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Goal Setting For a Sports Team

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"One area in which sport psychology can be helpful to both individuals and teams is assisting with the development of goals."

A young soccer player accompanied by his father reluctantly walked into my office because he had problems with "motivation" according to his father. The boy sat quietly while his father explained, "He just doesn't seem to care. He's good enough to get a scholarship to college but he's not making the effort. I tell him all the time how he can improve his game but I never see any effort." When I asked about the coach's involvement the father responded, "He's just useless. He thinks the most important thing is for the kids to have fun. He encourages them but he never tells them specifics about how to improve. I think I need to switch him to another team where the coach focuses more on winning games." When I talked to the boy alone I found out that he really enjoyed soccer but felt that he couldn't meet his father's demands. He also felt that he didn't get much direction from his coach. As a result, he didn't have clear ideas about how to improve his skills.

The above situation describes three different sets of goals that were developed without any communication among the people involved. His father's goals were outcome or success-oriented goals focused on winning games or "winning" a scholarship. The coach's goals weren't focused on the skills at all but on the emotional aspect of enjoying the sport. The boy wanted to improve specific skills but needed assistance to develop performance-oriented goals. However, due to his father's expectations he tended to be fearful of failure; this failure-orientation in his goals tended to decrease motivation and persistence.

The practice of sport psychology can often seem fairly vague and undefined to the public. Describing particular applications of sport psychology allows for a clearer picture of what sport psychologists do. One area in which sport psychology can be helpful to both individuals and teams is assisting with the development of goals. The following will describe how a sport psychologist may work with a team and team members to create goals to enhance overall performance of the team.

A sport psychologist needs to first enlist the support of the coach and to prepare the coach as to how best to assist the athletes with their goals. This conversation can involve a discussion of how players’ attributions affect their performance and how the coach can affect those attributions both positively and negatively by how feedback is given to the individual and the team. In addition, this discussion may involve how the coach can be supportive of the players achieving their goals.

The next step would be to meet with the team and get team support for the goal setting process by discussing the benefits of goal setting. These benefits include directing attention to a particular skill, improving the quality of practice, assuring that the athlete knows what is expected, motivating and relieving boredom, and increasing self-confidence. The psychologist should also discuss the importance of attributions, how they affect self-efficacy and performance, and how to develop an effective attributional style.

In particular, the difference between performance-oriented goals which are directed towards achieving individual skills or behaviors and outcome-oriented goals which are directed towards winning should be delineated. A goal focused on a performance-orientation tends to be more effective because it is more under the control of the athlete, involves learning even at the risk of making mistakes, improves problem-solving, and encourages the athlete to be more persistent with higher effort. The performance-oriented athlete does not perceive failure but just opportunities to learn and improve.

The outcome-oriented goals can either be focused on achieving success or avoiding failure. An athlete with the success-oriented style will tend to strive to do only well enough to win while trying to avoid the risk of error which will affect future learning and affect the ability to reach the greatest potential; however, the athlete will tend to persist and problem-solve in the face of failure. The failure-oriented athlete who sees success as luck and failure as lack of ability will typically be the least successful of these different types because failure will tend to decrease persistence and problem-solving, thereby decreasing overall performance.

In addition to the above, the psychologist can describe to the team the basic tenets of goal setting. These tenets involve setting specific measurable goals, setting challenging but realistic goals, setting practice as well as competitive goals, making sure the goals are framed positively, setting target dates to keep focused, recording goals and making a public commitment, and setting both short-term and long-term goals.

Once the team members understand the concepts of goal setting, the psychologist can meet individually with the athletes to develop personal goals. With the individual athlete the psychologist can assist with choosing one or two specific goals, setting target dates by using the stair-step method of breaking the goal into smaller segments, developing the specific strategies of achieving the goals, and developing rewards for achieving the goals. In developing specific strategies and setting target dates, it is important that the athlete understand that goals take longer to affect more complex tasks. In addition, both long-term goals and short-term goals are important because the long-term goals provide direction whereas the short-term goals are most effective for change.

Therefore, a psychologist working with a volleyball team will help team members develop different specific goals. One athlete may want to develop greater jumping height whereas another may want to develop greater accuracy with serving. Both of these goals are measurable: jumping height by measuring inches of a vertical jump and serving accuracy by measure inches from a target. A starting point can be determined by assessing the current ability and then target dates are chosen by identifying reasonable changes that can be achieved. The coach’s previous experience can also be valuable in determining these parameters. The athlete will also develop strategies to achieve the goal. For instance, to improve jumping height, the athlete can work on developing leg strength through weight training and plyometric training.

The psychologist can then meet with the entire team and the coach to develop specific team goals and strategies in the same manner. For example, the team may develop a specific practice goal of improving team cooperation as measured by number of assists with the ball. Again, the team will develop strategies to achieve this goal such as practicing passing the ball. Also, the team can determine appropriate methods of providing feedback and getting support and encouragement from the coach and other team members.

Finally, the psychologist should periodically review the goals with the individuals and the team members. This step is crucial to assure that the athletes maintain their focus on the goals as well as to adjust goals as needed. This also allows the psychologist to check with the athletes regarding whether the support methods and reward system are helping.

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