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UK Coaching Research Team
Organising and Planning

Goal Setting in Action

Using a real life case study we explore how goal setting can make the difference between success and failure

As part of a wider research project on goal setting, a sports psychologist recalled the experience he had of working with a young footballer, for whom setting goals was a new challenge, with career-changing potential.

Kenneth was a 19-year-old midfielder for a professional club in Denmark. Long term, his goals were:

  • establish himself in the first team 
  • play regularly for the national under-21 team

Previously, his experiences of goal setting had been poor. The process had been little more than an evaluation without any real associated action. Immediately, this shows one of the problems with goal setting: if it isn’t done correctly, it quickly develops a bad name with players.

However, Kenneth was obviously someone who had a questioning personality, and he showed enthusiasm to try again. For the next year, he would take part in a research project on goal setting and meet regularly with a sport psychologist in the club’s canteen prior to training.

For the sport psychologist, the first part of the process was about establishing the relationship. This involved general discussions about how Kenneth first got involved in football and his early history in the game. As both parties started to feel comfortable in each other’s company, discussions moved on to look at strengths and weaknesses.

Goal making, goal breaking 

Kenneth was strong at passing and playing in the role of defensive midfielder, but he wanted to get better at attacking. From this, more specific goals were developed:

  • improve the use of his left foot
  • improve shooting
  • improve heading

The importance of a good personal relationship soon came into focus when it became clear that while Kenneth was successful in some of his goals, he was neglecting others. During a session where Kenneth was explaining his successes, the psychologist was not afraid to intervene and challenge Kenneth in a friendly way, asking:

 "When do you have in mind to start focusing on the other goals?"

Towards the second half of the research project, the psychologist noted a real step change in Kenneth. Now he was focusing on the small things, the specific parts of the goal that would lead to long-term change.

One thing that seemed to play an important part in this change was when coaches and others started to comment on his performance and effort. However, it was not long before Kenneth had regressed again as he admitted to himself:

I haven’t been focusing directly on my goals… mostly, I have been concentrating on doing as well as I can… just my game as a whole instead of focusing on singular aspects.

This shows the complex nature of goal setting in sport, which the researchers in this article refer to as “dynamic and ever changing”. In one conversation, the player seems to be concentrating on how to achieve their goals, but only a few weeks later, they have lost that specific focus. Again, the psychologist needed to question and challenge Kenneth to understand:

  • what had happened?
  • how can I return focus to my goals?

The power of imagery 

In general, Kenneth developed well over the course of the study and achieved most of his goals.

One final interesting story was around his goal to improve heading the ball, where little progress was being made. After several sessions to understand the problem, a new plan was identified to help achieve this goal using the power of imagery. Kenneth was given heading practice on his own so that he could develop positive images of the action. 

By practising in this way without pressure, he was able to create positive images that could be recalled later. The researchers believe that this positive ‘imagery of the movement’ was decisive in the development of heading skills, and he now looks forward to practice thanks to positive images of him heading and even scoring in the future.

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UK Coaching Research Team