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Principles of Effective Goal Setting

Published August 14, 2014

By Eva V. Monsma
University of South Carolina

1. Make goals specific, observable and in measurable terms – Setting general goals such as improving your shooting percentage in basketball is easy but it becomes hard to determine how to go about doing this without specific criteria or directives. Specifying how and when to do things can help to this end. Coaches, consider telling your players to ‘draw’ a “C” with their wrist and use a cue word such as “push” to guide players towards the meaning of improved mechanics. A measurable goal is one you can quantify, in the sense that you know exactly how close you are to achieving that goal. Rather than saying “most of you have a good shooting percentage” reporting the percentage of players who meet the 65% criteria can be updated on the following week until 100% of the team has achieved this goal. Observable goals are those that can be measured and are specific. Thus, identifying what comprises a general goal can help develop specific criteria that are observable and measurable, especially if the terms of a specific date or number of trials.

2. Clearly identify the time constraints – Asking players to improve their shooting percentage will be ineffective unless you have a specified date or event to work towards. Is this goal to be accomplished by the end of practice? The end of the week? By playoffs? Well stated goals should be timely.

3. Use moderately difficult goals – Moderate goals are better than easy or very difficult goals because it pushes athletes to work hard and extend themselves in order to meet the goals. They are also more satisfying when attained.

4. Write goals down and regularly monitor progress – Goals are ineffective if forgotten. Write them down being as specific as possible. Keeping a journal or a publicly posted goal monitoring cha

Goal Type Poorly written goals Rewritten and improved goals

1. improve my free throw mechanics 

1.focus on bending at the knees during each of 10 trials

2. improve passing 

2. during each scrimmage, pass to a teammate 8 times
Outcome 3. improve win loss record from last year  3. Improve free throw percentage during games and decrease the number of fouls in the first half

rt can help athletes and coaches with the monitoring process. 

 5. Use short-range goals to achieve long range plans - As shown in the above diagram, goal setting is much like climbing a mountain. The long range goal of reaching your main goal requires strategic short-term goals setting.

 6. Set practice as well as competition goals – It is important for the team and the coach to recognize the critical importance of effective practices to prepare for competition. Practice goals should match competition performance goals as often as possible. Goals related to work ethic and attitude during practice are essential. Showing up on time ready to practice, entering warm-up with enthusiasm and paying attention to the coach and team captain are examples. Additionally, complementing one another on good effort can promote team cohesion and a supportive environment that is fun to be involved with. Practice goals should also involve using mental skills such as imagery which can help with skill learning, strategies, presentation and working through competitive anxiety.

7.  Make sure goals are internalized by the athlete – It is important that athletes feel in control (self-determined) of their goals. Ensuring that athletes accept and internalize goals is one of the most important features of goal setting. If athletes set their own goals, they will most likely internalize them. Sometimes when coaches set goals for athletes, they aren’t taken seriously.

8. Consider personality and individual differences in goal setting – Coaches should also keep in mind that athletes’ personality characteristics can determine the effectiveness of goal setting. Whether or not a player is ego oriented (compares their performance to that of others) or task oriented (compares her performance to herself) could determine the extent to which they will be able to internalize goals. When athletes define success as beating others, they have little control over the outcome. Ego oriented athletes also have a tendency to set unrealistically high or low goals so they can have an excuse if their goals are not attained. Task oriented athletes set goals about doing their best and making some improvement experience success more frequently, persist at tasks longer and are more confident. 

9. Set positive goals as opposed to negative goals – Goals can be stated either positively (e.g., increase the number of times I complete a back walkover on the balance beam) or negatively (e.g., reduce the number of times I fall off the balance beam during back walkovers). Whenever possible, set goals in positive terms by focusing on behaviors that should be present rather than those that should be absent. This can help athletes focus on success rather than failure. 

10. Identify a goal-achievement strategy – It is important to understand the difference between setting goals and identifying a strategy that will help you accomplish your goals. For example, general objective goals and outcome goals are often set without strategies. Consider the goal of making the University of Tennessee basketball team. A high school student would have to research the GPA necessary to get into her academic program of interest, adhere to a strict study schedule to make good enough grades on assignments and test in various classes, work hard at her shooting, throwing and passing skills as well as her offensive and defensive skills among setting other important goals necessary to get to get to summer scouting camps.

11. Seek support of goals – Significant others in the life of an athlete can help ensure goals are achieved. In addition to the team coach, this usually includes other coaches, family, friends, teachers and teammates. Effort should be made in educating these individuals about the types of goals that you are setting for yourself and the importance of their support in encouraging progress towards the goals.

12. Set team as well as individual performance goals – Performance for the team can be set just as easily as for individuals. Coaches should also consider involving the team in setting some of the various types of goals. For example, consider involving players in deciding weak performance areas and whether to focus on technique or strategies involved in those weak areas over the course of a practice. 

This article is adapted from Goal Setting for Synchronized Skaters and Coaches: Self-determining what you can achieve! Synchronized Skating Magazine, May, 2007.

Published in: Athletes, Mental Skills Training

Playing Pressure Points

Published August 14, 2014

By Gloria B. Solomon
California State University at Sacramento

Tennis is a game of momentum. When a player makes a dramatic shot at a critical time, the momentum is likely to be on his side. When an unforced error occurs, frustration mounts and momentum can shift to her opponent. While most athletes can keep focused and ready throughout a match, there are specific times when concentration may be disrupted. In order to take control during the entire match, including the pressure points, I teach athletes to use performance routines.

The primary way to play at your best consistently is through the use of routines. Top tennis players sustain their high levels of performance by following customized routines to ensure consistent play. For example, prior to serving most players perform a series of behaviors. These behaviors usually contain specific movements, which are then repeated prior to each serve. Examples of such behaviors include:

  • pacing behind the baseline
  • collecting balls
  • stepping up to the baseline
  • bouncing the ball a pre-set number of times
  • executing the serve

While the physical manifestation of a pre-serve routine is obvious, what might be going on inside the player’s mind? That is the most critical aspect of performance routines and is oftentimes neglected. If the athlete trains himself to go through a mental routine in conjunction with the physical movements, a more consistent performance will follow. Ultimately, this will allow a player to automate her preparation so that she primes herself in the same manner each time, which will lead to more consistent results.

These types of routines are important to standardize performance, but become even more impactful during critical pressure situations. Every tennis player has encountered a match where she was ahead in the final set, and somehow allowed her opponent back into the match. This downward spiral of performance leads to frustration, anger, and a type of choking response. Somehow, we forget how to play our game. However, if you continue to perform your routine, both prior to serving and prior to receiving, you are more likely to sustain focus when the pressure is on.

So how can you develop a personalized routine for playing tennis? Next time you play a match note what you are likely to do, and think, prior to each point. Ask yourself:

  • Do you prepare to serve the same way each time?
  • What causes you to vary your preparation? 
  • What are you thinking between points?

Taking this information into account, you can create your own custom performance routines: one for serving and one for receiving.

To create your serve routine you may want to include the following physical components:

  • pacing behind baseline
  • locating balls
  • getting into serve stance
  • bouncing the ball a specific number of times
  • and then executing

The mental components to consider are:

  • reviewing the last point
  • letting go of last point
  • redirecting your attention to strategy for next point
  • relaxing the mind by taking a deep breath
  • saying a cue word to direct attention to present focus (such as now, ready, or start)

Your mental routine and physical routine should be uniform and utilized in the same way each point, regardless of the game score, the set score, or the match score. 
Similar to a serve routine, you should also have a consistent routine when returning serve. Elements of this routine may include:

  • pacing behind the baseline
  • evaluating previous point
  • noting server’s positioning, getting into ready position
  • and utilizing a cue word to keep mind in the present

Having a performance routine for both serving and receiving will help you become a more consistent tennis player. Then you will be able to rely on your game regardless of whether you are winning easily or encountering a tough competitor. Playing consistently is not just for the pros, any tennis enthusiast can benefit from adding this simple skill into his/her repertoire.  

Published in: Athletes, Mental Skills Training

The 3 C’s of Being a Captain

Published August 14, 2014

By Larry Lauer
Michigan State University

Larry Lauer, PhD and Kevin Blue

Major Point: Captains embody 3 C’s in leading their team: Caring, Courageous, and Consistent.  

Being named a team captain is quite the honor. The position of captain is given to those athletes whom the rest of the team respect and trust to lead the team in the right direction. However, with this great honor also comes great responsibility. A captain must be accountable after a bad performance or practice. Captains are expected to perform in the clutch and lead the team to victory. It is also expected that captains will maintain control in the most pressurized situations and be the model of excellence for their teammates. Wow, coaches and athletes expect a lot of captains don’t they? Is it really worth it to be a captain? 

In our opinion, being a captain is one of the greatest honors an athlete can receive. Yet, many athletes take this honor for granted and do not understand the significance of their responsibilities as captain. In fact, in some situations captains may be selected because they are popular amongst their peers rather than being a suitable candidate for the captaincy. Athletes should take the captain’s role very seriously and put some thought on what it means to be an effective captain. In our opinion a good captain should embody the 3 C’s: 

Caring, Courageous, and Consistent.

3 C’s 


Great captains have an undeniable passion for the game, for competing, and for their teammates. They put the success of the team ahead of their own needs and are truly concerned with the well-being of all team members. As a caring captain, you should treat all teammates with respect and recognize the contributions made by all team members. If you have a problem with a teammate, you should approach that teammate in private and in a positive way to address the situation and find a solution. The captain should be the one to stop rumor spreading and gossiping. These kinds of behaviors destroy team chemistry.


Captains are willing to step up. As a courageous captain, you must “walk the talk” and you cannot be afraid to compete in the worst of situations. Courageous captains set the example for the rest of the team. Your actions must embody the core values of the team, especially during times of adversity. Be a model of courage and dedication to your teammates by setting lofty goals and working hard to reach them. Finally, as a courageous captain you must show that you trust your teammates and coaches, and are also willing to hold teammates accountable to working hard and being prepared.


Effective captains need to be the model of consistency. To be a consistent captain you need to hold yourself to a standard of giving 100% effort in every practice and game. You cannot cut corners and earn the respect from teammates and coaches that is necessary to lead the team effectively. Consistent captains also have an authentic style of communicating. Some lead by their actions, while others are more vocal. Importantly, to be a consistent captain you must remain true to your own style of communication and not try to be someone else.

If you successfully accomplish these 3 C’s you will earn a 4th C – credibility. Nothing is more important in leading your team into competition than being seen as an authentic, credible leader.

What if you need to develop your 3 C’s?

The good news is that captains can be developed; they are not necessarily born captains. To improve your caring, courageousness, and consistency spend time talking to captains you know. How do they handle certain sticky situations? Also, spend time around good captains and model their best qualities. You can also learn a great deal from reading about great captains such as Steve Yzerman, retired Detroit Red Wing.

Talk to your coaches as well. Find out what they are looking for in a captain and how you can fulfill that role. Finally, take your role seriously. Be willing to do what is right for the team even if it is “not cool”. And, get out and do it. You will learn much on the job including from your mistakes.

Published in: Athletes

Pain Tolerance in Sport

Published August 14, 2014

By Eddie O’Connor
Performance Excellence Center

Pain is ever-present in sport.  An athlete’s ability to tolerate pain is essential to success. Pain provides valuable information about your body and how it is performing.  To maximize its usefulness it is important to understand what kind of pain should be listened to and what type is helpful or safe to work through.

First, we must define the different types of pain you can experience:

  • Fatigue and discomfort.  This is an unpleasant feeling produced by effort, but not strong enough to be labeled “pain.”  Athletes learn to be “comfortable being uncomfortable,” as such efforts are a regular and necessary part of most sports.  With continued effort, discomfort can turn into …
  • Positive training pain.  This pain often occurs with endurance exercise, and includes muscle fatigue and sensations in the lungs and heart that can range from unpleasant to what is typically thought of as pain.  It is neither threatening nor a sign of injury. Because athletes know the cause, are in control of their effort, and recognize that these feelings are beneficial and can enhance performance.  In short, positive training pain is a good sign of effort and improvement.
  • Negative training pain is still not indicative of an injury, but goes beyond positive signs of training benefit.  An example may be extreme soreness that lasts for days.  There may be an overtraining risk.
  • Negative warning pain is similar to negative training pain, with the added element of threat.  It may be a new experience of pain and a sign of injury occurring.  It typically occurs gradually, and allows the athlete to evaluate potential training causes and respond appropriately.
  • Negative acute pain is an intense and specific pain that occurs suddenly, often a result of injury.  It is often localized to a specific body part and is labeled as threatening.
  • Numbness is rare but of very serious concern.  It is when the athlete feels nothing when soreness, fatigue or pain should be felt.  Instead, limbs are numb.  This may be a sign of serious injury or pushing one’s body past its physical limits.

We will focus on positive and negative training pain and save negative injury pains for another article.  

How you react to your pain is important. 

  • If you interpret your pain as threatening, or if you focus on the pain rather than concentrate on your sport, the pain will increase and interfere with your performance. 
  • On the other hand, if you view pain as something that is natural and necessary and interpret it as a sign that you are working hard and achieving your goals then your pain can be an ally. 
  • Many athletes find that recognizing that they are not alone in their pain is helpful.  The athletes playing with them also hurt, and the challenge of tolerating your pain may add to the competition.  In addition, athletes often report great satisfaction after persevering through a painful training session or competition.

Accepting the reality that pain is a part of training and competition may be most helpful.  You cannot perform at a high level and not experience pain.  Comfort and performance excellence are mutually exclusive.  You cannot have them both.  Prior to exercise, decide how much pain you are willing to experience to achieve your goals.  When pain shows up, be willing to feel it fully as part of your experience.  Let your pain be in service of your greater goal.  You may be surprised to find your pain suffering will be lessened when you allow pain to be a part of sport.

More on injury and rehabilitation pain at a later date (you are not advised to push through injury pain) … but until then, “Be willing.”


  1. Addison, T., Kremer, J., & Bell, R. (1998). Understanding the psychology of pain in sport.Irish Journal of Psychology, 19, 486-503.
  2. Taylor, J., & Schneider, T. (2005). The triathlete’s guide to mental training. Boulder, CO: VeloPress.

Published in: Athletes

Cue Statements: Staying Focused at Critical Times

Published August 14, 2014

By Ryan Hedstrom
Manchester College

Emily is a collegiate volleyball player. As a defensive specialist, she often receives serves and establishes the defensive plays for her team. She has recently struggled with losing concentration and confidence after bobbling serves and missing passes. This problem seems to be compounded during the matches, often resulting in Emily becoming completely frustrated and unfocused. The main problem is that she cannot shake these mistakes which cause her to continue a downward spiral in performance.

Emily’s problem is very common in sport. Athletes often complain of not being able to let go of mistakes or focus during critical times. One technique for dealing with this lack of focus is to develop and use a cue statement.

What is a cue statement?

A cue statement is a short statement said to yourself to refocus your concentration. Cue statements help you to stop negative and distracting thoughts that impact your performance. These statements should be:

  1. Personal – You need to find a cue statement that works for you! This could be a single word such as "tough" or "dominate" or a short series of words. One way to develop a personal cue statement is to ask the question, "If I were the best athlete I could be, how would I look and act?" Often times, as athletes are answering this question certain words and images emerge. Take time to think about how you would answer the above question because a statement that is believable and personal to you will be the most effective.
  2. Positive – To be effective in refocusing after mistakes, a cue statement should be positive. Negative self-talk has been linked to performance detriments and anxiety. Focus on what makes you the best you can be; do not spend time criticizing yourself.
  3. Short – The ideal cue statement allows you to quickly refocus but does not interfere with the necessary thoughts during performance. As mentioned earlier, some athletes prefer a single word such as "focus" while others use a short personal statement such as "strong, focused, in the game."

Returning to the case study previously presented, Emily might say that, as the best volleyball player she could be, she would stay calm after mistakes. She would stay confident during play. Finally, as the main defensive player on the floor she needs to be in control of the defensive play. For Emily, a personal cue statement could then become "Calm, Confident, in Control."

How do cue statements work during competition?

Using a cue statement for refocusing during competition is not difficult but does take practice. Using a refocusing cue statement in combination with a deep or centering breath allows you to refocus and decrease muscle tension caused by anxiety. So how does this work? When you find yourself unfocused or unable to refocus after an error, employ the following steps:

  1. Inhale a breath through your nose lasting a count of 4.
  2. Hold the breath for 1-2 seconds.
  3. Exhale the breath through your mouth lasting a count of 4.
  4. While you are exhaling, state your refocusing cue in your mind.
  5. Allow the exhalation and cue statement to help you refocus on the competition.

Practicing cue statements

As mentioned earlier, this technique takes practice. After you have decided on a personal and believable cue statement, practice it often and in varied situations. Just as you work on your layup or serve, you need to practice the refocusing cue statement and centering breath so it will be effective during competition. After practicing this technique, you will find it easier to employ during competition and stressful situations.

Published in: Athletes, Mental Skills Training