One step at a time – how to raise your game through effective goal-setting

Anyone interested in athletics will be aware of the achievements of the US 200m and 400m sprinter Michael Johnson. In the course of a spectacular career, Johnson rewrote the record books when he became the only man ever to win both 200m and 400m Olympic gold medals, at the 1996 Olympics. At times he was, quite literally, ‘in a class of his own’.

However, according to the man himself, his achievements were based not purely on talent but on hard physical conditioning, mental strength, a clear vision of where he wanted to go, and a plan of how to get there. Michael Johnson’s book Slaying the Dragon is not just a record of his achievements but an insight into how one man mobilised his extraordinary talent through effective goal-setting. Not everyone has the talent to be a Michael Johnson, but anyone can achieve significant improvements in performance by means of effective goal-setting.

Many people associate goal-setting with new year resolutions, and are quick to dismiss goal-setting as ineffective, since most well-intentioned, if vague, resolutions have failed before the end of January. Let’s get one thing clear straight away: most such resolutions are perfect examples of how not to set goals!

Research on goal-setting in the worlds of business and in sport and exercise has consistently shown that it can lead to enhanced performance. In fact, a recent meta-analysis (statistical technique used to evaluate the data from a whole series of experiments) showed that goal-setting led to performance enhancement in 78% of sport and exercise research studies, with moderate to strong effects(1).

Goal-setting is a powerful technique that appears to work by providing a direction for our efforts, focusing our attention, promoting persistence and increasing our confidence (providing we achieve the goals we set ourselves).

But, while goal-setting is an easy concept to understand, its application needs more thought and planning than most people realise. One of the main problems is that not all coaches are aware of the principles of goal-setting and how to apply them effectively(2). So a key purpose of this article is to give coaches and athletes a better understanding of how to use goal-setting to enhance performance and avoid disappointments.

It’s always good to have a vision of what you want to achieve – whether this is related to fitness, weight loss, winning an Olympic medal or achieving a set standard of performance; but you also need a plan for how you are going to attain this goal. Dream goals inspire us and give us a target to aim for, but in order to deliver the goods they must be specific and realistic. Most new year resolutions are dream goals that will never be realised because people fail to plan realistically the day-to-day process required to make such dreams into reality.

If you only focus on your dream goal, you can easily become overwhelmed when you think about what it’s going to take to achieve it. Research suggests that focusing only on long-term dream goals does not lead to enhanced performances(3).

Short-term goals – the key to success

Top athletes like Michael Johnson and Steve Backley have understood that, although dream goals such as Olympic gold medals are important in helping to direct our efforts, it is the day- to-day ‘short-term’ goals that provide the key to success. I like to classify goals into three types:

  • Dream goals are the ones that seem a long way off and difficult to achieve. In time terms, they may be anything from six months to several years away;
  • Intermediate goals are markers of where you want to be at a specific time. For example, if your dream goal was to lower your 400m PB by one second over 10 months, an intermediate goal could be a half second improvement after five months;
  • Short-term or daily goals are the most important because they provide a focus for our training in each and every session. Past research on Olympic athletes found that setting daily training goals was one factor that distinguished successful performers from their less successful counterparts (4).

For every week and each training session you should decide what you need to do in order to take another small step towards the next intermediate goal, and ultimately towards your dream goal. Don’t just set goals for competition: we all spend more time practising and training, so set targets for these periods too.

Breaking down the ‘impossible’ task

To demonstrate how goal-setting and goal-achievement can aid performance, let me describe my experiences of learning to ski. Having spent some time on the nursery slopes learning the ‘snow-plough’ turn and other basic moves, I and the rest of my group were both excited and apprehensive when the instructor announced it was time to make our way up to the higher slopes and ski all the way down. To a novice skier, this moment presents a real challenge to confidence. En masse, my group decided that we couldn’t do it: we were not ready to ski all the way down; after all it was a long and difficult slope for novices to ski!

Our instructor then did a very clever thing by distracting our focus from the apparently ‘impossible’ task of skiing all the way down and breaking the task down into a series of smaller stages. We didn’t feel confident enough to ski to the bottom, but could we ski to that tree 50m away to the left? Yes, we agreed – and off we went, following the instructor. On reaching the tree, the instructor picked a new target, and these small stages eventually led us all the way to the bottom. The next attempt involved fewer targets with increased distance between each target. In this way, our main objective of skiing continuously all the way down, which at first seemed impossible, became easily attainable. Focusing on one small step at a time – and achieving that goal – developed confidence, and confidence allowed us to move on to more challenging targets. This simple story encapsulates the need for short-term goals to direct our immediate focus.

According to sport psychologist Terry Orlick, there are four prerequisites for successful goal-setting (5). First, you need to decide what you want – develop a vision; secondly, you must be committed, so your goals must be worth striving for; thirdly, you have to believe that the goals you set are achievable. Goals that are too easy to achieve provide little motivation; but, on the other hand, unrealistically difficult goals can lead to loss of confidence and eventual rejection of the goal. To avoid these kinds of problems, coaches and athletes should work together to reach an agreement on goals and should not be afraid of adjusting goals to optimise their potential effect. The fourth pre-requisite for successful goal-setting specified by Orlick is to focus on one step at a time.

In beginning the process of setting goals, it’s important to be specific and realistic about what you are striving to achieve. Ditch such vague goals as, ‘to get fit’ or ‘to do my best’ for more objective alternatives. Objective goals allow the sports performer and his/her coach to measure progress and re-evaluate the goal if targets prove either too difficult or too easy. The types of goals set in sport and exercise typically reflect what psychologists have identified as outcome, performance and process goals. All three are valuable in guiding athletes towards higher standards of performance, although you need an awareness of some of the potential pitfalls with these goals.

I will use the example of a 100m sprinter to demonstrate the differences between these three types of goal. If the coach and athlete agree a goal of winning a medal at the European Indoor Championships, this is an ‘outcome goal’. Outcome goals tend to focus on an objective competitive result, such as winning a medal or beating an opponent, but they can never be completely under your control since the ability and form of your opponents on the day can influence the result. You might even run a PB but still fail to achieve your specific goal and so damage your confidence. Outcome goals can provide motivation, but focusing purely on the result can lead to increased anxiety.

Performance goals are more flexible

Alternatively you could set a ‘performance goal’, such as running under 10.5 seconds for the 100m, whose achievement is independent of other athletes. As such goals are set in the context of comparisons with your own previous performances, they tend to be more flexible and within your control. In the event of injury, performance goals can be easily readjusted to provide meaningful and realistic targets.

‘Process goals’ are to do with the actions or techniques that are required to achieve success. A sprinter who has a tendency to become overly concerned with the position of his/her competitors during the final 20m of races might set a process goal of focusing on a point beyond the finish line to ensure focus is retained until the line has been crossed.

Coaches have a preference for performance and process goals, since these can be more easily and precisely adjusted than outcome goals, although all three types of goal should be used as appropriate to the athlete and situation. One recent study found better results when using a combination of goal strategies (outcome, performance and process goals) than either one alone (6).

In the planning stages of a goal-setting programme, you should think carefully about factors that may hinder your progress. For example, most people set goals that are too difficult rather than too easy, which commonly leads to the rejection of those goals. Once rejected, the goals no longer direct our efforts or our focus. It is also important to avoid setting too many goals. Instead, focus on one dream goal, perhaps two or three intermediate targets and two short-term goals for today’s session. That’s enough to start with, but be sure to give your short-term goals the highest priority. Through achieving these you will naturally progress towards the intermediate targets.

I recently set myself a goal of reducing my resting heart-rate from 75 to 65 bpm. In order to achieve this, I decided to chose an exercise mode that I enjoy (jogging) and to exercise three times per week over the next six months. As my fitness increases and my resting heart rate becomes lower, I will adjust the frequency, intensity and duration of training to suit my needs. However, I initially identified one major barrier to the achievement of my goal – time. My work schedule means that I have little time to spare during the day, while in the evening I often feel tired and want to relax. Because I value my fitness goal, the way around this problem has been to get up early on two days a week and to run before my working day starts. At the weekend I am more flexible and can make time for exercise during the day. The point is clear: you must consider potential barriers to your goals and plan around them if possible. If you can see no way around your barriers, your targets may be unrealistic. You should always evaluate your goals, and charting your progress can be an effective way to do this and to boost your confidence and motivation as you see progress being made.

Goal-setting is a smart move for athletes who want to develop their self-confidence, increase their levels of motivation and achieve higher standards of performance. Remember that time spent in preparation is worth it and can prevent disappointments. Take the advice of athletes like Michael Johnson and use goal-setting to change small steps into great feats. To help remember the key principles of goal-setting you need to think SMARTER. That is, your goals should be:

Indicate precisely what is to be done. Avoid vague alternatives;
You should be able to quantify your goal;
Goals must be accepted as worthwhile, realistic and attainable;
Write your goals down. This is the basis of a contract with yourself;
Set specific time-limits;
Monitor your progress regularly;
In the event of injury, or failure to achieve over-difficult goals, reset your goals accordingly.

Lee Crust


  1. Singer, R, Hausenblas, H, & Janelle, C (Eds), Handbook of Sport Psychology, Wiley, New York, 2001
  2. The Sport Psychologist, vol 15, pp20-47, 2001
  3. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, vol 17, pp117-137, 1995
  4. The Sport Psychologist, vol 2, pp105-130, 1988
  5. Orlick, T, In Pursuit of Excellence, 4th edition, Human Kinetics, USA, 2000
  6. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, vol 11, pp230-246, 1999