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Goal setting helps athletes perform

This is an excerpt from Fundamentals of Sport and Exercise Psychology by Alan Kornspan.

Goal setting is one of the most important skills taught to athletes in order to help them achieve optimal performance. The goal-setting process helps athletes understand where they are currently and also where they want to go. A mental skills training consultant or sport psychologist can teach an athlete how to set systematic goals that are focused on the process and performance rather than focused on the outcome of competition.

Leith (2003) distinguishes between subjective goals and objective goals. Subjective goals are not related to a specific performance in sport; these may be related to just going out and trying one’s best. Objective goals are based on an athlete’s performance. For example, an objective goal of decreasing time by 2 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle event is focused on what needs to be done in order to become more successful at a specific sport. This specific objective goal would then help the athlete be more focused on the task at hand in order to improve technical and tactical skills.

Leith (2003) also distinguishes between outcome, performance, and process goals. Outcome goals are related to winning and losing or specific results of a competition. These differ from performance and process goals. Performance goals are related to various statistics that can help a person improve at what she is trying to do. For example, a golfer may analyze her game and realize that she has to hit more greens in regulation. Thus a performance goal for the season may be to improve from hitting 50 percent of the greens in regulation to hitting 60 percent of the greens in regulation.

In addition to outcome goals and performance goals, a very important type of goal for athletes to set are process goals. Process goals are related to performance goals; they are what the athlete should focus on while performing a sport skill. For example, in addition to setting a performance goal of increasing the number of greens hit in regulation by 10 percent, a golfer may also set a goal to go through the same routine before every shot. It is thought that the more one focuses on process goals, the less that person will worry about how she performs and hopefully will then perform better. Thus, the athlete, through learning to set process and performance goals rather than outcome goals, is setting goals that she has control over.

Sport psychologists have found that athletes often set goals that are not specific and not measurable (Rabasca, 1999). Also, athletes often set goals that cannot be controlled. Athletes often set goals that focus on winning, but they may have little control over whether they win. Their team may have an off night, a key team member might become ill or get injured, or the other team may get some lucky breaks, and none of this is under that athlete’s control. Kirschenbaum (1997) has presented the SMART acronym to help athletes set effective goals: Goals are specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic and they have a specific time frame.