Importance of Effective Goal Setting in Sport for Athletes

Goal Setting in Sport for Athletes to Achieve Optimal Performance

By Danny Webber
Danny Webber is a SENr registered practitioner, an ISAK certified Anthropometrist and a UK Anti-Doping accredited adviser.
| Updated on July 12, 2023

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

“Set your goals high, and don’t stop till you get there.” – Bo Jackson.

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, strength, technical ability, or mental skills.

On the other hand, an athlete may currently be injured or have undergone surgery, therefore recovery and rehabilitation is another key period for every athlete with specific training and nutritional requirements, as 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 in sport?

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 is goal setting important in sports for athletes?

Setting goals in sports is an effective psychological technique to help an athlete instill 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 setting smarter targets in sports 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 provides focus, maintains high motivation, and brings positive changes in progress, direction, realistic views, and happiness through satisfaction by the successful completion of set goals.

Athletes must learn to set proper performance 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, or 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 for athletes:

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will

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


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


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, and understand what you can achieve and what you cannot.


While there are some set routes to achieve your specific 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.


Hard work and dedication to achieve your goals are the keys to the successful completion of all kinds of goals. There will be times when 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 Setting Smarter Goals in Sport

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 – break down 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. 

Benefits of Goal Setting in Sport

To get the benefits of goal setting:

  • Set achievable personal goals for yourself.
  • Get yourselves focused and motivated and move on in the right direction.
  • Transform yourselves as setting goal activates new behaviors, guide your daily actions, and understand the real purpose of your life in sport.

Here are some of the benefits of goal setting:

1. Provides motivation

Having a significant goal increases enthusiasm and inspiration. You can work on short-term goals and then on long-term goals. The feeling of achievement fuels your desire and motivates you to achieve even more.

2. Gives your clearer focus

After setting a goal, knowing what you want to achieve in your life is important. When you think about hopes and dreams, your sports goals will center on what’s important to you. If you don’t set the right goals, you spend your time on things that are not important. Setting a goal can help you focus attention on what’s important and gain confidence and belief to succeed in the sport.

3. Gives you the clarity to make decisions

You can create a clearer future after setting a goal. Boosting athletic performance pushes us to become better athletes every day and encourages us to perform our best.

4. Performance improvement

Set difficult but achievable goals in the sport. Always set your goals based on your performance. Look at your performance record and refine your skills and social behavior.

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

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 our goals.

Goal setting in sports 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 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, achieve peak performance.

Example of using process goals

Process goals are goals that are controllable by the athlete in working towards enhancing performance by achieving their related training 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 self 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 you to be crystal clear about your goals and work towards them.

4. Discuss your outcome 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 in control of your own goals. If you set your goals yourself, you are more likely to go with them. Personality and individual differences come into play in goal setting.

6. Regular monitor goal progress: Evaluate your progress throughout the time period, check its 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 tasks 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.

Also, Learn about Marathon Training Diet for Optimal Performance

Mistakes to Avoid When Setting Goals in Sports

Goal setting is an essential process in sports that can help athletes achieve desired outcomes and improve their performance. Athletes should avoid such mistakes commonly when setting goals for sports.

Setting unrealistic goals: Setting goals that are too difficult or impossible to achieve can lead to frustration and disappointment. Instead, athletes should set goals that are challenging but achievable.

Focusing only on outcome goals: Outcome goals like; winning a competition is essential but not entirely within an athlete’s control. It is crucial to set process goals to concentrate on the steps an athlete needs to take to achieve their desired outcome.

Not making goals specific and measurable: Goals should be clear and quantifiable so that athletes can track their progress and know when they have achieved them. For example, instead of setting a goal to “improve my performance,” an athlete can select a specific plan to “increase my speed by 10% in the next month”.

Not setting short-term goals: Setting only long-term goals can be overwhelming and make it difficult to track progress. Athletes should set short-term goals that are achievable shortly to help them stay motivated and focused.

Not learning from mistakes: Mistakes are a natural part of the learning process, and athletes should use them as opportunities to improve their performance. Instead of getting discouraged by mistakes, athletes should reflect on them to learn from their mistakes and adjust their goals and strategies.

Setting too many goals: Setting too many goals can be overwhelming and make it difficult to focus on what’s most important. Athletes should prioritise their goals and focus on the ones that are most important to them.


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 or her 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 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.

What are the different types of goals in sports setting?

The different types of goals in sports setting are process goals, performance goals, and outcome goals. Process goals are applied during the training activity to improve performance. Performance goals are based on personal standards. Applying both performance and process goals, get to the desired finish line in goal setting as outcome goals.

Why is goal-setting important?

Setting goals in sport helps an athlete to maintain motivation, focus on key areas to improve their performance, and activate new behaviors, in both their training and daily lifestyle. You get short-term motivation and long-term satisfaction by leaving no stone unturned.

How does goal setting improve confidence in sport?

Setting specific goals and working hard to achieve them makes you feel self-confident and focused. Goal setting develops a positive attitude and mental preparation, finally improving confidence in sport.

What are the benefits of goal setting in sport?

The benefits of goal setting in sports are performance improvement, clearer focus, clarity to make decisions, and motivation

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