Rushall, B. S. (1995). Introduction to goal-setting skills. In B. S. Rushall, Mental skills training for sports (pp. 3.1-3.6). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.

The following is copied from the introductory section dedicated to goal setting in the book: Mental Skills Training for Sports.


Goals serve two general functions in sport settings.

  1. They can be used as reference standards for athletes to assess:

  2. They also can be used as the focal point for athletes to determine precompetition and competition strategies and content.

Goals influence two important factors in sports. Firstly, how a performance is viewed and how an athlete considers he/she will perform. Their effect is to govern performance efficacy. Thus, despite excellence in physiological conditioning and skill preparation, it is an athlete's appraisal of what is to be done, how well he/she is prepared to do it, and whether he/she thinks it can or cannot be done, that affects the quality of a performance. Goals underlie the majority of performance applications which are made in the training and competitive circumstances. An athlete without goals will lack direction, purpose, and adequate assessment criteria, deficiencies which will degrade the motivational qualities of a sporting experience.

There are numerous types of goals, each being defined by its potential effect on performance and its purpose as a standard of reference. A hierarchy of sporting goals is: i) career goals, ii) relatively long-term goals, iii) performance goals, iv) performance progress goals, v) activity goals, and vi) intermediate goals. Those goals are described below.

Career goals. Career goals stipulate the final major outcome of participation in a sporting career. They are usually established by the athlete and are not likely to be changed by a coach or club official. When these goals are not achieved, the athlete is likely to cease serious participation in the sport. If they are altered at an important stage in an athlete's career that alteration is likely to be accompanied by some performance deterioration. Examples of career goals are:

Being long-term goals, career goals have virtually no effect upon immediate performances. The coach should not appeal to career goals in an attempt to alter an athlete's state of enthusiasm or level of performance. Career goals serve as the final reference point for sporting career achievements.

Relatively long-term goals. Although these goals are distant, they specify the achievement of some standard or outcome at some defined stage in time. Examples are:

These goals can span more than one competitive season but do delineate an exact time period for accomplishment. They are established by the athlete and have a very low potential for being influenced by a coach. If they are not achieved, they will be followed by a period of demotivated participation or the athlete quitting the sport. They may be altered on the basis of performance goals that occur as the athlete progresses. Those changes usually are to increase the standard of the goal.

Performance goals. These are goals which indicate some performance standard or outcome that is to occur at a particular time. They differ from relatively long-term goals in that they relate only to performance. They serve the function of being the performance outcome upon which all training plans and competitive schedules are based. Examples are:

These goals are established by the athlete but can be influenced by a coach if he/she performs in the capacity of consultant during the goal formulation period. There is a need for the athlete to be able to justify why these goals can be achieved. Those justifications should be reinforced periodically as the athlete progresses to the exact day of goal assessment. Performance goals are not likely to be altered, except to marginally upgrade them. They serve as a standard for appraising on-going performances. A failure to achieve performance goals usually results in an extended period of demotivation.

Performance progress goals. These goals function as indicators of training progress towards the achievement of performance goals. They usually contain a specified date for evaluation that will allow the timeliness of progress also to be considered. They should be established by the athlete in consultation with the coach. When they are explicitly determined they serve as a schedule of expected self-improvements and constitute the basis for predicting future performance capacities. These goals need to be expressed in positive terms, such as running a certain time for 200 meters, making a number of tackles, or achieving a particular score in an archery competition. Goals such as not missing the cut, avoiding problems, and performing to not let the side down are unacceptable because of their negative expression and connotations. A failure to achieve performance progress goals leads to emotional reactions, such as frustration, depression, and demotivation. Corrective steps such as altering the training program, monitoring future progress more closely, and/or conducting an efficiency analysis to locate deficiencies can be made as a response to goal-failure. Performance progress goals affect performance in a constant manner over a short period of time.

In this section there are four exercises which focus on establishing the goals which have been discussed above. Since those goals are interrelated, they are best determined in sequence. Thus, the sporting career goals exercise should be completed first, then followed by the relatively long-term goal exercise, the performance goal exercise, and finally, the performance progress goals.

Activity goals. These goals stipulate the factors to be achieved in a specific performance attempt. Champion athletes designate specific goals for every training item and competitive experience. This type of goal serves to focus the attention of an athlete on what is to be done in a single performance. Examples are:

These goals are equally affected by the coach and athlete. Performance information as a consequence of the performance trial is the main ingredient for determining if the goals were or were not achieved. A failure to achieve them usually results in some alternative approach being tried in order to produce the desired outcome.

The procedures for developing activity goals are described in the sixth exercise of this section. They are also described in the first exercise "The establishment of a daily positive focus" in the section that describes the development of commitment. The use of specific goals for competitive performances can be located in the section concerned with establishing competition strategies.

Intermediate goals. These are the appraisals and assessments which occur during a performance which indicate progress towards specific goals. They serve as the goals of activity segments and directly affect the nature of a performance.

The procedures for establishing intermediate goals are described in the sections involved with the formulation of pre-competition and competition strategies.

Characteristics of Setting Goals

Since one can rarely do anything about an opponent's performance in a contest, specific goals should relate to an athlete's own performance quality. A football player can tackle an opponent in an attempt to halt progress but it is the quality of the tackle that will determine the outcome. It would be better for a player to focus on performing the skill elements that will result in the best tackle possible rather than attempting to achieve a more general end such as stopping the player. The latter focus does not ensure a desirable result whereas the former does promote the best attempt possible that, if achieved, will produce the outcome.

This is a difficult concept for some coaches and athletes to grasp. It requires concentration on the process of performing sport activities rather than striving for some score or effect. A typical example of this factor often occurs in basketball when players start to look at the scoreboard with increasing frequency as a close game progresses in its later stages. Such a behavior suggests that the player is trying to close the score or get ahead. However, that approach does not direct the athlete's play in any particular manner. A better goal-oriented focus would be to perform better in defensive roles and improve offensive skills, maneuvers, and strategies. If those features are attended to in detail then the quality of play should improve which, hopefully, will produce a more desirable balance in scoring. Put simply, if the skills and strategies are in place, the score will look after itself. Goals should focus on what has to be done in the activity, not what will result from it.

Goals should be restricted to performance expectations over which an athlete has control. There are advantages to having self-control goals; they are listed below.

With goals that rely on the ability of athletes to control what they do, training and competing become contests between the athlete and stable pre-defined goals. This leads to athletes developing a mastery orientation and having clear purposes behind practice and competitions. A competition or training task should be a challenge to control oneself to achieve a set of defined, self-oriented outcomes. In that context athletes are totally responsible for what they do.

The above description of self-control goals should be contrasted to goals such as "winning" and "making the team." The major influence that differentiates the two types of goals is the role of external factors in "winning." A large component of external elements which cannot be controlled produces uncertainty in an athlete. Uncertainty destroys confidence and self-efficacy. The resulting realization that there is not much that can be done to control what others do, decreases the motivation to perform well. One response to this realization is that the athlete "quits" before the contest and performs in an inferior manner. Another is that a desperation contest strategy is developed and usually produces poor results. For goals to be effective, they need to involve practiced features that can be controlled by the athlete.

Steps in Goal-setting

There are a number of steps that should be followed when setting goals. They are explained briefly below and are included as the steps for setting each goal-type included in this section. These steps were first described by Lars-Eric Unestahl of Sweden.

  1. Goal-awareness. Former goals which have and have not been achieved should be listed. This leads to better goal-setting skills and establishes an historical framework for developing realistic goals for the individual.

  2. Goal-inventory. The athlete should establish a list of possible goals. This could be done in consultation with the coach and should include all types of goals including those with a low-probability of attainment. This step defines the range of possible goals.

  3. Goal-analysis.The goal-inventory should be evaluated with each goal being assessed for its appropriateness and possibility. A hierarchy of possible goals should be established for each classification.

  4. Goal-selection. The hierarchies of possible goals should be evaluated and the goals selected. The criteria for selection are that they be:

  5. Goal-formulation. When goals are selected, they should be formulated and analyzed according to the following characteristics:

The above characteristics also suggest why "winning" is not an adequate goal. "Winning" is not concrete, for one does not know exactly what has to be done - others influence that. It does not have individual self-control, does not fit optimal probability, is not maximally believable (too many unknowns), and could be restricted to the point that it may not have strong incentive value for the athlete.

Multiple goals. If possible, there should always be more than one goal established for a classification. The intent of performing should always be to achieve a number of outcomes. The reason for establishing multiple rather than single goals is that the incentive value of goals accumulates. The selection of multiple goals should always ensure that the attainment of the majority of them is highly probable. This will produce a positive orientation towards performance with high expectations of success. The higher the expectation of success, the better will be the performance.

The setting of goals is not a simple task. It is not purely giving the instruction to "make up some goals" with the coach leaving it at that. It is a series of involved procedures that affects performance and participation in a dramatic way. Because of that it is worthwhile to take the time to establish goals with athletes according to the criteria that have been described above and the procedures indicated below. If that is not done, then goal-setting will be a feature of effective coaching that has been neglected.

The exercises that are included in this section should be completed in order for they are interrelated. These are important exercises and therefore, should not be hurried in any way. There is the possibility that, with time, goals may need to be changed and so athletes should be encouraged to make entries on the various worksheets in pencil. That will allow changes to be made with relative ease at some later stage.

[Two other goal-setting skills are described and appropriate developmental exercises presented. "3.5 Setting group training goals" focuses on coordinating the activities of several athletes at practice to achieve one or more collective goals, and "3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals" aims at developing the skill of establishing goals for each practice item as well as the practice session in general.]

Implication. Goal-setting is an important set of involved skills which will determine success and improvements that result from practice and competitive activities. It must be treated with detail and concerted effort for its potential benefits to be derived.

Exercise titles in Mental Skills Training for Sports.

3.1 Setting sporting career goals
3.2 Setting relatively long-term goals
3.3 Setting performance goals
3.4 Setting performance progress goals
3.5 Setting group training goals
3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals

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