Goal Setting Improves Motivation in Athletes

So you’ve made a bunch of training goals, but are you motivated? A new study shows that making the goals at all is a good first step to athletic success.

Most of us know enough about sports psychology to know that goal setting is important. But just how important goal setting is and how to most effectively apply it are entirely different questions. Deciding as an athlete that you want to achieve some specific goal and picking out the steps you need to get there seems useful, but it’s not the whole picture.

When I first started reading a study published this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, I had a good idea of some of my own ignorance in the field of sport psychology and goal setting. After finishing the paper, I realized how little researchers even know about the topic. In fact, this was the first study ever performed on the topic of self-regulation efficacy (SRE) for sports.

Self-regulation itself is straightforward. From a sports psychology standpoint, self-regulation is how each individual athlete uses planned thoughts, feelings, and actions to attain their goals. There is also an adaptive component, since the adjustment of one’s attitudes and actions is required in the face of changing circumstances.

Self-regulation is pretty useful, but it isn’t the whole picture. While self-regulation is how an athlete plans to improve their athleticism and skills, it doesn’t include one necessary component: follow-through. This is where the “efficacy” in SRE comes in. The actual execution of the actions needed to attain your goals is what sets a successful athlete apart from the rest. You need to get out there and do it.

Goal setting, as such, is the yardstick by which an athlete measures his or her current position and progress towards a goal. Contrast this with the more reactionary method of comparing to other athletes or teams. I see this all the time in combat sports. Athletes believe they need to get bigger gym numbers because their opponent is stronger, when in reality they probably just need more cardio, better skills, and to be in a more suitable weight class. If they performed proper goal setting and executed the process with a high SRE, they would be unstoppable.

The concept of SRE has been around for a few decades now, but its importance for sport is just beginning to be investigated. In this study, the researchers learned that when athletes regularly go into their strength and conditioning sessions with a plan to put forth a specific amount of effort, their SRE rates are much higher. Even better, amongst the athletes who set an effort goal for each session, those who planned to put forth more effort for each session had progressively higher SRE scores. In other words, people who set a goal for a workout reported being less interrupted by dissuading factors like fatigue, money problems, family stress, and so on. They soldiered on.

This study suggests that athletes who put a lot of effort into planning their training are also likely to report fewer effects from dissuading factors that may affect performance. Whether it holds true or not is another issue, but since motivation is the surest predictor of success, it’s a safe bet. I would love to see a test that compares SRE to actual success. This is perhaps difficult in a team sport, but might work in research that studied running, combat sports, or similar sports. In the meantime, we have a solid foundation here for future research into athletic motivation.


1. Todd Gilson, et. al., “The relationship between an effort goal and self-regulatory efficacy beliefs for division I football players,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(10), 2013.

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