Three Tips for Using Goal Setting to Improve Motivation and Sport Performance
Updated: Apr 8, 2018
Research consistently shows that goal setting improves sport performance, both at the individual and team level. Although this may seem intuitive and simple, goal setting is not always as easy as it sounds. In fact, in my team development and mental toughness work with coaches and athletes as well as my own personal collegiate coaching experience, I have observed that few coaches take full advantage of the power of goal setting to improve motivation and enhance individual and team performance.
All too often, coaches and athletes set goals at the beginning of the season then tuck them away in a drawer or file somewhere and never look at them again. For goals to sustain athlete motivation, they have to be important – and they have to be visible.
Quality goal setting takes time, but helping your athletes develop good individual goals, regularly revisiting these goals, and working goals into daily and weekly practice plans helps keep athletes motivated and focused.
Here are three tips for using goal setting to improve athlete motivation and sport performance.
1. Help athletes develop SMART goals (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, time-bound).
Like other skills, goal setting is a skill. We have to teach athletes how to do it well. Without guidance and coaching, young athletes usually come up with vague and/or unrealistic goals like “I want to be better hitter” or “I want to be a good goalie.” What do these goals even mean? How will an athlete know when he or she achieves these vague goals?
Specific, measurable, time-bound, realistic, and difficult but attainable goals keep athletes focused and motivated and increase self-confidence via goal achievement. As coaches, we have to help athletes change “I want to be a better hitter” to “I want to be able to drive 5 out of 10 outside pitches to the right side of the field by the end of April.”
Be aware that young athletes usually need help setting goals that are difficult, but attainable with consistent hard work and effort. For example, I often have young pitchers throwing a softball 50 mph in January come up with a goal of throwing 58 mph by the time high school season starts in March. This is a completely unrealistic goal, and will destroy motivation when they are only throwing 53 mph by the end of March.
As a coach, I have to help athletes understand why that particular goal is unrealistic and guide them toward a more realistic goal that is challenging, yet achievable if they work hard and stay focused. Nothing zaps motivation more quickly than a goal an athlete discovers she has no chance of reaching. Conversely, reaching a goal, celebrating that accomplishment, and then setting a new goal can inspire new levels of motivation and commitment.
2. Help athletes develop short-term goals that contribute to long-term goals.
American society, in general, is obsessed with outcome goals (winning, grades, scholarships). As a result, young athletes are typically focused on long-term, outcome-oriented goals. For example, an athlete may aspire to win the conference tournament or be named to the All-State team. While these are noble goals, they are examples of common problems in goal setting.
First, the athlete has very little control over these outcome-focused goals. Winning the conference tournament, for example, takes buy in and commitment from lots of other teammates (I’ll provide tips for team goal setting next month). Additionally, several uncontrollable things could happen along the way (like injuries to key players or weather-related cancellations) to prevent the team from winning the conference tournament.
Second, these end-of-season outcome goals are too far out in the future to sustain motivation. It’s important to break long-term goals into a series of short-term goals that contribute to achieving the long-term goal. In essence, short-term goals are the detailed plan for getting to a long-term goal.
A stair step approach is one effective way of getting athletes to identify short-term goals that will help them reach a long-term goal. The long-term goal is at the top of the stairway. Each step up on the stairway represents a specific short-term SMART goal that contributes to achieving a long-term goal.
To sustain motivation and improve focus, write these short-term goals on notecards and use them as individual weekly goals during the season. Achieving short-term goals enhances motivation because athletes get some quick rewards along the way and see progress toward their long-term goals.
3. Help athletes develop process goals, rather than just outcome goals.
Like short-term goals, coaches must help athletes understand and develop process goals. In fact, these may be the most important goals of all because process goals are the task-related strategies and procedures that contribute to a good performance. As such, these goals are totally in the athlete’s control. Process goals help athletes focus on task-related performance rather than outcomes that are often outside out control.
Here’s an example:
Overall Outcome Performance Goal: Increase the number of batters I strike out by 15% over last season. (End of season goal)
Short-term Goal 1: Get ahead of 60% of batters each game. (Check after each game)
Process Goal: Implement a deep breath into my pre-pitch routine before every pitch.
Short-term Goal 2: Strike out at least 4 batters per game. (Check after each game)
Process Goal: Spend 20 quality minutes after practice three times each week working on accuracy of one specific pitch. (The athlete is totally in control of whether he/she does this or not and this action should result in improved performance).
Be aware that helping athletes understand process rather than outcome can be difficult. They are very attuned to outcome and results rather than process. But helping them understand the process and their control of the process is an important piece of mental toughness and helps improve motivation.
Developing SMART long-term, short-term, and process goals and keeping these goals front and center during the season is one great way of keeping your athletes motivated during the season. Good luck!