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UK Coaching Research Team
Organising and Planning

The Art of Goal Setting

Expert guidance on the power of psychology and how goal setting with your athletes can make a real difference

Sport psychologists are often seen as the people who appear when a team or player is having a problem. Yet psychological strategies, such as goal setting, have been shown to have a powerful effect on behaviour at all times.

Goal setting theory has its ultimate roots in the simplest type of introspection that can be performed by anyone. It assumes that having a goal will impact on your actions by:

  • directing attention
  • mobilising effort
  • enhancing persistence
  • leading to new strategies

Initially, goal setting proved itself in the business world, and it was not long before sports psychologists started to take an interest.

Although it proved less successful in a sporting context (mainly, it is argued, because athletes are more motivated in the first place and already operating close to their performance ceiling), there is still plenty of evidence of goal setting being applied successfully. For example, research with coaches back in the 1980s identified goal setting as one of the most important psychological skills for athlete success and, importantly, one of the easiest coaching skills to improve.

However, the world of coaching has always been identified as a complex social environment, and goal setting should be considered an art rather than a science. In other words, there is no simple template to follow. Instead, coaches must be ready to be flexible and innovative in an ever-changing world.

The research project into goal setting published by Carsten Hvid Larsen and Christian Engell highlights the dynamic nature of goal setting in sport. While not everyone is likely to have access to a professional sport psychologist, there are a four lessons that any coach can take from the research.

  1. Goal setting is dynamic and ever-changing 

A coach needs to be flexible with the goal setting process, understand why some ideas don’t work and therefore be willing to think of new ideas to meet the goal.

  1. The relationship with the player is crucial 

The success of goal setting depends on the interaction between individuals setting the goals. A coach needs to be able to talk to a player to understand their needs and therefore what goals they should set. When things are not going as planned, it requires a good relationship to be able to challenge the player and get a positive response in behaviour.

  1. Goal setting takes time 

One theme that emerged from the research was how much time the psychologist spent talking with the player. Don’t expect the goals, or the methods to achieve them, to reveal themselves immediately.

  1. Players need to be self-aware 

In both setting goals and evaluating progress, players need to be able to give an accurate assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Make sure your players have the correct self-reflection skills before you work with them to set appropriate goals.

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UK Coaching Research Team