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Principles of Effective Goal Setting

Eva V. Monsma, Ph.D.

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 chart can help athletes and coaches with the monitoring process. 

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.

 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 summer scouting camps.

11. Seek support for your 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 practice. 

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