The ABCs of Goal Setting

Success in sports, as in any other achievement arena, depends on both skill and motivation. And motivation includes striving for particular goals.

In my Psychology Today blog titled "Goal Setting for Peak Performance," I emphasized that coaches and parents should use the ABCs in teaching goal-setting techniques to young athletes. Specifically, goals should be Achievable and Believable, and athletes must be Committed to working on them. The importance of setting process versus product goals was also stressed. Process goals focus on actual acts of performance and learning, such as a baseball pitcher setting the goal of throwing a certain percent of first-pitch strikes; whereas, product goals focus on the outcome of performance, such as winning a league championship.

What other principles contribute to effective goal setting?

By applying the guidelines presented below, coaches and parents can help young athletes increase motivation, performance, and the amount of fun they have playing sports.

1. Set specific goals in terms that can be measured.

Specific goals are more effective in improving performance than are general “do your best” goals or no goals at all. An effective goal clearly indicates what a person needs to do to accomplish it. This means that you must be able to measure the performance that relates to the specific goal. For example, it should be possible to measure how much an athlete has improved on a specific skill or task (e.g., percent of successfully completed free throws) or the frequency of desirable behaviors (e.g., the number of times the athlete praised teammates).

2. Set difficult but realistic goals.

Difficult or challenging goals produce better performance than moderate or easy goals. The higher the goal, the higher the performance, as long as the goal does not exceed what the athlete is capable of doing. Goals should not be so be so difficult that the athlete will fail to take them seriously or will experience failure and frustration in meeting them. It is therefore important to set goals in relation to an individual athlete’s ability.

3. Set short-term as well as long-range goals.

Breaking down any long-term goals into smaller more attainable goals helps to promote achievement and success. Short-term goals are important because they allow athletes to see immediate improvements in performance and thereby enhance motivation. Without short-term goals, athletes can lose sight of their long-term objectives, and the sub-goals needed to attain them.

4. Express goals in positive rather than negative terms.

It’s best to set goals positively (e.g., number of passes made or shots-on-goal) rather than negatively (e.g., number of mistakes reduced). Positive goal-setting helps athletes focus on success instead of failure. Moreover, positive goals usually have clues on how to attain them. To turn a negative goal into a positive one, ask yourself a question: “What needs to be done instead?”

5. Set goals for both practices and games.

Setting goals for practice sessions is just as important as it is for games. Practices are the times athletes develop and hone their skills. When practice becomes meaningful as a result of being tied in with specific goals, athletes become more involved in what’s going on. Moreover, (a) setting specific practice goals, and (b) tracking progress toward them will help to reduce the drudgery of practice.

6. Identify specific goal achievement strategies.

One of the main reasons why goals are not accomplished is that athletes fail to map-out and commit themselves to goal achievement strategies. For example, if a hockey player wants to improve his/her speed by 5 percent, a productive achievement strategy could include skating additional 10 sprints after practice each day.

7. Record goals, achievement strategies, and target dates for attaining goals.

Once (a) specific goals have been set, (b) achievement strategies have been decided upon, and (c) target dates for goal attainment have been established, these should be written down so they can be referred to frequently. Some coaches and parents actually establish a formal contract with their young athletes to keep them focused on the activity and committed to it.

8. Set up a performance feedback or goal evaluation system.

Research indicates that performance feedback is absolutely necessary if goals are to enhance performance. Therefore athletes must receive feedback about how their present performance is related to both short- and long-range goals. Without such feedback, youngsters cannot track their progress toward goals and may be unable to see improvement that is actually occurring

9. Goals should not be “set in stone.”

Goals should be made to be revised, and they should be used as a guide. When athletes are helped to set realistic goals, they inevitably experience more success and feel more competent. By becoming more competent, they gain in self-confidence and become less fearful of failure. Perhaps most important, they discover that commitment to goals helps lead to success.

Putting Goal-Setting Principles to Work

To be effective, a systematic goal-setting approach must be designed and carried out. Simple procedures for doing this are detailed in a book that I co-authored with my colleague, Dr. Ron Smith. For information about Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches, go to

Coaching and Parenting Young Athletes

Developing champions in sports and life
Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith, Ph.D., is a University of Washington clinical sport psychologist who specializes in developing and evaluating interventions designed to improve the functioning of athletes.

Most Recent Posts from Coaching and Parenting Young Athletes

Politics, Values, and Youth Sports

Learning life values through sports

Don’t Ignore Kids Who Aren’t Star Athletes

Nonathletes need attention too!

Resolving Disputes About Playing Time

The primary source of coach-parent conflict