goal setting in sport

Goal Setting in Sport

By Danny Webber
Danny Webber is a SENr registered practitioner, an ISAK certified Anthropometrist and a UK Anti-Doping accredited adviser.
| Updated on June 2, 2022

Goal setting in sport is a vital part of every athlete’s training plan to enhance motivation and overall performance outcome. Goal setting for athletes varies from athlete to athlete and will likely change throughout the year to suit a particular season.

Nutrition and training programmes will also be different for each athlete even though the desired outcome may be the same.

This will be tailored to the individual’s body composition, training levels specific to that time of year, and personal preferences.

An athlete’s body is designed for performance in their chosen sport and this may require improvements in body composition relating to increases in muscle mass and/or reductions in body fat levels.

Other performance goals may include endurance, explosive speed and strength, technical or mental skills.

On the other hand, an athlete may currently be injured or undergone surgery, therefore recovery and rehabilitation is another key period for every athlete with specific training and nutritional requirements, and also psychological support during these difficult times.

Athlete goal setting can be quite easy…it’s achieving them which can be hard.

Here are a few things to remember when it comes to goal setting to improve your chances of achieving them.

What is goal setting?

Goal Setting is the process of setting practical and realistic targets for achieving some desired result in the future.

Goal setting is used to strengthen one’s commitment to certain rules and doing the basics consistently well with their nutrition, training and general daily habits i.e. sleep.

Goals can be separated into short, medium, and long terms.

Why are goal setting for athletes effective?

Setting goals in sport is an effective psychological technique to help an athlete instil motivation and focus on individual areas of their training/nutrition/lifestyle to make improvements to specific weaknesses.

Each goal is a stepping stone for achieving an athlete’s ultimate long term goal, making them more likely to succeed with focused and realistic targets.

How goal setting improves athletes’ performance

Research and studies show target setting in sport has been shown to help gain better sports performance.

It not only boosts morale and motivation but also helps keep an athlete’s dedication and hard work which later translates to commitment and persistence.

Goal setting in sports provide focus, maintains high motivation, brings positive changes in progress, direction, realistic views, and happiness through satisfaction by successful completion of set goals.

Athletes must learn to set proper goals through SMART goals when goal setting in sports.

Any goal that you focus on should be important to you and nobody else. This will help you to maintain motivation and be more likely to succeed.

On the other hand training goals may be set for an athlete by a coach to help them augment performance and develop as an individual.

Although this has not directly been set by you, it should be something you agree with and is equally important for you to achieve this goal, as ultimately it challenges you to be a better athlete.

You’re never alone. Don’t think you have to do something on your own, especially if you’re an athlete. If you’re in need of help and support then, if it’s not already available to you, then seeking help from professionals in a variety of sports science fields can be valuable.

Not only is it important to consult a professional if needed, but sometimes the best people to go to are your friends and family.

Every athlete goes through a tough spell e.g. injury set-back, shock defeats, but having people around them is vital to keep on fighting and improving.

GROW Model

GROW Model comes from 4 key stages of goal setting:

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will

The GROW Model emphasizes the journey of the goal. First, you set the Goals, realize where you stand at achieving the goal (Reality), you then decide what your Options are for achieving the goal, then attain Will power to achieve those goals.

Goal – What do you (as the athlete) want to work on/improve on? Set realistic short, mid, and long-term goals to achieve them.

Reality- As the athlete where are you and how long do you think it will take you to achieve your short, mid, and long term goals? Get a reality check, understand what you can achieve and what you cannot.

Options- While there are some set routes to achieve your goals. For Example: To improve core body strength you can do sit-ups, however, that is not the only option available. There may be other options/routes that will help get to your goals efficiently and effectively.

Will- Hard work and dedication to achieve your goals is the key to successful completion of your all kinds of goals. There will be times where you might question your own dedication and work, however, great things are hard to achieve and so are your goals. You have to achieve them through sheer willpower.

What to keep in mind when setting goals?

Guidelines for Creating Performance Goals

Specific – the What, Where, When, How, Who and Why. Pinpointing a specific goal by answering these questions is important to know what you want to do, and how you’re going to do it.

Measurable – breakdown your goal into different elements so you can quantify your goal once you achieve it. Losing body fat is not measurable; adapting your diet for a sport so you eat less by cutting out a daily chocolate bar, focusing meals around lean protein foods and vegetables, and training for an extra 10 mins each session, is.

Attainable – is your goal realistic? Are you asking too much of yourself? Setting sights too high and failing to achieve your goal can have a negative impact.

Relevant – is the goal relevant to you and will this help you improve your performance?

Timely – if you have a competition coming up and need to be at your peak then what time-frame do you have? This typically applies to make-weight athletes who need to hit a certain weight in a short amount of time so they can compete. 

Here are some guidelines that the SMART goal setting doesn’t elaborate:

1. Goals must be difficult to achieve but shouldn’t be unrealistic. When we set unrealistic goals and not be able to achieve them, we tend to lose motivation and confidence which will have a negative impact on goals.

Goal setting in sport can lead an athlete to be solely focused on one thing…achieving the objective. However there are different types of goals to consider that are all important for successfully achieving any set goal.

Outcome goal in sport  

These are the focal point for a competition in which an athlete may set sights on winning a tournament. This is the overall goal and can only be achieved with the successful application of the following 2 goals. Andy Murray’s outcome goal this summer is likely to win Wimbledon for the third time. 

Performance goal in sport

It is the specific performance-related objectives tracked by various statistics in order to achieve the outcome goal.

One area of performance that Andy Murray may need to improve on is his serving and needs to achieve a better first-serve success rate.

He may therefore set a performance goal in the training of hitting 90% first serves in, to better his current average 80% success rate.

Process goal in sport

This is the execution applied during training to improve performance. With the performance goal to improve the serving success rate by 10%, the process could be to apply to the same routine and technique for every serve, therefore making it more likely to consistently serve accurately.

Focusing on process and performance goals rather than outcome goals can help an athlete to control their actions, and ultimately, perform better.

Example of using process goals

Process goals are goals that are controllable by the athlete in working towards performance goals.

For Example, to achieve 10% body fat I will:
Hit my daily protein intake,
Be in a 300-500kcal daily calorie deficit,
Fuel my training sessions well.

2. Set short term as well as long term goals. Setting short term goals will boost your confidence when you complete them and prepare you for the long term goal. Setting long term goals will help you visualize progress and work towards improving yourself.

3. Write your goals. Writing your goals helps to be crystal clear about your goals and work towards them.

4. Discuss your goals with another person. This helps you check if your goals are set properly or if it is realistic or not. An athlete can ask their coach to check their goals for them.

5. Set your goals for yourself and not copy someone else’s goals: You have to be incontrol of your own goals. If you set your goals yourself, you are more likely to go with it. Personality and individual differences come into play in goal setting.

6. Regular monitor goal progress: Evaluate your progress throughout the time period, check it’s effectiveness and adjust your goal difficulty according to your capabilities and instinct.

7. Identifying the time constraint: Time should be stated when setting clear goals. For Example: Completing some task before a certain date is a successful goal completion.

8. Identifying a goal achieving strategy: Setting a goal and the route and strategy to achieve the goals are two different things. You must find a strategy to effectively and efficiently reach your stated goals via a certain strategy.

9. Seeking Support: Effort should be rewarded with support. Athletes easily tend to get demotivated without enough support. It is motivational to know that there are individuals that support you and your goal.


What is the main purpose of goal setting for athletes?

Goal setting helps athletes outline the process required by breaking down the overall goal into smaller targets for a sustainable plan. This helps them and their coaches to make short, medium, and long term goals according to the overall objective

Can athletes achieve success without setting goals?

It’s very unlikely. Athletes will work closely with their coach and support staff e.g. Nutritionist, to outline their goals and plans to achieve them, whilst monitoring progress to adapt accordingly. If an athlete doesn’t know every small thing he/she wants to achieve, he/she is unlikely to take the correct steps that will help them succeed.

What is a good example of goal setting in sports?

An athlete’s ultimate goal may be to win a key tournament. In order to achieve this, the athlete will need to improve areas of their game, so it’s setting progressive short-term goals to support this. For example, a golfer may need to work on their short/putting game, so in practice they will set realistic targets with their coach to reduce the number of misses, across certain distances/situations e.g. bunker shots, to improve their game. They may also notice a greater number of missed shots between holes 15-18, so improving their nutrition strategy to maintain energy levels could be another vital goal.

Should athletes set short-term and long-term goals in the sport?

Athletes should set short-term goals as well as long-term goals. But, their main focus should be on achieving short-term goals. Achieving many short-term goals is the only way an athlete can achieve their long-term goals.

What is one goal that every athlete should have?

Winning is the one goal that every athlete should have. If you have no chance of winning, at least aim to be better than before

Does every athlete achieve success in the same way?

No, every athlete can pave a different path to success. But, every athlete needs to have the dedication to follow the path they have chosen.

Should every athlete set a goal to increase muscle mass?

No, increasing muscle mass will make you stronger and be more physical and that helps in many sports. There are some sports like rugby, boxing, MMA e.t.c. where you need to manage your muscle mass. In endurance sports like road cycling, marathon, e.t.c the extra muscle mass can negatively affect your performance.

What are the main reasons for athletes failing to meet their goals?

Athletes mostly fail when they set unrealistic goals. But, many athletes also fail because of a lack of dedication. Some unfortunate athletes fail because they didn’t have the right people around them to help them succeed.

Should athletes give up if they don’t meet their goals?

Successful athletes never accept defeat and always take every necessary measure to improve. Reflective practice is a fundamental technique to help them use poor performances and areas of weakness to focus on and improve, helping to set new short term goals

Can you succeed in a team sport by achieving individual goals?

Achieving your individual goals will improve your individual performance. This can positively influence your teammate’s performances by providing a better pass or making smarter movements to draw opponents away to free up your teammate. Doing certain things in training better may influence your teammates to focus on specific areas of their game, which ultimately makes a better team.

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