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Goal Setting for Peak Performance: I Wanna Be a Superstar!

Goal-setting principles that work

Goal setting is one of many psychological strategies that can help athletes achieve peak performances. The process of setting goals not only influences athletes’ performances, but it’s linked to positive changes in a variety of psychological states, such as motivation and confidence. Additionally, goal setting is a tool that can be beneficial in all areas of life, including school.

Coaches and parents can teach goal-setting techniques to their young athletes. To be effective, the process must involve a collaborative effort. Why is this true? If coaches or parents set goals for kids, they become the adult’s dreams, not the athletes’ objectives. To assist youngsters in mapping their road to success, apply the goal-setting principles presented below.

The ABCs of Goal Setting

  • A: Goals should be achievable. The best goals are challenging, yet within reasonable limits. If a goal is too difficult, athletes quickly lose interest and motivation. If a goal is too easy, athletes accomplish it with minimum effort.
  • B: Goals should be believable. Athletes need to understand how each goal will help improve athletic performance. Goal setting helps teach athletes that continued improvement is the result of dedication and effort in practice.
  • C: Athletes should be committed to goals. This means they will act on a daily basis. Why is this important? It isn’t what we do once in awhile that shapes our lives, it’s what we do consistently. Athletes must therefore “buy into” goals and work toward achieving them in a systematic way.

Focus on the Process

In addition to the ABCs, researchers have identified several key principles that enhance the effectiveness of goal-setting procedures. Most importantly, goals should focus upon the process of performance rather than the product.

  • Outcome goals focus on the product of performance. Good examples of outcome goals are wanting to win a league championship or get the MVP award. Although outcome goals can provide a sense of direction and purpose, they do have built-in flaws. For example, if your goal is to go undefeated all season and you lose your first game, it’s all over.
  • Process goals focus on the actual acts of performance and learning, and they define what the athlete needs to do to be successful. For example, instead of setting a goal to win, a basketball point guard might strive to commit fewer than five turnovers—something that’s within the athlete’s “zone of control.” Process goals are also useful when teaching skills and drills. For example, when teaching a hockey player how to take shots, the learning objective might be to hit the puck with the “sweet” part of the blade on at least 7-out-of-10 attempts.

Inch by Inch, It’s a Cinch

Process goals should be set in small increments, which is supported by the saying “Yard by yard, it’s awfully hard, but inch by inch, it’s a cinch.” Short-term goals are effective for two main reasons.

  • They are more flexible and controllable. Thus, they can be more easily raised and lowered to keep them challenging but realistic.
  • They provide more frequent evaluations of success. The object of each step is to give athletes a sense of accomplishment, which motivates them to eventually reach long-term objectives.

Goal Stoppers

Although there are many advantages to implementing a goal-setting program, some problems can arise.

  • One problem is setting too many goals too soon. This results in a system overload. To avoid this, an appropriate approach is to prioritize goals and focus attention on the one or two that are most important.
  • Some goals are too general. If you can’t measure the goal in terms of specific numbers, it's too vague and general to be used effectively. And again, remember that process goals are preferable to product goals because athletes have greater control over them.
  • Some athletes have negative attitudes about goal setting. In such cases, it's best not to force their participation in a goal-setting program. Quite frequently, they will see the benefits and enjoyment that other athletes are experiencing as a result of goal setting and will come on board later on.

Putting Goal Setting to Work

Psychologists have learned a lot about how to design and carry out effective goal-setting programs. To be successful, a systematic approach must be employed. The simplest and most effective procedure is detailed in a book that I co-authored with my colleague, Dr. Ron Smith. For information about Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches, go to

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