A Review of Literature: Applying Goal Setting to Improve an Individual's Athletic Performance in the Field of Play


There has been extensive research on goal setting in sport and if it can improve the performance of athletes.  This review of literature analyzes different goal setting experiments and whether they were effective in improving the performance of the participants who took part in the studies.  These studies revealed important results about whether goal setting should be emphasized to athletes or performers to improve their performances in the field of play.



Athletes everywhere are constantly pushing themselves to be the absolute best they can be at their respective sport.  They'll use complex exercise and practice regimens complete with trainers and coaches to reach that optimal performance.  One thing all these athletes must incorporate is the use of goal setting to improve their performance in the field of play.  If the athletes are simply just working without any desired outcome, it is very likely they will not reach their ultimate potential but with the incorporation of goal setting, they have something to shoot for setting themself up for better results.  Studies have shown that goal setting is effective in improving athletic performance in the field of play.

Researchers Andrew Lane and Bernard Streeter (2003) did a comprehensive study on the effectiveness of goal setting to improve basketball shooting performance.  The study consisted of 72 participants averaging age 15 from secondary schools in West Sussex of the United Kingdom.  What they did was perform a two minute shooting test where they would try to make as many shots as possible in the allotted time.  They were told they could not count each shot made, and that the only person who could return the ball to them after each shot was the assistant helping with the test.  Participants would be informed on how many shots they made at the end of the test while all the other players watched.  After the first trial run, 18 participants were each randomly assigned to a specified goal group; one was considered an "easy goal," another a "difficult goal," yet another an "unrealistic goal," and a control group that had no goal.  The easy group consisted of a four made basket goal to get improvement, the difficult group an eight basket goal for improvement, and the unrealistic group a goal of twelve baskets to improve. 

The results showed that there was no significant effect on the amount of shots made depending on the goal group, although there was improvement on shots made from week to week as the average shots made in week one were 46.58, and in week three were 51.73, an 11.06 percent increase.  These results showed that the intended goal did not necessarily effect the results of number of baskets made.  Shooting performance increased regardless of the goal difficulty, or the presence of a goal at all.  However there was evidence that the intended goal improved the confidence of the participants in being able to achieve that desired goal. 

Lane and Streeter's (2003) experiment definitely shed some light on the effectiveness of setting goals in a individualized study.  When it comes to shooting baskets, it is obviously everyone's goal to make every shot they take, otherwise they would not shoot.  Since this is the desire for every shooter, when a goal is given for someone to have to make 8 more baskets above their desired goal to reach the goal of the experiment, the shooter's mentality is to shoot and make as many as possible, even if  that means to make a lot more than the desired goal.  Lets say the participant needs to make ten baskets to reach the goal, and he hears he has only thirty seconds left and has already made four baskets.  He soon realizes he must shoot faster to reach his goal, this is where the effectiveness of the goal comes into play.  At this point, confidence will be an issue since with that amount of time left and that many baskets left to be made, time is not on his side causing him to probably shoot a worse percentage due to lack of concentration and bad shooting technique. But if the shooter had made eight baskets and has only ten seconds left, he might try to concentrate harder to make the few shots he would have left so he could reach the goal, which is where the goal setting would come to his benefit.  Lane and Streeter's experiment could have been performed better to improve the data if they had perhaps tested over a longer period of time so if there was a consistency with baskets made and goals set it could have been seen later on in the testing. 

Sheldon Hanton et. al (2006) performed an experiment on the effectiveness of goal setting on rugby performance to see if the presence of goals would improve five rugby players performances.  These five players were between the ages of 21 and 24 and were all starters on a rugby team competing in the National Collegiate Rugby Union Championships.  The players were tested in four performance behaviors which were number of ball carries, number of tackles, successful kicks made, and number of turnovers won.  The study covered 20 games over the course of a full rugby season.  The baseline portion consisted of the first 10 games and at this mid-season break the intervention was implemented.  The last 10 games were the post intervention phase where the goals had been put in place. Goal determination was assessed by having each participant meet with a researcher to decide on which aspect of performance the player wanted to improve on.  The researchers then documented each performance behavior selected by each participant for the first half of the season, then at the point of the mid-season, the goal setting portion of the experiment was implemented.  Goal reviewing consisted of researches meeting with the players two days before each game for the second half of the season to discuss what needed to be done in order for the player to attain his desired goal for that particular game.  Finally, at the end of the season, the researchers reviewed the change in performance during the first half of the season and the second half.  The experiment then administered results.

Results of this experiment showed that there was improvement for all of the participants so it would appear that goal setting was effective in improving the performance of rugby players.  For example, participant one averaged 5.12 carries per game for the first half of the season.  By the end of the season, after the goal setting had been implemented, he was averaging 9.10 carries per game, a 77 percent increase.  Participant two had a similar improvement; he went from averaging 7.87 tackles to 10.40 tackles, and participant three had a desirable decrease going from missing 4.23 of his tackles to missed to only 1.9 per game.  Participant four went from making 8.7 kicks to making 11 per game, while participant five went from winning 1.33 turnovers per game to 2.90.  So every player improved after goals had been set.  As a team, they also improved once goal setting had been added to their season.  At the midseason point, the team had won 50 percent of their games.  After goal setting, they won 70 percent of their games.  Team statistics went from 21 points for and 10 points against, to 30 points for and 20 against, a significant improvement after goals had been set.  According to this data, goal setting had improved the performance of the players individually and as a team.

The experiment performed by Hanton et al. (2006) was one that was simple and effective.  Comparing results before goals were implemented and after is an easy way to see if there is any improvement after goals are set.  Goals give people something to compete and strive for so in the case of these rugby players, more than likely they had to change their game, heighten their focus to accomplish these goals.  Once they did this, their games improved.  This is not becuase they got more playing time in the second half the season so this important to note that this had nothing do with the performances of the players.  When it comes to tackles, which was what participant 2 had predicated his goal around, he probably worked harder to make sure he was going to make every possible tackle by working on his fundamentals and focusing harder on his target.  He then starts getting more tackles because he cares more about getting these statistics, therefore he strives to make more tackles and in the act, gets them. 

In comparison to the study performed by Lane and Streeter (2003), Hanton et al. (2006) study was more effective in receiving the desired outcome, which was an improvement in performance by the participants.  Lane and Streeter's experiment undoubtedly could have been articulated more efficiently to get better improvement results from their participants, although they did acquire some desired data. The study on rugby performance was planned out to much a higher degree than the basketball shooting experiment for a few reasons.  They allowed for a longer period of time to collect data, a full rugby season consisting of 20 games, versus just a few weeks in the case of basketball shooting performance test.  This longer period of time makes for a more effective baseline when comparing the performances of the players before goal setting was implemented, to post goal setting implementation.  Mellalieu, Hanton and O'Brien created a much simpler approach when they devised their scheme to test the effectiveness of goal setting because they allowed for the players to choose their own goals, giving them the freedom choose what they wanted to see improve, as opposed to the goals being chosen for the 15 year old basketball players.  If shooter x is selected as a part of the unrealistic goal group, but is a poor shooter and has no confidence in himself to ever make enough baskets to achieve the goal set for him, he has just been set up for failure.  In the case of the rugby players, they got the option of choosing one statistic to improve on, and this allows for the players to be more successful in attaining their goals.  It would not be fair if the administrators running the experiment had asked a player who does not kick to set a goal of making more kicks since this would not happen.  But if a player who does kick, like participant 4, says he would like to set a goal of making more kicks then he has just put himself in a position to reach his goal.  He did just that because he had the opportunity to focus on his desired target having the confidence in himself to achieve this improvement.

A study performed by Shannon L. Smith and Phillip Ward (2006) tested the effectiveness of goal setting in college football through the experimentation of wide receivers.  Three wide receivers from an NCAA division 2 football team were the individuals tested in this study.  The researches measured three variables; first the percentage of correct blocks performed by the player, secondly the percentage of correct routes run, and lastly the percentage of correct releases from the line of scrimmage performed by each player.  There was a baseline set by the coach where he would meet individually with each player and review expectations before each practice to reinforce what needed to be worked on.  The receivers were expected to meet a 90% correct performance level of combinded correctly executed blocks, routes and releases in practice scrimmages so this was their goal for every day's practice. 

Results of this test showed that performance was better when the goals were set for the participants then during the baseline testing.  During the goal setting portion, all the players correct execution percentage in practice was between 90% and 100% and in games was an impressive 100%.  Thus, a conclusion could be drawn in that goal setting was effective in improving the performance of collegiate football players.  At least for wide receivers, since that was the position which was studied in this experiment.

Smith and Ward's (2006) study was different than the above mentioned studies, but had some similarities.  Unlike the rugby study, this study took a different approach with its participants in that they had to perform at that 90% correction level everyday at both practice and games, as opposed to just games.  This would make it more difficult for the football players since they would not have the luxury of being able to practice their routes, blocks or releases incorrectly and not get credit for doing it wrong.  This would mean they would have to listen better in practice so they wouldn't make that error on the field and get marked down on their execution because of it.  In the case of the rugby players, they got the opportunity to practice their specific target area all week until their games to improve their technique, and carry that practice over into their games.  The strategy Smith and Ward chose when conducting this experiment could have been designed much more effectively to administer more favorable results.  Instead of using blocks, which is a attribute wide receivers learn from the start of their careers as football players during youth, they could have used caught passes as a variable to study.  These players were competing at NCAA Division 2, a high level so it is not likely they would make illegal blocks, or not block properly very often.  This would make their correct performance percentage higher.  If catches made were one of the variables, it would have made the results more telling since making catches in a practice or game requires more concentration then making a correct block.  If the goal was to drop no more than 10% of the passes thrown, (the percentage may change based on the difficulty of making catches) then the receivers would have to really give a great effort to meet this goal.

Goudas et al. (2007) tested the effects of goal setting on endurance performance for 75 female students ages 18-21.  Participants were to ride a cycle ergometer which started at 60 Watt (1 kg x 60 rpm) and would increase 30 Watt every 3 minutes.  The test would be terminated once the participant reached 170 beats per minute.  During the first phase of the test, the trial runs, the goal was "to do your best."  After this, participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental group conditions.  The second phase took place seven days later and participants were told to refrain from any vigorous physical activity 24 hours before testing. 

Group 1 participants gave both specific verbal and written goals for lowering their heart rate average.  To help them, while they were pedaling on the cycle the testers would  show them a card with their heart rate for every minute of the first trial, almost like a rabbit during a race, as well as the target heart rate corresponding to their goal.  Group 2 participants set specific personal goals for lowering their heart rate average and also for performance improvement in terms of time.  They got the same rabbit treatment that group 1 got and in addition were given feedback both for their heart rate and time elapsed.  Participants in group 3 set goals only to improve performance in terms of time and were given concurrent feedback during their exercise.  The control group for this experiment was group 4, so they had no goals but were told to simply do their best.  No feedback was provided to them during their performance.

The results of this study showed that there was an overall improvement in the heart rates of the participants across all three of the tested groups. (Group 4 being a control group) Participants who were provided set goals and heart rate feedback increased their performance most significantly this study found, while exercisers who were provided concurrent performance feedback and set goals did not improve their performance. 

Goudas et al. (2007) study was an interesting one.  It resembles Lane and Streeter's study on basketball shooting performance more than the rugby and football studies.  Since the study showed improvement in the endurance of the participants who set goals and got heart rate feedback, but not in the set goals and concurrent feedback, the data would suggest that goal setting was not necessarily the cause for improvement.  But the feedback from the participants being able to see their actual heart rate looks to have been the real cause of the improvement.  This makes sense because in the case of something like improving heart rate, or basically stamina, if you have an idea of what your heart rate is you can try some techniques like breathing slower or steadier and relaxing to bring the heart rate down.  Although the goal setting must be a part of this improvement as well since the participants were given a week from their trial run to their second trial, meaning they could do some conditioning exercises during the week to develop better stamina.  This could potenitally allow them to have a lower heart rate as the test gets more difficult.  Goal setting could also help during this test because goals give people a benchmark to strive for; if the participants on the cycle tell themselves they can beat their heart rate from the first trial run, having been through the test and knowing what it consists of, then this mind set could heighten their focus and allow them to reach their desired goal.  This type of thinking relates to the basketball shooting performance test.  In the basketball shooting performance test, the participants were put in a specific goal group, just like the cycle riders were, although a big difference was the cyclers had the opportunity to come up with a way to achieve their desired goal, whereas the shooters did not.  The similarity comes during the performance test.  The shooters have a goal they must strive for every time they did their test and because of the goal, the shooters knew what benchmark they needed to achieve, so they could model their strategy to attain it depending on their goal mark.  If a good shooter had to make a marginal amount, 6 for instance, he could take his time when shooting to focus on his technique and shoot a higher percentage and reach this goal relative ease.  But if a poor to moderate shooter had to make 10, he would have to shoot faster and sacrifice his technique for more shots in an attempt to reach his goal.  In the cycling study, the participants took a similar approach in that they knew their goal, so they modeled a strategy to attain it based off of their desired goal.  So the determined goal dictates how the participant is going to achieve success.  That is why goal setting can be effective in improving an individuals athletic performance in the field of play, its basically a way to motivate an athlete to perform at higher level.  It keeps them from getting complacent, allowing athletes to strive to be the greatest they can be.

In less recent study articulated by B. Ann Boyce (1994), goal setting was performed on experienced pistol shooters from the National Police Academy.  There were two goal groups; the first one was the "do your best" group, which served as the experiments control group, and the second was the goal setting group.  14 males and 1 female were in the control group, and 15 males in the goal setting group.  The shooters were to fire using a nine-millimeter semi automatic pistol from two positions which were standing and kneeling.  They shot at an outdoor range from designated distances from the target.  The goal group was told that their specific goal was based off of the previous shooting session's score so an example goal would be if a shooter scored a 80 out of 100, then his assigned goal would be to reach 85 out of 100 on his next shooting.  Of course the other group was simply instructed "do your best" so there were no set goals for them.  To acquire data, there were six sets of trials which consisted of a baseline set, then 5 performance trials.  Each set of trials consisted of a 100 shot score, where a total of 600 rounds would be fired by each participant.  These trials went over a 4 week span with one, sometimes two sessions per week where each session would have a different course of fire, meaning that shooting would take place from different distances (15 to 100 feet) and different positions, standing or kneeling.  Test participants were debriefed upon conclusion of the test in an interview regarding their thoughts about the test, and what they were thinking while participating.

The results for this test showed no significant improvement in the performance of the shooters.  Average scores for both the control and goal setting group were similar indicating that setting goals versus not setting goals did not positively effect the shooters.  Through the debriefing process, 10 participants, or 67%,  in the "do your best" group stated they set specific, numerical goals while the other 5 did not. 

Boyce's (1994) findings turned out showing that goal setting was not effective in improving the performance of these shooters and it is important consider some of the data to support why it did not succeed.  In the case of shooting pistols at a small target from relatively long distances, sheer skill, technique and practice is probably going to be the determining factor in the performance of the shooters.  Unlike basketball where the target is much closer and easier to hit, shooting small targets with pistols is much more difficult to hit than shooting a basketball into a basket.  This is why goal setting probably was not effective in improving the shooters scores.  Of course the shooters ultimate goal is to hit every target, they even said so in their debriefing interviews so regardless of their goal given to them based off the previous session performance, the shooters are going to try their hardest to get a perfect score.  Obviously this is not easy.  Once they miss one and lose their perfect score chance, they may not focus on their goal nearly as much as simply hitting the next target.  Possibly before they even realize it, the goal has been tarnished but the shooters are still focusing on hitting the next target.  The "do your best" group exemplifies this because since they have no real goal given to them, they are going to want to hit every target and get a score of 100%, naturally.  Once they miss a target and lose the opportunity to get a perfect score, they move on to the next target and attempt to hit it.  Since they're only "doing their best," hitting the next target is the most important task at hand.  Since the target is not easy to hit, goals probably are not going to be very helpful, unlike in rugby for instance, where the players chose something relatively easy to focus on, and allowed themselves to focus on it, and improve. 

 Robert Weinberg of Miami University and Daniel Weigand of the University of North Texas (1993) did a review and analysis of Locke's studies regarding goal setting.  They note that Locke's  (1991), studies along with numerous studies performed by other sports psychologists of the time period, have both supported the effectiveness of goal setting on sport performance, but also showed results that did not show any significant improvement in athletic performance.  Locke feels that these inconsistent results are due to methodological and procedural problems during the performance of the studies.  Weinberg and Weigand feel it is not that simple and there is more to the flaws in results then simply problems with the testing.  They argue, "After conducting 22 experiments using over 1,200 subjects, we believe that it is overly simplistic to argue that inconsistent and equivocal findings can all be attributed to methodological and procedural issues" (Weinberg, 89).  This is important to note because in all the above studies, different procedures and methods had been used to administer results and some had shown similar data where others have not. These two researches have come up with premises as to why results have been inconsistent while still feeling that goal setting is effective in improving athletic performance.  They feel motivation can be different from test subject to test subject meaning one individual is more determined to meet the goal set for him or her than another.  If there's a difference in how badly the participants want to achieve the goal, then some will get the goal while others simply will not due to lack of effort.  This could skew results.  One area of goal setting experiments Weinberg and Weigand find problematic is "manipulation failure of 'do-best' condition" and this is because they feel it has been very difficult to keep these participants from not setting goals on their own.  Because they had been spontaneously setting specific goals, this would make them be very similar to groups who were given goals by the testers so this would mean results would be similar as well. However, this was not the case as specific-goal groups were superior to do-best groups.  One study showed that 16.7% of do-best subjects set specific goals, though differences were found between performance of the goal group and do-best group because do-best subjects did not set goals.  But another study administered results which showed no difference between do-best subjects who set goals versus specific-goal subjects which was a result of do-best subjects setting these goals.  So this would seem to take a do-best versus specific-goal group test would not be the best way to get accurate results.

In studies such as the pistol shooting, cycle riding and even certain aspects of the basketball shooting test used a form of do-your-best as a test group.  If Weinberg and Weigand's (1993) argument is a valid one, the results of these tests may be inaccurate due to do-best subjects setting their own goals spontaneously.  It's very possible that the pistol shooters' goal was to hit every target, even though they were told not to set one.  This very well could be the reason why results for that test showed no significant improvement; it is very possible the shooters were all performing on the same basic playing field in that they were all shooting for a certain goal of not only improving from their last performance, but hitting all targets.  This would cause the results be similar and thus no conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of goal setting in improving athletic performance.  In the basketball shooting performance experiment, shooters were told they could not count the amount of shots they had made.  Since it is extremely easy to count and keep track of something as simple as each made basket, it is very likely that the participants counted each made basket knowing they were not supposed to.  Again, the results showed no significant improvement in the shots made by either group and it is conceivable that this is a direct result of what Weinberg and Weigand were arguing. 

Weinberg and Weigand (1993) also say that a flaw in goal setting was making specific goals difficult.  They feel that the specific goals the do-best subjects were making were far too moderate, making them not put out a great effort to succeed in reaching these goals.  Locke (1991) found that only 50% of do-best subjects who set moderate specific goals reached their intended target.  He also found that in the specific-goal group, participants attained their goal only 68% and 48% of the time.  Weinberg and Weigand do not feel that setting difficult goals produces better performance than the do-best, and easy to moderate goal groups.  They argue, "in sports and exercise settings, it appears that difficult goals are not necessarily superior to easier or do-best goals" (Weinberg, 95).  They feel this is a result from subjects setting their own personal goals that were different than goals assigned to them, potentially ruining the whole experiment. 

Going back to the rugby study, Weinberg and Weigand (1993) may explain why the rugby players were so successful in reaching their specific goals created by themselves.  The rugby players issued themselves relatively moderate goals, which were simply to improve from the first half of the season, to the second half.  They all attained this goal so its conceivable that the players improved because their goals were easy to reach.  This evidence is not near conclusive enough to say that moderate goal making was the cause for the players improvements but there definitely could be a connection. 

 Goal setting is something athletes use constantly to improve their performances.  Studies would suggest that it is effective in improving performance when implemented correctly, although further research is needed to prove that goal setting is a sure fire way to improve athletic performance in the field of play.


     Boyce, B., A. (1994).  The effects of goal setting on performance and spontaneous goal-setting behavior of experience pistol shooters.  The Sports Psychologist, 8, 87-93.

     Goudas, M., Laparidis, K., & Theodorakis, Y. (2007).  The effect of external versus internal types of feedback and goal setting on endurance performance.  Athletic Insight. The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 9, 57-66.

     Hanton, S., Mellalieu, S. D., & O'Brien M. (2006).  The effects of goal setting on rugby performance.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39, 257-261.

     Lane, A. M., & Streeter, B. (2003). The effectiveness of goal setting as a strategy to improve basketball performance in adolescent club players. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 34, 138-150.

     Locke, E. A. (1991).  Problems with goal-setting research in sports- And their solution.  Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 13, 311-316.

     Smith, S. L., & Ward, P. (2006).  Behavioral interventions to improve performance in collegiate football.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39, 385-391.

     Weinberg, R., & Weigand D. (1993).  Goal Setting in Sport and Exercise: A Reaction to Locke.  Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 15, 88-96.