Athletes returning to competition after an extended break need to plan carefully, so they can rebuild their stamina, fitness, and performance without risking injury. Used effectively, goal setting is a fantastic tool to help them return to peak performance.

But how can coaches and athletes set goals in a way that boosts performance and keeps motivation high? That’s the question Dr. Gerry Shaw set out to answer in the first webinar of our Return to Play webinar series.

The series runs Thursday from July 15 to August 19 and presents strategies athletes can use to retrain, recondition and return to competition post-COVID restrictions. Coaches, trainers, and athletes alike can learn from leading experts in exercise science and sports psychology.

Our first session focused on goal setting for reconditioning hosted by Dr. Gerry Shaw, a fencing master and fencing coach with a doctorate in sport psychology and a master’s in exercise physiology.

Dr. Shaw also teaches several courses at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, one of the most affordable private colleges in New York. The college offers a BS in Exercise and Movement Science and an MS in Exercise and Sports Science, with concentrations in High Performance Coaching, Strength and Conditioning, and Sports Psychology. Both programs are fully online, with small class sizes, meaning you can connect closely with peers and professors in a format that fits around your life and existing commitments.

You can catch up with the full recording of Dr. Shaw’s webinar here.

What is Goal Setting?

Returning to training after a break can be tough. Whether athletes have suffered injury or illness, or there’s been some other disruption, like a global pandemic, it takes time to recondition and regain peak performance.

However, athletes often expect to return at the same level of performance as when they last stopped competing. This inevitably leads to disappointment when they can’t achieve the same results as they previously expected.

Attempting to jump back in at their previous level also leaves athletes vulnerable to injury, as they attempt to work at a rate their bodies are not yet ready for. And athletes who expect too much too soon can easily get discouraged and end up quitting the sport altogether.

What does this have to do with goal setting? Goal setting is a way to manage expectations and help returning athletes rebuild their skills at a pace that is sustainable and achievable.

At its simplest, setting a goal just means establishing the standard you want to achieve and what time frame you want to achieve it in.

Instead of focusing immediately on returning to competition readiness, goal setting breaks into manageable chunks the steps an athlete needs to take to achieve their previous level of performance.

It’s easy to experience a sense of satisfaction from ticking an item off a to-do list. Even if it is something small, being able to mark a task as complete gives us a sense of accomplishment.

Goal setting works the same way. There’s a real sense of satisfaction and achievement from reaching well-set goals that help athletes stay motivated and focused. For athletes returning to training, goal setting helps them build confidence and see the progress they are making.

Why is Goal Setting Effective?

There’s plenty of research to support the effectiveness of goal setting for athletes. In both the lab and the field, goal setting clearly and consistently results in better performance. Indeed, 90% of studies into the effects of proper goal setting show that setting specific, challenging goals has positive results.

Consequently, goal setting has become a standard tool used by athletes and coaches at all levels to improve performance.

There are many theories as to why goal setting works so well. Dr. Shaw focuses on a mechanistic theory, which suggests that goals are beneficial in four ways:

  1. Setting a goal brings the athlete’s attention to the task they want to improve on. For example, a basketball player who is great at making shots but not at assists might make a goal to raise their number of assists. With this goal in mind, the athlete is more likely to spot opportunities to assist during the game.
  2. Goals help athletes mobilize their effort toward the aspect of their performance they are working to improve. Basketball players will make more effort to use those opportunities to assist because they know it helps them achieve their goal.
  3. Goal setting also encourages athletes to prolong their efforts. Basketball players are more likely to persist in their attempts to assist and to work on this during practice when they have their goal in mind.
  4. And finally, goals give athletes a reason to develop and employ new learning strategies. Once they are focused on assists, basketball players will increase their skills in spotting and making use of opportunities to pass to teammates.

Types of Goals

Effective goal setting means understanding the differences in types of goals and knowing which kind provides the best motivation.

Subjective goals are those that are concerned with how someone feels. For example, having fun, getting fit, doing one’s best.

General objective goals look at big-picture outcomes, such as winning a competition or making the team.

Specific objective goals have a narrow focus. For example, players might aim to increase the number of assists they make, or pitchers might want to decrease their ERA.

Outcome-based goals focus on results. Athletes might set themselves the goal of running at a certain speed, lifting a certain weight, or scoring a specific number of points.

Performance-based goals are those that focus on improving on past results and achieving a personal best. 

Process-based goals concentrate on technique, form, position, and attitude. These goals are about how athletes do something instead of what they do.

Which approach is best? Well, the problem with outcome-based goals is that they are often beyond our full control. In a competition, we can’t control our opponents or the decisions of the officials. No matter how well we train our athletes, they can still lose, even when they are at their best.

If we set objective or outcome-based goals and athletes fail to achieve them because of factors outside their control, they may become discouraged and reject goal setting altogether. In this way, outcome-based goals can be psychologically damaging.

Goals that focus on specific results, such as winning a game, can also distract athletes. According to Dr. Shaw, the worst thing athletes can do is think about losing, and the second worst thing they can do is think about winning.

That is because both options take them out of the immediate moment to think about the future. This prevents athletes from getting in the zone – that unique state of focus where they are fully immersed in what they are doing.

Great athletes have more than physical skills; they also have the ability to shut out all distractions and focus fully on the moment. Setting outcome-based goals can distract from that by putting pressure on a specific result.

In contrast, process or performance-based goals are much more flexible. They keep the focus on individual or team achievement, not the performance of their opponents. And they are achievable, which means they help athletes remain motivated, even when they don’t win.

Does this mean athletes shouldn’t try to win? Of course not. Athletes are competitive people, and always want to win. But there is a lot of work involved in being an athlete, and that work is worthy of recognition, regardless of the outcome.

Setting Effective Goals

The success of any goal-setting program depends on setting goals effectively. This is both an art and a science.

Coaches and trainers have a vital role to play in their athletes’ goal setting and should expect to work with each person individually to develop specific goals for them to work on. Understanding what makes goals successful in changing behavior and performance is essential.

We’ve already discussed how performance-based goals are better than outcome-based goals. In addition, effective goals must be:

Explicit: Goals must be laid out clearly and in full. Nothing should be implied or assumed.

Specific: Goals should be detailed and exact, not general. “Eat healthy” is vague. “Eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day” is specific.

Measurable: You need to be able to measure your goals to know if you have been successful. Quantifiable goals, such as “improve my time by two minutes” are easier to measure.

Positive: Your goals should focus on what you do want to achieve, not what you don’t want. State what you will do instead of what you will avoid.

The human brain isn’t good at making sense of negatives. So, state your goals in the positive to keep your mind focused on what you want to achieve, not your fear of failure.

Challenging but realistic: Research shows that the more difficult the goal, the better the performance. But only if the goal’s difficulty doesn’t outstrip the person’s ability to achieve it.

Coming up with goals that are challenging but realistic is a tricky balance to strike. It requires coaches and athletes to know their current performance level and ability to improve very well.

Break into short-term goals. Keeping motivation high for the long term is hard. Goals with a long-term focus can quickly feel overwhelming or simply too distant to be motivating.

Break larger goals down into smaller, more manageable chunks to make them less daunting. This also gives you the immediate sense of achievement you need to keep your motivation up and help you move onto the next goal.

Set for daily practice. Goals shouldn’t be limited to competitions. You can also set goals for athletes to achieve during practice. It can be tiring to train regularly, so having goals for practice helps keep motivation up.

Time-limited. Many of us work best under a deadline. Goals should have a target end date to prevent our efforts from petering out. Make sure this is realistic and the goal can be achieved in the time given.

Backed up by a plan of action. This is the stage of goal setting many of us miss out. As well as establishing the goal and its target end date, we should include a plan of action to help us achieve the results we want. This should describe the exact strategies we will use daily, such as duration, frequency, and intensity of workouts.

Written down. Goals should be recorded in writing so that you don’t forget what they are. Keep a training journal and write both your goal and your plan of action to remind yourself what you are trying to achieve.

You should also track your progress, so you can see your improvement and check that your strategies are working.

Evaluated and supported. Coaches and other supportive people, such as family and friends, should know what goals the athlete is working on so they can provide encouragement, feedback, and support.

Common Goal-Setting Problems

Used properly, goal setting is an effective tool. But some common issues can prevent athletes from getting the most from their goals. These include:

  1. Setting too many goals

Athletes returning after a break may be anxious to dive into training right away, and there’s a temptation for them to want to work on too many goals at one time. This can be overwhelming, makes progress hard to monitor, and can split their focus. Coaches should help athletes choose one or two goals to start with to make retraining feel more manageable.

  1. Goals that are too general

If a goal isn’t specific and measurable, it won’t provide the same sense of motivation and achievement. Avoid general goals and be clear about exactly what the athlete wants to achieve.

  1. Failure to modify unrealistic goals

One of the biggest mistakes athletes make is treating goals like they are set in stone. Returning athletes are especially vulnerable as they run the risk of injuring themselves if their goals are too challenging.

While lowering a goal can be discouraging, it is also important to be realistic and not push athletes so hard that they injure themselves. Coaches must support athletes in lowering goals when needed.

Additionally, it is better to set lower goals in the first place, since raising them is usually easier for an athlete’s motivation than lowering them.

  1. Failure to understand the time commitment

Returning to training after illness, injury, or post-COVID is difficult, and no athlete will see instant results. Both coaches and athletes need to take a long-term view and commit to the time it takes to achieve goals. Breaking larger goals down into smaller, shorter-term goals can help keep motivation up.

  1. Focusing only on technique goals

Only setting goals that relate to physical technique ignores other important aspects of athletic performance. You should also set wider goals, such as:

  • Giving positive feedback to teammates
  • Practicing imagery/visualization techniques
  • Taking part in fun activities relating to sports
  • Transferring skills to other aspects of your life

Don’t forget that goal setting can be applied to many areas of your life, not just sports.

Summary

A goal-setting program is a beneficial tool that can help athletes return to competition after an extended break. Coaches have a vital role to play in supporting their athletes in setting goals effectively. They should also provide feedback and support, touching base regularly to ensure progress is on track.

For more strategies to help athletes retrain and recondition as sports return post-pandemic restrictions, register for the other webinars in the Return to Play series. If you can’t make it live, register and we will send you a link to the recording, so you can catch up later.