By: Colleen M. Hacker
Originally Published in: Achieving Excellence
Provided by: Human Kinetics
Olympic athletes, like most high achievers, commonly set goals to guide and motivate performance. These elite performers would not engage in action planning if they were not sure that setting goals works. Therefore, it is critical to understand just why it does work and which types of goals a performer should set. Learning the why of goal setting has the additional benefit of preventing athletes from falling prey to the myriad seemingly persuasive goal-setting programs offered. Scholars hold two perspectives on why setting goals enhances performance, one from a mechanistic perspective and one from a more cognitive perspective. We will address both approaches. Either way, it is important to note that goals both directly and indirectly influence performance.
According to the direct (or mechanistic) view, goals direct performers' attention and effort and foster new learning strategies (Locke and Latham 2002). For example, a lacrosse player's goal to win 80 percent of ground balls requires them to pay attention to maintaining a strong bottom hand at the end of the shaft, pushing their hips forward and down to the ball, angling their stick, and following through when collecting the ball. If an athlete focuses on those sub-skills, they will be more likely to pick up ground balls more frequently and successfully. Goals also help performers maintain their effort during challenging circumstances. If an undergraduate student has a goal of becoming a medical doctor and is daunted by four years of medical school, then setting goals that break down the program into smaller segments (e.g., semesters, weeks, individual assignments) can help them persist and sustain consistent effort across time. Distance runners and swimmers benefit from goal setting in similar ways when they set a goal for the next lap or 50 meters of a long training session rather than focusing on the entire practice. Finally, according to this mechanistic theory, performers can learn new tactics and techniques through goal setting. For example, a golfer might adjust their putting stance to consistently sink putts from various distances. By targeting each of these performance elements through specific action plans, performers' goals can directly and positively affect performance.
Goals also have an indirect impact on performance (Burton 1983). Burton suggested that the effect goals have on performance depends on how the type of goals being set influence a person's thoughts and feelings, specifically their anxiety, motivation, and confidence levels. For example, if an athlete focuses solely on outcome goals (e.g., winning a gold medal, being a top 10 finisher, outpacing a sibling to win the front passenger seat for the car ride), it is more likely that those performers will develop unrealistic expectations for themselves about winning. These unrealistic and outcome-focused goals can result in lower levels of confidence and effort and increased anxiety when unsuccessful. As we have demonstrated in previous chapters, with increased anxiety and lower confidence, poor performance typically follows. Instead, when performers focus on goals they can control, that are process oriented, and that are self-referenced, they are more likely to develop optimal confidence, motivation, and effort (Gould 2020). Using this view of goal setting, prudent lacrosse players would focus on their defensive positioning and staying between their opponent and the goal at least 90 percent of the time rather than setting a goal to prevent their opponent from scoring (an outcome-focused goal). Surgical oncologists would set goals to improve the precision of their incisions rather than thinking about how many lives they hope to save this month. While saving lives or preventing scoring attempts are laudable and desirable preferences, it is setting and reaching their performance goals that increases a person's confidence and decreases anxiety, thus making the preferred outcome more likely.
Understanding the why - why goals work - is essential to reaping the benefits. Otherwise, you might fall for any persuasive or new-to-you idea that seems intuitively appealing but is unproven. Both the cognitive and mechanistic theories of goal setting have deep and extensive scholarly support. Quality research and evidence suggest that setting goals can both directly and indirectly affect performance. Research findings also demonstrate that the achievement domain matters, demographic characteristics of the individual matter, and the performance environment matters. The key is in knowing when and how to set effective goals and then apply them appropriately for a specific person in a specific context. You can only apply them in your own life if you understand how goals and action plans work. From both direct and indirect perspectives, you as an athlete, leader, or performer should note that setting goals and creating action plans can enhance performance by directing your attention to the most important elements of the skill and by enhancing your thoughts and emotions (e.g., confidence, motivation, satisfaction). Being aware and knowing what elements of your performance can benefit most from effective goal setting opens the door for you to positively affect any of the four pillars of your sport, namely tactical, technical, physiological, or psychological. You can then direct your attention to confidence or motivation, for example, or to skill improvement or tactical awareness.