and how these can be implemented into your training regime so that you remain focused on your gym goals – but more of that in the next article!
1. Knowles, Z., Houghton, L., & Jackson, S. (2011). Run Liverpool Marathon Workshops; Goal Setting Presentation (PDF).
2. Mellalieu, S. D., Hanton, S., & O’brien, M. (2006). The effects of goal setting on rugby performance. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 39, 257-261.
3. Wanlin, C. M., Hrycaiko, D. W., Martin, G. L., & Mahon, M. (1997). The effects of a goal-setting package on the performance of speed skaters. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 9, 212-228.
4. Ward, P., & Carnes, M. (2002). Effects of posting self-set goals on collegiate football players’ skill execution during practice and games. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 35, 1-12.
5. Burton, D., & Naylor, S. (2002). In. Advances in Applied Sport Psychology: A Review. Mellalieu, S. D., & Hanton, S. (p. 344).