Goal Setting

Develop, implement and evaluate holistic long- and short-term goals for and with the individual athletes and team.

WHY: Training and progress are largely dictated by the intrinsic motivation of the athlete and strategic planning on the part of the coach. Goal setting provides direction, purpose, accountability, and motivation for the athletes and the coaching staff. In addition, individual and team goals can be used to monitor progress and identify improvement benchmarks, enhance team culture, reduce the fear of failure and performance anxiety, and inform planning relative to all aspects of player development.  

HOW: The coach uses their knowledge of athletes’ abilities, experience, attitudes, and roles to identify short- and long-term goals that are paramount to daily, seasonal and year-round planning. The coach also finds opportunities to engage athletes in both individual and team goal setting, progress evaluation, and reassessment on a regular basis in order to ensure that the goals are attainable, challenging and reflective of the participation pathways and stages of athletic development. Physiological, technical, tactical, and psychological training is then periodized based on the goals, athletes' current level of performance, and timing of the need for competitive peak performance. Effective goals are primarily process/mastery-based (that is, incremental and within the control of the athlete/team); therefore, they emphasize the importance of improving over time over winning/controlling the outcome of the event. In addition, performance-based goals can be used to help athletes achieve sport-specific benchmarks and acquire competence dependent on the athletes’ ages, personalities, abilities, and program-type.

Video Examples

Expert coaches utilize goal setting as one strategy to prepare athletes for upcoming competitions. In this video, the Head Coach of a youth baseball team holds a post-practice meeting to go over a number of the process- and performance-based team goals for the next game; he is concise and deliberate with his statements and uses a whiteboard for additional reinforcement - all expert moves of an Ambitious Coach. In addition, the Head Coach frames communication in a way that demonstrates a clear alignment between the values of the team, the goals for the competition, and the criteria for evaluating success - a great way to put winning in perspective and highlight the holistic approach to player development through competition!

Expert coaches working with teams are skilled at collaborating with athletes on developing individual goals that address areas of improvement specific to each individual athlete/position, yet align with overall team goals. In this video, we can see this process in action at a youth basketball practice. The Head Coach:

  • Identifies a specific personal goal for one of the players (based on the diagnosis of her performance and desired competencies for the point guard position at her level)
  • Provides examples of different options for setting up an offense
  • Uses forward-oriented language to create a mastery-based motivational climate conducive to goal achievement (confidence based on existing competence - mindset shift - an opportunity to practice without the fear of failure - video analysis to further reinforce the acquisition of knowledge and enable self-coaching for the athlete)


Brett Ledbetter: What Drives Winning

Goal-setting in sports can definitely become a grey area. Establishing too many goals, focusing your goals solely on the outcomes/results or adopting unrealistic/unmeasurable goals can have a negative effect on athlete motivation, development, and competitive success. This video references a number of very influential collegiate and professional coaches, who shift their focus away from setting outcome-based goals toward embracing the process fueled by the character development of their athletes through the acquisition of performance and moral skills -  an approach reflective of the entire student-athlete experience.

Setting Goals: Finding Your Perfect Process

So the question becomes how does one set the right type of goals in order to improve performance? This blog from VeloNews.com, a website dedicated to the sport of bike racing offers an expert’s perspective on the process of goal setting distinguishing between different types of goals and citing examples. Use this resource to reflect on your approach to goal-setting as a coach/athlete/parent.

USA Softball: Ask the Expert: Age-Based Guide to Goal Setting with Roberta Kraus, PH.D.

So far we have examined different approaches to goal-setting for high school, collegiate and professional athletes. Can the coaches use the same pathway when working in youth sports? This article focuses on considerations for young athletes:

  • Assessing maturation levels in addition to chronological age
  • Designing goals that reflect all aspects of sport participation, not just physical development
  • Framing communications
  • Assessing athlete motivation to select the type of goal(s)
  • Using rewards and consequences in relation to goal achievement

How to Use Goal Setting in Youth Sport Part 1Part 2Part 3

We can all agree that when working with young athletes we need to regulate the complexity level of the goal-setting process based on their maturation level, participation pathway, and stage of athletic development. This playlist features the Director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, and one of the most prominent researchers on the subject, Dr. Dan Gould. It is a great resource for coaches, young athletes, and parents and illustrates how years of in-depth academic research can be presented in a simple manner, with examples, and simple strategies for design, implementation, and evaluation of the goal-setting process.