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  • Writer's pictureAthina Papailiou

Goal Setting for Athletes in 2 Steps!

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Many studies have shown that athletes of any level need various environmental and personal factors to perform at their best. Environmental factors might include the athlete's relationships with their team and their coach, the level of support they (perceive they) receive or the level of challenge they (perceive they) receive. Personal factors can consist of motivation, a positive perspective and skill (including physical skill, technical skill etc).

Being an athlete who seeks personal development, thriving and success requires constant improvement on different aspects of the sport, such as endurance, strength, technique, strategy... and the list can go on. Having so many vague things in mind can easily confuse you and make you feel overwhelmed and stressed, lose motivation, and thus not commit and not perform as well as you could. By not reaching your desired performance or result, the sense of competence decreases leading to lower motivation which results in less effort, static or poor performance, and so on.

Goal setting has been shown to be a very important tool in performance settings in order to maintain motivation, focus, commitment and boost performance. Aiming at specific goals helps with directing attention, increasing effort and persistence much more effectively than vague and general goals. Also, short term goals that will eventually lead to a long-term goal, make the process more manageable, less overwhelming and increase the sense of competence and achievement.

Here are the 2 main steps you can follow if you want to set goals effectively:

Step 1: Break down your goal!

Breaking down your goal into smaller chunks will help you:

· gain clarity of your goal

· know what your approach should be to achieve it

· make the goal more manageable

· increase your sense of achievement

There are 3 types of goals: Outcome goals, Performance goals and Process goals. Let’s see what each of them is.

Outcome goal: This is your desired end result, what you want to achieve in the long run.

e.g. I want to run 10km in 3 months; I want to back squat 80kgs.

Performance goals: These are your specific personal standards to be achieved, or benchmarks that will gradually lead you to your outcome goal.

e.g. Performance goal 1: I will run 5k on week 1; I will back squat 70kgs on week 1

Performance goal 2: I will run 6k on week 2; I will back squat 72.5kgs on week 3

Performance goal 3: I will run 7k on week 3; I will back squat 75kgs on week 5

And so on.

Process goals: These are the methods that you are going to use that will gradually lead you to each of your performance goals. They are the “how” of the goal setting process.

e.g. I am going to run 3 days/week and I am going to increase my distance by 1km every week;

I am going to practice my back squats 2h/week and I am going to increase the weight by 2.5kgs every 2 weeks.

The easiest way to break your goal down is to:

  1. identify your outcome goal

  2. break it down to your performance goals

  3. break your performance goals into more specific process goals.

Step 2: Set SMART goals

Setting SMART goals will help you:

· be more committed

· know exactly the steps that need to be followed

· keep track of your progress

Specific: Your goals need to be precise and detailed in order to gain control of the process. To make sure you have set a “specific” goal you need to ask yourself if you have answered to the 5Ws (Who, What, When, Where, Why).

1. Who is taking part in the goal process? It might involve just yourself, but you might also need someone’s help (e.g. your coach) or you might work with your teammates to reach a goal.

e.g. I am going to run 2 days/week with a friend and 1day/week by myself;

I am going to practice my back squats 1h/week with my coach and 1h/week with my teammate

2. What needs to be done? This needs to be specified in detail. The more details you add, the more clear your goal will be and thus, the less stressed you will be.

e.g. I am going to warm up and do some stretching for 10 minutes and then I am going to run 5k between 25-27 minutes;

I am going to warm up with an empty bar for 5 minutes and then I am going to start doing 3x5 at my 75%, 3x3 at my 85%, 3x1 at my 95% and then I will practice my 1RM.

3. When is it going to happen? Here try to set a specific day/date and time which will help you commit to your goal.

e.g. I am going to run 5k on Monday at 2pm;

I am going to practice on my back squats on Monday 2pm-3pm

4. Where is it going to happen? Specify the place.

e.g. I am going to run 5k at the stadium near my house;

I am going to practice my back squats at my gym

5. Why am I doing this? Try to think and understand the reason you need to achieve this goal. This will keep you motivated and committed.

e.g. Why am I running 5k? To improve my endurance ability, to reach my 5k benchmark and then to move on to my 6k benchmark;

Why am I aiming to do 70kgs on my back squats? To become stronger or to be able to perform better at my sport, to move on to my 72.5kgs benchmark

Measurable: Make your goals quantifiable. This will help you keep track of your progress and feed your motivation. The question you need to ask yourself is: How much? How long? or How often?.

e.g. I am going to run 5k 3 times/week and I am going to increase my distance by 1km every week OR I am going to run 5k under 25 minutes and I am going to lower my time by 1 minute every week (depending on whether your goal is the distance or the time);

I am going to practice on my back squats 2h/week and I am going to increase my weight by 2.5kgs every 2 weeks

Attainable: Make sure your goal is achievable by asking yourself if you have the necessary resources and skills. You will most likely commit to your goal if you believe that you can make progress towards it (rather than seeing it as a threat of failure). You will also most likely make the greatest progress if the goal is somehow challenging. The question here would be: Is it doable? and Is it challenging enough?

e.g. If you set a goal to run 10k next week and you have only just started to run 5k, maybe this is too challenging and it is not something that you will commit in the long run;

If your personal best is 70 kgs and your goal is to back squat 72kgs in a year, maybe this is not too challenging for you. Try to move along the process gradually with small achievable changes, but also try to aim high being as realistic as you can.

Relevant: Your goal needs to be relevant to your overall target. By reminding yourself your outcome goal, will definitely increase your commitment to your short-term goals. The question you would ask here is Will it bring me closer to my overall goal?

e.g. Running 5k will definitely help you improve your cardiovascular activity but it would probably be better to do different workouts if you wanted to improve your flexibility

Time-bound: It is very important to set a specific timeline and deadline to each of your goals in order to keep track of where you are in terms of your desired outcome and in order to stay committed. The question you would need to ask yourself is Does it have an end date?

e.g. I want to join a 10k race in 3 months; I want to do 1xback squat at 80kgs in 10 weeks

Some important things to remember:

  1. Write down your goals! It will act as a visual aid when breaking your goal down, as a reminder and as a progress tracker.

  2. Check your progress and review your goals regularly.

  3. Celebrate your wins and reward yourself! Reward yourself after a completion of a goal by doing something you like (e.g. buy something for yourself, go out to celebrate, make a cake... whatever you enjoy!)

  4. Modify your goals if necessary. Sometimes we set goals and we are certain that they are the right ones, but during the process we might find that they are not as effective: they might not be as easy or as challenging as they should be; the process goals might not be as relevant towards our outcome goal etc. That is okay. As soon as you identify any issue with your goal, modify it appropriately to a goal that you find more effective.

  5. "Eyes on the prize"! Remember your outcome goal to keep motivated and committed!



  1. Brown, D. J., Arnold, R., Fletcher, D., & Standage, M. (2017). Human thriving. European Psychologist.

  2. Bueno, J., Weinberg, R. S., Fernández-Castro, J., & Capdevila, L. (2008). Emotional and motivational mechanisms mediating the influence of goal setting on endurance athletes’ performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(6), 786–799.

  3. Burton, R. W. D. (2000). Perceived Goal Setting Practices of Olympic Athletes: An Exploratory Investigation. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 279–295.

  4. Locke, E. A. (1996). Motivation through conscious goal setting. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 5(2), 117–124.

  5. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1985). The application of goal setting to sports. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(3), 205–222.

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