We can compare an athlete in training to a sailboat. Although a boat or an athlete may be in good physical condition, both need a wind (motivation) to encourage movement, but the direction of the movement depends on having set the sails and the rudder (the goal) to control the direction. By controlling the sails and the rudder, a boat catches the power of the wind and uses it to go in the desired direction. Setting goals is like setting the sails and rudder. Even with great energy and enthusiasm, unless the athlete sets specific goals, that is, a direction to go, the athlete may be adrift, heading in an irrelevant direction or just flailing about.
It is clear that athletes who set specific goals improve faster than those who do not. Most coaches emphasize this aspect in training. The key is to set measurable goals that are sufficiently challenging, yet still attainable. This is easier said than done. A goal that is too easy is not motivating, and a goal that is too difficult leads to discouragement. Individual attention from the coach or psychologist can help the athlete set personally appropriate goals.
I encountered a fine example of the value of goal setting when I met with a group of female gymnasts ages 9 to 13. As part of the getting acquainted process, I went around the circle asking each to name a specific trick she was working on. Each named one or two specific tricks, except one girl. She mumbled a bit, unable to express anything specific and finally said she really just wanted to get better. In a conversation immediately after this session, the coach said he finally realized why this girl seemed so unmotivated. Later, the coach and I helped her decide on two specific flips that she wanted to include in her floor routine. A week later the coach said he was astounded at the difference this made in her attitude during practice. The attitude improvement was noticeable not only in working on those two tricks she set as her goals but also in other parts of the training sessions. Simply setting specific, attainable targets seemed to change her whole attitude toward the practice sessions.
What Goals Accomplish
Cox (1994) lists four basic ways in which goal setting helps improve performance.
- It focuses attention on a task. With a goal in mind, the athlete looks more closely at performance and ways to improve.
- It mobilizes the efforts of the athlete. The athlete with a purpose devotes more effort to achieving that purpose.
- It increases the directed persistence of the athlete. The focus and concentration make practice more interesting, and thus distractions are less compelling.
- It promotes examining current strategies and developing new ones. An athlete with a goal in mind looks for effective ways to get to that target.
In addition to these four, achieving a specific goal, or even sensing progress toward a goal, provides effective reinforcement for the athlete. Practice sessions can be dull and repetitive. When the athlete sets and achieves interim goals, the practice sessions become more rewarding. Setting short-term goals that can be achieved rapidly is important—particularly for young athletes starting in a sport.
Keys to Goal Setting
Individuals may set outcome and performance goals and should use both short-term and long-term goals. Goals should be specific and measurable. Aiming to be a better gymnast or to run faster is too general to be effective. The goals should not only define a specific behavior or skill but also set a time by when you will achieve them. Furthermore, over time you need to regularly revise the goals and establish more challenging goals as you achieve them or modify them if you do not achieve them.
Outcome and Performance Goals
The goals might be performance goals or outcome goals. A performance goal would be a goal such as knocking 10 percent off my running time. A specific time schedule might be within two weeks. To meet the qualifying time for a league or national meet at the next competition would also be a performance goal. An outcome goal would relate to a competition—to win the 400-meter race at next Saturday’s meet. Useful outcome goals can be narrower than winning the event. Goals such as achieving five steals per game in basketball or getting five good shots on goal in soccer are examples of narrow outcome goals. As with the performance goals, outcome goals should also have a time frame. The goal should specify the meet or match at which you will realize the goal.
Performance goals are usually more effective than outcome goals, because achieving a performance is in the control of the athlete, but achieving the outcome goal depends on other competitors in the meet as well as the athlete. Performance goals in some areas are difficult to devise. Boxers, for example, have more difficulty devising performance goals than do gymnasts, but even with boxers, they should set meaningful performance goals.
WINNING, EVEN WHEN YOU LOSE
For example, a boxer may have a performance goal to land 75 percent of his punches or to use his left arm 10 percent of the time. These goals can be measured and evaluated. Thus, when boxers set performance goals, they can still achieve their goals, even when they lose their matches.
Short-Term and Long-Term Goals
Goals should include those you will accomplish in the short run as well as in the long run. Many performers specify small increments with short time frames.
INCHING TOWARD SUCCESS
A javelin thrower decided what distance he would have to get to win the district meet. The gain seemed impossible. He then calculated the weeks before the meet and determined that he would have to gain only six inches per week, which, broken down further, was only one inch per day. This one inch per day seemed achievable, but over time would achieve the goal of winning the district meet—a long-term outcome goal.
Tracking Goal Achievement
After goal setting, the athlete should keep track of progress toward the goal. Setting a specific behavior and a time schedule allows for this clear measurement of accomplishment. A goal such as that of the gymnast—to get better, with neither a measurable behavior nor a time frame—is much less effective than a strong statement of a specific behavior for her to achieve by a certain date. The javelin thrower, for example, could keep track of his progress day by day.
You need to revise goals as you achieve or miss them, particularly the short-term performance goals. The javelin thrower did not need to revise his goal of one inch a day as long as he was meeting this schedule, but many short-term goals are for a specific performance rather than increments. When the time set for the goal achievement is up, you need to review the goals.
Athletes need to consider the extent to which they should share goals with other people. Generally, sharing the target with some others is beneficial. Understandably, athletes may not wish to share their goals with the teammates they intend to beat, but they might want to share them with parents and a few friends. Those with whom they share the goals can help the athletes keep the goals in mind and reinforce their achievement. To keep the goals in mind, athletes might print their goals in large type and post them inside a locker door or on a mirror at home. Being reminded of the goal frequently is useful for motivation.
I will add that because it is useful for an athlete to share goals with others, the athlete can also help other athletes by commending them as they reach their goals.