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Goal Setting to Increase Motivation for Sport and Health

How goal setting can be used to enhance motivation, help an athlete to focus and finally, build self-confidence.
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© Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw on Unsplash


Goal setting has application for all levels of sport performer. Research demonstrates that over 50% of individuals who join a fitness program or sports class will drop out within the first six months. Phillips et al. (2004)1 identified that drop out is often attributed to a lack of improvement and changes in motivation. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is how we are motivated to engage in an activity because of internal factors e.g. enjoyment, fulfilment, becoming the best we can be. However, extrinsic motivation is how we are motivated to engage in an activity for the external rewards e.g. trophies, money, status and fame. Research has shown that goals can be tailored towards enhancing our intrinsic or our extrinsic motivation.

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham2 introduced the goal setting theory of motivation, which identified that by setting specific and challenging goals and then providing appropriate feedback a person will be more motivated to compete a certain task or skill. When an individual’s motivation is high, they are more likely to expend their effort and energy in trying to achieve the goal.

Although setting goals that enhance our extrinsic motivation are better than not setting any goals at all, goals that focus on intrinsic motivation are most appropriate. One limitation of setting goals to enhance our extrinsic motivation is that the participant’s attention might be taken away from the exercise and towards external measures or rewards.

Wilson and Brookfield (2009)3 explored the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and exercise adherence of a group of individuals during a six-week exercise intervention. For those participants who set process and performance goals, intrinsic motivation significantly increased. Setting outcome goals to increase intrinsic motivation left the participants feeling under pressure and increasingly anxious.

“Motivation depends in a very large part on goal setting. The coach must have goals. The team must have goals. Each individual swimmer must have goals- real, vivid, living goals… Goals keep everyone on target. Goals commit me to the work, time, pain and whatever else is part of the price of achieving success. Goals help to drive me… Goals must be high enough to excite you, yet not so high that you can’t vividly imagine them. Goals must be attainable, but just out of reach for now”. – Dick Hannula, former US National Swim Team coach (Larsen, 1983; cited by Lock and Latham (1985)4


Closely related to goal setting enhancing our motivation, appropriate short and long-term goals may also help a performer to focus. For example, working with a coach and/or a sport psychologist to set a goal might give a struggling performer a sense of direction. Athletes at both elite and recreational level often have numerous distractions/potential sources of stress e.g. family, education, financial, time management, contractual, competition. Navigating your way through these stresses while maintaining a high level of motivation, and the single-minded dedication to reach elite sporting status might pose significant challenges. Therefore, setting meaningful short and long-term, goals can help draw the performer’s attention back to the task and give them a clear direction.
“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score” – former Test cricket match umpire Bill Copeland5


Effective goal setting is often the most effective way of enhancing your self-confidence. Research in fields beyond sport (e.g. education, business) have demonstrated a positive correlational relationship between goal setting and self-efficacy and/or self-confidence. Specific to sport, Hanton and Jones (1999)6 employed a goal setting program as part of a mental skills training intervention for elite swimmers. Research suggested that goal setting increased self-confidence and improved performance. The improvements in self-confidence were still noted up to 5 months after the intervention ended.
When an individual achieves a goal it is likely to enhance their feelings of positivity and subsequently their self-confidence. This boost will be greater if the individual believes that the goal was challenging as opposed to being easy to achieve. Setting goals may also increase the athlete’s confidence pre-performance because they were both more focused and more motivated. However, research has suggested that only setting occasional performance based goals might not be enough to enhance the self-confidence of recreational and/or clinical athletes. For these populations additional and different types of goals supplemented with additional strategies such as self-talk or imagery.
“The things you learn from sports- setting goals, being part of a team, confidence- that’s invaluable. It’s not about trophies and ribbons. It’s about being on time for practice, accepting challenges and being fearful of the elements” – Olympic gold medallist swimmer Summer Sanders7

Goals that are set without the relevant consideration can have a detrimental effect on performance and core psychological qualities (e.g. motivation, focus, self-confidence). Some common problems associated with goal setting include:

  • Insufficient Goal Support
  • Failing to Set Specific Goals
  • Failing to Adjust Goals
  • Setting Too Many Goals Too Soon
  • Failing to Set Performance Goals
  • Not Initiating Follow-Up and Evaluation

Have you ever set yourself any goals? Did you achieve them? What helped you to stay motivated? Have you ever failed to achieve a goal? What stopped from achieving it?


  1. Phillips, J. K., Klein, G., & Sieck, W. R. (2004). Expertise in judgment and decision making: A case for training intuitive decision skills. Blackwell handbook of judgment and decision making, 297, 315.
  2. Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (1991). A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. The Academy of Management Review, 16.
  3. Wilson, K., & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six‐week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 89-100.
  4. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1985). The application of goal setting to sports. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(3), 205-222.
  5. Yaeger, D. (2011). Greatness: The 16 characteristics of true champions. New York: Hachette Book Group
  6. Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (1999). The effects of a multimodal intervention program on performers: II. Training the butterflies to fly in formation. The Sport Psychologist, 13(1), 22-41.
  7. Mattern, J. (2014). So, You Want to work in Sports? The Ultimate Guide to Exploring the Sports Industry. New York: Simon and Schuster
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