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Helping athletes define goals

Blake Respini looks at the importance of setting goals and explains his approach to his athletes.

Goal setting is a crucial component of any successful athletic program for without specified goals; it is difficult to measure or even recognize the success your athletes achieve for a season. Goal setting not only makes measuring success possible but also is vital in motivating athletes to do their best. Unless they are working towards a tangible goal, athletes are likely to think that just showing up and doing the workout is enough.

Setting goals

Unfortunately, goal setting is often reduced to simple phrases like "I want to run faster." Or "Let us win the championship." For a team expected to be league champions, this will not mean much. For a team with little chance of winning the championship, this could be a setup for failure. Thus, athletes need to see goals as tangible yet multi-faceted and fluid. Goal setting must include room for the big dreams but must also show athletes the steps towards those dreams that are valuable within themselves. With proper goal setting, any athlete who works hard for a season can finish the season with a great, and quantifiable, sense of success.

The following activity has helped the cross-country runners I coached to think about what they want to achieve as individual runners and as team members both in the short and long term. It can be adapted for almost any sport, used on a team retreat, or in about an hour during a team practice. With runners, it fits in well early in the season on a day after a hard workout when they need a light workout to recover.

Provide each athlete with a copy of the Goal Sheet and ask them to read over the different types of goals with the team to make sure they understand the nature and value of each. Also, ask them about the arrows on the Goal Sheet to see if they understand how the various types of goals relate to one another. Give them about half an hour to write their goals encouraging them to be specific and thorough. I then have team members share some of what they wrote. I point out that publicly stating one's goals is scary, but that by putting one's self on the line, one is more likely to take them seriously and do what will make them real. It is important to talk to individual athletes and the team as a whole about what it will take to reach their goals. I collect their goal sheets and later let them see the comments and suggestions I write on them. I then hold on to them, so I can pass them out at mid-season so that they can re-evaluate what they wrote.

Goal definitions

Dream Goals (3 to 6 years down the road)

Where do you want to be as a runner/athlete in 3 to 6 years? These goals can be big or moderate (from being an Olympic athlete to merely being in shape). They may be less defined than a shorter-term goal, but they should be real and meaningful and something you would like to work for.

Individual Season Goals

These should be your one or two primary goals for the season. They should stretch your limits and be challenging, but only to the extent you are prepared to do the things necessary to give yourself a chance to meet them. If you are not ready to commit to it, you should not write it down here. You might think in terms of statistical achievements, your place on the team or in the league, or awards or recognitions you hope to achieve. Do not pick more than one or two; decide what is most important.

Spirit Goals

These may be the most important of goals; they involve personal growth and how you want to feel when the season is all over, what you want to take away with you besides a medal that is only worth $5. Ask yourself what is driving you to seek out your other goals in the first place; or in other words, what do you hope to get out of this besides defeating others. While meeting your Season Goals may contribute to reaching your spirit goals, your spirit goals should stand alone. For some people their spiritual goals involve having applied themselves to the fullest, for others, it has to do with fitness, and for others still, it has to do with having experienced the love of competition.

Team Goals

What two or three things do you want to achieve as part of the team? Team leaders must vocalize these goals; otherwise, they will never materialize in a way that will drive performance and give a season meaning. These should be challenging yet reachable, and they must be specific and backed up by commitment. Your individual season goals will contribute to directly team success.

Process Goals

These are the things outside of competition that you must do to achieve your other goals. Do not just list the things you already do well (although that is a great exercise for another time), but rather, focus on the things you want to work on and improve. These could include, doing a certain number of free throws each day, extra weight training, increasing your weekly mileage a certain distance, running once every weekend, improving an aspect of your diet, getting a certain amount of sleep, stretching, supporting team-mates, having a certain attitude or approach to practice. You should list 3 to 5 things.

Intermediate Goals

These are 2nd tier goals that will serve as steps to your Individual Season Goals. If you want to set a school record, you need to think about where you need to be by mid-season. What are the things that will satisfy you along the way to your Season Goal?

Short-Term Goals

What do you want to do in the next race or game? You should never enter a competition without a specific goal whether it is to race at a certain pace, beat a specific runner, score a certain number of points, play a certain way in the context of a game, or utilize a certain strategy. Unless you do this, you will have no meaningful way to assess your performance.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • RESPINI, B. (2005) Helping athletes define goals. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 21 / April), p. 8-9

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • RESPINI, B. (2005) Helping athletes define goals [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Blake Respini has taught history and coached boys and girls cross-country at Lick-Wilmerding High School from 1984 until 2004. His teams are a DV power-house in the BCL and NCS and are regular qualifiers to the California State Championships.