By: Wade Gilbert
Originally Published in: Coaching Better Every Season
Provided by: Human Kinetics
Hundreds of studies have been published on goal setting in sport. The consensus is that goal setting is perhaps the most effective and important strategy that a coach can use to build a successful sport program. Evidence shows that goal setting is well worth the effort. Goals direct attention to the behaviors and attitudes that affect performance. Setting goals raises excitement about the journey ahead, resulting in a more satisfying experience for coaches and athletes. Finally, goals lead to the higher levels of effort and persistence needed to complete the journey.
Most goal-setting approaches can be traced back to a simple framework proposed nearly 40 years ago, referred to as the SMART way to write goals. Goals are SMART when they are specific (clearly written), measurable (progress can be observed and tracked), attainable (appropriate training resources and coaching support are provided), realistic (within reach of the athlete's current level of performance), and time bound (have a due date).
Examples of SMART goals for various sports, written by Dr. Damon Burton and Dr. Thomas Raedeke, experts on goal setting and coaching, are listed here. Keep in mind that although these goals are specific, measurable, and time bound, only you will know what is attainable and realistic with your particular athletes.
The SMART approach to setting goals is appealing because of its simplicity. Decades of research shows that for goal setting to be effective, coaches need a deeper understanding of the goal-setting process. The key findings for coaches from this goal-setting research are the following:
Although most athletes and coaches recognize the importance of goal setting, they do not consistently follow these goal-setting principles. Setting and regularly evaluating goals require a considerable time commitment from coaches. The time is well spent, however, because teams led by coaches who use these goal-setting principles have a higher sense of team cohesion, play better together, work harder for each other, and stay more focused on achieving their goals than teams led by coaches who neglect the principles.
A series of studies with tennis athletes and their coaches highlights both the strength of these goal-setting principles and potential goal-setting challenges. Athletes overwhelmingly preferred moderately difficult goals that were focused on specific tennis skills, physical conditioning, motivation, and general tennis strategies. Participating in setting their own goals, trusting their coach's expertise, and being rewarded for achieving their goals all increased commitment to the goals. On the other hand, factors cited as barriers to achieving goals included lack of time, too many goals, lack of confidence in ability to achieve the goals, and goals that were too vague.
Although coaches' perceptions on goal setting matched athlete responses fairly well, some important differences were identified. For example, coaches believed that setting team goals was more effective than reported by the athletes. Also, coaches believed that peer pressure and writing down goals were stronger influences on goal-setting effectiveness than did their athletes. Lastly, athletes tended to set more outcome goals than the coaches did.
Two follow-up studies were then completed by the same researchers with high school and college coaches from across a wide range of individual and team sports. The coaches were selected based on their reputation and self-identification as goal setters. Team goals were typically first dictated by the coaches but then adjusted with athlete feedback. Athletes were given much more ownership of their individual goals. Goal-setting practices were often nonsystematic and very loose. Many goals were not formally written down or even formally evaluated, but the coaches did acknowledge a conscious effort to identify goals and monitor progress toward goal achievement.
Both objective and subjective information was used to inform goal evaluation and adjustments. Objective information included practice and competition statistics, whereas subjective information included coach and athlete feedback. Coaches also tended to set goals a bit too high, creating undue pressure on both themselves and their athletes. Coaches must be careful to temper their preseason expectations with a realistic assessment of the current needs and abilities of their athletes. Lastly, regardless of the sport or goal-setting strategies used, common barriers to goal achievement included mental (lack of confidence, effort, motivation, or attitude; excessive pressure) and physical (injury, illness, lack of ability) challenges.
Avoiding goal-setting disagreements or confusion can be accomplished through regularly questioning, listening to, and observing the athlete over the course of a season. This approach will reduce the likelihood of goal-setting missteps and create a shared understanding of athlete and coach goals, emotions, and perceptions of ability. The unique playing environment that shapes each athlete's experience (e.g., his or her role on the team, composition of the team, sport culture) must also be considered when evaluating goals.