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Goal Setting


Goal setting is probably the most widely used aspect of sport psychology and indeed any conceivable planning

situation. There can’t be many athletes out there who haven’t expressed the aim of “winning my next race” or “beating my PB by a minute”. The psychology literature is full of examples of the positive effect of goal setting. However, there are a number of strategies that can be employed to improve the effectiveness of goal setting for an athlete and a large body of evidence to suggest that the way in which goals are set can have a big impact on the magnitude of performance improvement.

Types of goal

For more information:

Winning in cycling (video) - Helen's applies Sir Clive Woodward's 'Winning' philosophy to cycling

The performance triad (factsheet) - think about setting goals for your cycling beyond simply training and racing

Periodisation (video) - once you have a clear set of goals, some ideas on how to set about achieving them

There are three types of goal that may be set by an athlete or coach.

Outcome goals – This type of goal usually refers to winning or losing. For example the above quote, “winning my next race” is an outcome goal

Performance goals – a performance goal refers to an actual performance, usually in relation to your own standard. In contrast to outcome goals, a performance goal does not involve comparison with opponents or teammates. For example a performance goal may be “going under the hour for a 25 mile time trial”

Process goals – process goals focus on the execution of a particular skill relevant to your performance. For example you may set a process to goal to “ride with a cadence over 90rpm throughout the race”.

All three types have a place in enhancing performance and a successful goal setting strategy should include all three.

Why goal setting works

Before thinking about developing an effective goal setting strategy, it is helpful to consider why goals work. The most popular explanation is termed the mechanistic explanation 1 which proposes four main ways in which goals influence an athlete’s behaviour

  1. Directing attention – focusing on the task at hand
  2. Mobilizing effort – setting goals is a great way of overcoming “inertia” and starting on a course of action
  3. Enhancing persistence – referring back to a set of goals is a great way of maintaining motivation by reminding an athlete of what they are striving towards
  4. Developing new learning strategies – striving towards a goal encourages you to think up ways of achieving that goal


How to develop an effective strategy

A very popular acronym that encapsulates the key qualities that effective goals should possess is S.M.A.R.T. The idea of setting SMART goals has proved very effective as a goal-setting strategy and a large body of evidence has been gathered to support the underlying concepts.

Specific – setting specific goals has been shown to be much more effective than setting no goals, general goals or “do your best” goals. One study reviewed 53 studies into goal specificity and found that 51 of the studies supported the setting of specific goals 2. The same study suggested that goal specificity works in tandem with goal difficulty to increase the consistency of performance by providing feedback on performance.

Bad: I want to be a better cyclist

Good: I want to improve my time trial cycling over 25 miles this year

Measurable – it is no good setting goals if you cannot tell whether or not you have achieved them. It is important that goals include some sort of ‘metric’, an objective means of measuring your performance. Again making your goals measurable gives clear feedback on the progress you are making (or not). This can have a great effect on increasing motivation and make it clear if any changes need to be made to training.

Bad: I want to improve my 10 mile TT performance

Good: I want to improve my 10 mile TT power output by 20 watts

Attainable – when setting goals it is crucial to make a judgement about whether or not you have the means to achieve this goal. Winning a national championship may be well within your ability but working 60 hour weeks and spending time with a family may not leave you time to complete (and recover from) the necessary training. What is needed is an honest evaluation of your available resources. Do you have enough time/money/motivation to achieve your goals?

Realistic – it is no good setting goals that you know deep down are never going to happen. Setting a goal of winning the Tour de France is unrealistic for 99% of cyclists. That said there is nothing wrong with setting “dream” goals, but it is important to set further goals that focus on the intermediate steps that may lead to that dream goal. A good rule of thumb is to set goals just above your current level of ability.

Bad: I will lead Wobbly Wheelers to Tour de France victory

Good: I will upgrade my racing license from 3rd category to 2nd

Timed – a timescale for achieving your goals is important in both directing attention and mobilising effort. Without a firm deadline, it is too easy to put off taking action until a later date. If goal-setting is part of the plan in training for a specific event or race, a firm timescale can prevent you from falling behind in your preparations. Goal ‘proximity’ refers to how far in the future you aim to achieve your goals. There is contradictory research in the sport psychology literature as to the relative merits of setting long vs. short term goals. Some researchers 3 support the use of long term goals as they provide a ‘roadmap’ of where the performer is going. However their research also shows these long term goals are more effective when combined with devising a strategy to reach them – in effect setting short term goals that lead in the direction of a given long term goal.

Bad: One day I will go under the hour in a 25 mile time trial

Good: I will go under the hour by the end of this season.

Goal Statements

Putting all the above together – a final step is coming up with a set of goal statements. A number of statements should be written down for both long and short term goals, taking great care to make sure the goals are specific and at the correct level of difficulty. For example “By 1st July 2009 I will have increased my lactate threshold by 15W.” Note how this goal is stated in the tense of already having achieved it. Research into goal-setting suggests that goals should in general be framed in positive statements. Setting negative or avoidance goals is likely to decrease satisfaction with progress, self esteem and maybe even general well-being 4. For example an athlete who recognises the need to improve their sleep would set the goal of “being in bed by 10pm every night” rather than “I will not stay up too late”.


Goal Commitment

The very act of writing down your goals is a powerful process in itself. Having your goals written down leads to a great deal more commitment than keeping them in your head. Once you have a hard copy of your goals displaying them in a prominent place can help with motivation, or as described by the mechanistic explanation, can help “enhance persistence.” Sharing your goals with a coach and/or significant other will also help reinforce motivation by adding a sense of accountability. It is much harder to give up on your goals when other people know about them! Now is also a time to think about offering incentives for the achievement of goals as a further aide to commitment.

Action Plan

By now you should have a set of goals and be fully committed to achieving them. More can still be done to improve the effectiveness of the goals. A third step is evaluating the potential barriers or obstacles that may derail the journey towards the goals. Potential barriers can be classified as internal or external. For example,

  • Internal – lack of confidence, too many goals or contradictory goals
  • External – lack of time, other personal responsibilities, lack of social support

Recognising that these are likely to be the key areas that will hinder the pursuit of achieving the goal statements, it is now possible to plan ways of dealing with these barriers. This may involve returning to step 1 and setting additional goals or reformulating existing goals, or approaching your employer and/or partner and asking for their help/understanding at critical moments in your plan.




Having set measurable goals there will come a time when it will be necessary to evaluate your success in achieving your goals. Information on your performance will come from feedback from the coach, race results and personal satisfaction. Now is the time to look back on the areas where performance was best and also areas for improvement. This information is vital for setting further goals and beginning the process again. When you set your goals write down a date in the future when you will sit down and evaluate your goals, this helps with establishing a timescale for achieving your goals


Putting all the above together is the first step on your roadmap to success.

  1. Take some time to sit down and think about what you want out of the coming season or seasons.
  2. Work backwards from your major objectives and write down some intermediate short term goals to guide you towards your long term goals.
  3. Read over your goals and make sure they are SMART goals.
  4. Think about the potential barriers that may stop you achieving goals and formulate relevant process goals to help you overcome these barriers.
  5. Now write down your goal statements and put them in a prominent place.
  6. Finally commit to a future date to sit down and evaluate your progress towards your goals.

For more information:

Winning in cycling (video) - Helen's applies Sir Clive Woodward's 'Winning' philosophy to cycling

The performance triad (factsheet) - think about setting goals for your cycling beyond simply training and racing

Periodisation (video) - once you have a clear set of goals, some ideas on how to set about achieving them

By following these steps you will ensure that your cycling has direction and purpose, giving you the best chance of making the most of the effort you put into your training and competing.


1.   Locke et al. Psychological Bulletin 1981, 90, 125-152.

2.   Locke & Latham. Prentice Hill, Englewood Cliffs, NJ (1990).

3.   Kirschenbaum. Cognitive Therapy and Research 1985, 9, 489-506.

4.   Elliot et al. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1997, 23, 915-927.