One of the most important and often frequently overlooked questions athletes need to consider involves goals. What are you trying to accomplish individually and as a team? When properly developed and regularly followed up on, goals help focus action, mobilize effort, provide a purpose for your efforts, motivate you to persist during difficult times, and perhaps most importantly, facilitate better performance.

When considering what types of goals to consider, several distinctions should be highlighted. Most often, athletes develop outcome goals. These types of goals represent standards of performance that focus on the outcome or results of a contest between teams or individuals (e.g. winning a match). Performance or process goals focus on improving your performance relative to previous performances (e.g. improving your time in a certain event, improving your percentage of successful first serves).

A useful acronym to assist in planning goals is SMART:

  • Specific - goals need to very specific and clear (e.g. I want to increase my max on squats to 350 pounds) as opposed to general (e.g. I want to do my best).
  • Measurable - goals need to be capable of being measured in some fashion.
  • Adjustable - you need a mechanism for adjusting your goals should your progress be faster or slower than you originally anticipated.
  • Realistic - goals should set that are sufficiently beyond your present ability but that are attainable over the preset length of time. Research suggests that the more difficult the goal, the better your performance will be provided the goals don't exceed your ability to attain them.
  • Time-based - goals should have some time-frame whether that frame is short-term, intermediate-term, or long-term. Target dates for attaining goals should be established at the outset.

Other tips for goal-setting include setting goals for both practice and competition, developing goals in positive as opposed to negative terms (e.g. "I will increase my percentage of fairways hit" versus "I won't slice the ball off the tee"), writing goals down and posting them in places where they will be regularly seen, identifying strategies for achieving goals, and evaluating how useful the goals have been in terms of performance.

Finally, performance or process goals are often times more beneficial than outcome goals. Athletes usually have, at best, only partial control over outcomes as they have only limited control over opponents' behavior on a given day. If your goals are viewed only in the context of wins and losses, it is easy to get frustrated and possibly feel like you've failed if you give your best performance ever but come up against someone who has an even better day. While we operate in a culture where considerable emphasis is placed on winning, if this is the sole focus, frustration can quickly set in. More useful goals focus on improving your performance each time you compete.

If you would like more information about goal-setting, contact us at sportpsych@vt.edu or at 231-2556.

Bull, S.J., Albinson, J.G., & Shambrook, C.J. (1996). The mental game plan. Cheltenham, UK: Sports Dynamics.

Gould, D. (1993). Goal setting for peak performance. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.