The Sport Psychology of Goal-Setting

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You’ve gotta set goals and achieve them to become the best athlete you can be. Duh, everyone knows that. And you know what? It’s completely true. Goal-setting is an absolutely indispensable part of the sport training process. Goals can keep you both grounded and focused at the same time, which is one hell of a combo for enhancing your dedication to training and competing.

The formal study of sport psychology reveals that there are several different classes or types of goals (three, in fact). And what’s even more interesting is that these three different goal types are not all equally powerful in their effect on sport performance. In fact, they are quite unequal, with one being dominant, the other being important but less so, and the last being a relatively minor detail.

By taking a look at these three different goal types and examining their relative effects, we can make sure we’re setting and achieving the right types of goals for the best outcome in our sport performance, no matter which sport it is. Because of our (the authors’) own personal background, we’ll use mostly examples from strength and combat sports, but these principles apply to absolutely all sports and all forms of competition.

The Three Types of Goals:

In sport psychology, there are three types of goals:

– Process Goals
– Performance Goals
– Outcome Goals

Luckily, their definitions are quite simple and straightforward:

Process Goals:

These are the goals of executing the actual training process it takes to improve your performance in sport. Here are some examples:

– Making it to the basketball court at least 5 times per week before a citywide 3 on 3 tournament
– Taking all of your supplements without missing any for a bodybuilding show
– Making sure to hit all of your physical therapy sessions after a powerlifting meet so that you can heal up completely before training hard for the next one
– Making sure to get at least 5 hard rolls at the end of BJJ practice, at least 2 of those with belt ranks higher than yours

Performance Goals:

These are the goals that track your improvement in the sport. They are benchmarks for your continued ascension. Some examples:

– Being able to average at least 20 points per game against your usual practice squad
– Getting full range of motion back in your quad by the end of the month’s PT sessions
– Squatting 500 for 5 reps at the end of your strength phase before your next powerlifting meet in which you want to squat at least 560 for a PR
– Gaining 15lbs by the end of your 3 month mass phase
– Being able to hit at least one successful sweep per roll on any belt rank below you at your gym

Outcome Goals:

These are the goals that keep you focused on the big picture. They are the result of the successful application of process and performance goals. Examples include:

– Taking top 3 at a big BJJ tournament
– Winning the citywide basketball tournament
– Taking top 3 at your second bodybuilding show
– Totaling 1600lbs for a 55lb PR at your powerlifting meet

Process goals are really just goals to train and eat and recover in the best way possible (while still being realistic, of course). Performance goals let you make sure that you’re getting measurably better, and outcome goals keep your eyes on the prize. All are essential to the best possible sport outcomes, but not all are equally weighted in their effect on performance. Some are in fact more important than others.

Triceps extensions with most peoples’ bench max doesn’t happen by accident.

Importance Ranking:

It turns out that the three goal types are already quite conveniently ordered by importance. Process goals are the most important to sport performance, performance goals are ironically second in helping performance, and outcome goals are essential, but least in importance compared with the other two. Let’s take a look at each goal type and examine why this hierarchy of effect on performance emerges.

Why Process Goals are Most Important:

Process goals are by far the most important because without them, you simply wouldn’t get any better. And without getting any better, WHO CARES what your performance and outcome goals are? Getting to the gym makes you stronger. Getting on the court makes you better at the game. Getting on the mat improves your rolling. Only the hard work of training can make you better, and if you don’t plan to show up and work hard, you won’t get better. If you show up and train hard and you don’t get any sleep or your nutrition is off, you will get better, but not nearly as much better as you could have gotten. You almost certainly won’t be threatening any championships. The interesting thing is that nailing your process goals sets you up for your performance goals without hardly any extra planning or thought on your part. If you’ve hit all the track workouts and weights workouts you need to and you show up ready to run, you’ll run a PR and hit your performance goals (so long as they are realistic) no matter if you thought much about them or not. Because training makes champions, process goals are king.

Why Performance Goals are Second Most Important:

You must train hard to get better. But how do you know if you’re training hard enough or doing the right things in training? You might be drilling your sweeps a bunch as a part of your BJJ process goals, but are you actually getting better at sweeping live opponents instead of cooperative training partners? By setting performance goals (like being able to pull off so many sweeps of a certain kind in live rolling), you can make sure that your process is on track and that your process goals are well-constructed. Performance goals must be realistic, challenging, and appropriate to your outcome goals.

Being realistic is key because you can set a goal to run the 100m in 9 seconds all you like, but that will just lead to disappointment. Oh, and good luck finding the process goals to get you there. Goals must be challenging because they have to keep you improving; there’s no point to having goals you can easily attain if maximal improvement is your goal. Lastly, performance goals must be focused on the kind of performances that will set you up to best achieve your outcome goals. If one of your performance goals in powerlifting training is to curl 115lbs for 10 reps and you have a meet in a month, it’s not quite clear how that goal will set you up for best outcomes in the squat, bench press, or deadlift. Similarly, a 100m track athlete doesn’t set performance goals in the 400m sprint. In the simplest terms, your performance goals have to fit in with both your process goals and be guided toward your outcome goals.

Performance goals are not as important as process goals because ANY performance goal is completely irrelevant if you don’t hit your process goals and actually train and recover to improve enough to perform at goal levels. “I wanna bench 400 by the end of the year” is a truly adorable statement coming from a lifter notorious for skipping weeks of workouts at a time. On the other hand, performance goals are more important than outcome goals, and for one BIG reason: If your performance is where it should be, the outcome is mostly decided already. If Usain Bolt hits his performance goals training for the Olympics, it doesn’t matter much if it’s in fact his goal to win the Olympics; there’s simply no one fast enough to beat him. If you’re performing at a brown belt level as a blue belt, you’re likely gonna win World’s whether or not it was your explicit outcome goal to do so. Just by doing your best and performing how you’re capable, you’ll probably blow through everyone in any case.

Why Outcome Goals are the Least Important:

By now, it’s apparent that outcome goals are not super important. And while they are essential, it is in fact true that they are not pivotal. They are, however, by far the sexiest and draw the most attention in peer groups and the media. Very few people perk up when you say “I’m going to squat 3 times per week for the next 8 weeks,” but many more will turn their heads if you say “I wanna make it onto the U.S. Powerlifting World Team.” Because outcome goals are so appealing, they receive far more attention than they are merited in a truly great athlete’s repertoire. The reality is that ALL KINDS of people can make outcome goals, and talk is very cheap. It sure tingles the spine when a great athlete says he plans to win the Olympics, but he’s got the track record of process and performance to back that up. When someone who doesn’t show up to practice, avoids the gym, and eats like crap says they want to win their next meet, few things cause as much nausea from those in earshot.

As was mentioned in the discussion on performance goals, if you’re performing as you should be, hitting outcome goals is mostly just going through the motions anyway. Now, it’s not ALL going through the motions, as there are two very big functions of outcome goals that make them indispensable. Firstly, outcome goals help align the whole training process for a singular purpose. It takes a certain speed to win the Olympic 100m competition, and your performance goals will be derived right from that speed. In turn, your process goals will derive right from those performance goals. So while outcome goals are cheap and easy to make, they do structure and orient the more important performance and process goals behind them. Secondly, outcome goals are great motivators. The actual act of hitting process goals is not the most overly motivating endeavor. Most don’t get psyched up about going to the gym and training for 1.5 hours per day PER SE. It’s the bodybuilding victory that motivates you, the basketball championships, the powerlifting total PR. This motivational ability of outcome goals can enhance not only the training process but also the competition itself. If you’re down on points in a BJJ match and you REALLY WANNA WIN, you’re much more likely to do what it takes. So, we can’t throw out outcome goals entirely; rather, we have to put them in their proper place in the goal-setting hierarchy.

In the outline below, we have a description of how outcome goals lead the goal creation process but are entirely dependent on performance and process goals in goal achievement. Since goal creation is so much easier than goal achievement, process and performance goals are seen as more critical than outcome goals.

Deriving Goals:

Outcome Goals –> Performance Goals –> Process Goals

Win 100m Race –> Run 10.2 in training –> Train 4x a week on track, 2x a week with weights

Achieving Goals: 

Process Goals –> Performance Goals –> Outcome Goals

Train 4x a week on track, 2x a week with weights –> Run 10.2 in training –> Win 100m Race

Want to learn the scientific principles behind program design so you can take control of your training and get better results than ever before?  Pick up a copy of "Scientific Principles of Strength Training" by Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. James Hoffmann, and Chad Wesley Smith.  Click on the picture to get your copy.
Want to learn the scientific principles behind program design so you can take control of your training and get better results than ever before? Pick up a copy of “Scientific Principles of Strength Training” by Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. James Hoffmann, and Chad Wesley Smith. Click on the picture to get your copy.

How to Structure Your Goals Based on their Importance:

Knowing which goal types are most important and why, it becomes quite easy for us to organize our goal-setting to maximize our athletic potential. Because outcome goals anchor the whole training process, they need to be set first. They should be simple and straightforward, without consuming too much thought and planning. For example: Tournament of Champions 2015, September 5th, going to PR by 55lbs in the total and squat x, bench y, and deadlift z. That’s IT. Nothing too fancy. No need to think about attempt selections, meet-day eating, or anything too in depth. Next, the performance goals. In order to squat, bench, or deadlift a certain weight, you’re going to have to hit certain assistance moves at certain times for certain reps. Plan to perform. Front squat 385×10 in a hypertrophy phase, high-bar squat 435 for 5 in a strength phase later on, and finally hit 500×3 in the peaking phase before your run at 530 in the meet. Lastly, your process goals need to be the most detailed. Meal plans, training programs, planned times for rest and recovery. Outcome goals involve simply picking a meet and some numbers to hit; performance goals are more nuanced and require some calculations. Process goals require daily commitment and constant alteration to stay on track to hit performance goals. Let’s put it this way: If you spend more time thinking about and telling people about your plans for victory than you do prepping meals and driving to workouts, your priorities are not productive.

ALL goal types are important, but make sure you keep your focus on the most important ones most of the time. Use outcome goals to narrow your focus and draw motivation, performance goals to keep you on track for your outcomes, and process goals for the most important ingredient of all: actually getting better.

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Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant  to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”

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