Psyched Online

Set Your Goals

by Miguel Humara, Ph.D.

Athletes experience both success and failure, but what differentiates the two? While many books have been written on the subject, no definitive answer can be given. So what can you do to improve as an athlete? I feel that one area which holds a great deal of promise is setting clear and attainable goals for yourself.

Athletes, by their nature, are generally competitive individuals. My friend John has told me that when he is out for his evening run, he can’t stand to have someone pass him. No matter how tired he is, he always digs down for that something extra which makes him go faster than anyone else around him. His goal is not to let anyone beat him that night.

Businesses have used goal setting effectively to motivate sales forces for years. It should come as no surprise that the same technique has been used successfully in sports as well. More specifically, goal setting has been found to have a significant effect in a variety of sports including weight lifting, archery, and basketball. This effects holds true regardless of whether it is an individual sport like tennis or a team sport like football. The benefits of goal setting are clear – they work.

Using Goal Setting: The Basics

In order to effectively set goals for yourself or your players, it is important to follow these steps:

  • Make goals attainable and measurable (BE REALISTIC)
  • Set a long-term goal for the next 6 months (BE SPECIFIC)
  • Set short-term goals for the next month (BE VERY SPECIFIC)
  • Check your progress and make changes if needed (BE HONEST)

First and foremost is to make goals attainable. One of the biggest reasons why people don’t accomplish their goals is that they set the bar too high. This often results in feelings of failure and loss of drive to achieve goals. For example, a person who runs a ten-minute mile is setting an unattainable goal if they think that they can cut their time in half over the course of the next six months. He would have to take off about a minute a month! That’s another thing: goals need to be measurable. Whether you use 100 meter times or percentage of free-throws made depends on your sport, but it is invaluable in realistically measuring your progress. You need to BE REALISTIC.

Next, set a long-term goal. You should think of it as something that you want to accomplish throughout the course of a season – about four to six months. A good long-term goal will guide you in establishing the short-term goals that you need to achieve. Typically these short-term goals are things that you want to do over the course of the next month. Maybe our runner would set a long-term goal of running an eight-minute mile by season’s end. This means that his short term-goal would be to take 30 seconds off his original ten-minute time every month. You can even make really short-term goals – our runner would take ten seconds off his time every ten days. It’s important to BE SPECIFIC when setting long-term goals and BE VERY SPECIFIC about your short-term goals.

If you have been realistic in setting long-term and short-term goals that are specific and measurable, your job will be a whole lot easier when you check your progress. One easy way of doing this is to keep track on a calendar that shows you the whole month. I write my long-term goal in ink (because it is permanent) and the short term-goal in pencil (so that I can change it if I need to). I also keep track of my daily times on the same page (in ink so that I’m not tempted to lie to myself later on). When it comes time to turn the month, I sit down and evaluate my progress. It is important to remember to BE HONEST. If our runner has gone two months in a row without improving his time by more then 15 seconds each month (when he meant to improve by 30) his short-term goals need to be revised.

Confused? Maybe an example will help out. Below is a case that may clear things up.

Case Example: Goal Setting in Exercise

While the benefits of working out are clear to all of us, a lot of people often drop out of a routine that they have established for themselves. This is the case for 28 year-old over-weight Mike H. Mike has good nutritional habits but his doctor has told him that he needs to burn more calories. He knows that he needs to work out regularly but he does not. Perhaps goal setting can be of assistance. Mike is aware of the recommendations of the Surgeon General about physical activity: adults should complete 30 or more minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, preferably on most days of the week. He decides to start a regimen on May 1, 2003. Below are the steps that would be taken in order to achieve this goal with the target dates written in parenthesis.

Long-term goal for November 1, 2003:
Engage in moderate-intensity physical activity 6 days a week (11/1/03)

Short-term goals for May, 2003:
Walk/run for 20 minutes 2 days per week (06/01/03) Ride stationary bicycle 20 minutes 2 days per week (06/01/03)

Mike tracks his workouts on a wall calendar in his kitchen. At the end of the month he checks his progress and finds that he has met his short-term goals. While his long-term goal stays the same, he needs to revise the short-term goals. He comes up with the following:

Short-Term Goals for June, 2003:
Walk/run for 25 minutes 2 days per week (07/01/03)
Ride stationary bicycle 25 minutes 2 days per week (07/01/03)

This time when Mike checks his progress he finds that he came up short on the walk/run goal and only did it one time a week. However, he achieved the stationary bike goal. He revises his goals as follows:

Short-Term Goals for July, 2003:
Walk/run for 25 minutes 2 days per week (08/01/03)
Ride stationary bicycle 25 minutes 3 days per week (08/01/03)

Mike again checks his progress and finds that he has met his goals. He decides that he needs to challenge himself a little bit more and extends the times of what he is currently doing.

Short-Term Goals for August, 2003:
Walk/run for 30 minutes 2 days per week (09/01/03)
Ride stationary bicycle 30 minutes 3 days per week (09/01/03)

When September rolls around and Mike looks at the calendar, he finds that he did not achieve his goals. Upon closer inspection he notices that he did not work out at all during the third week of the month. “That was the week I had that ear infection.” He decides to keep his goals the same.

Short-Term Goals for September, 2003:
Walk/run for 30 minutes 2 days per week (10/01/03)
Ride stationary bicycle 30 minutes 3 days per week (10/01/03)

Only one month to go and Mike is feeling pretty good about himself. This is the longest period of time that he has consistently worked out in his life! The pounds are melting off and compliments are flowing like crazy. Mike looks at his long-term goal once again and finds that he is very close to achieving it. He revises the short-term ones as follows:

Short-Term Goals for October, 2003:
Walk/run for 30 minutes 3 days per week (11/01/03)
Ride stationary bicycle 30 minutes 3 days per week (11/01/03)

Congratulations Mike! You did it! He has achieved the long-term goal he set for himself six months ago.

There are many reasons why Mike was so successful (other then the fact that it was fictional). First of all, he was REALISTIC. He set up a long-term and short-term goals that he could achieve. He increased the number of days and times by small increments. When he was unable to achieve the goal for the month, he tried again. Second, he was SPECIFIC about his long-term goal and VERY SPECIFIC when writing the short-term ones. Finally, he was HONEST. Mike faithfully tracked the number of days that he worked out, for how long, and in what activity. When he was sick, he was honest with himself about it and decided to keep the same goals. All that Mike has left to do to keep working out is set a new long-term goal. Maybe this time, he will decide to work out six days a week for 45 minutes!


It is all too easy to lose track of what you are trying to achieve. Corporations realized this a long time ago and started making use of goal setting with their employees. Previous research has found that it can have a significant influence on performance within sports as well. If you follow the steps above and apply it to your sport, you might experience as much success as Mike did too.