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Creating an Action Plan

This is an excerpt from Achieving Excellence by Colleen Hacker & Mallory E. Mann.

Goal Types

There are essential elements of effective goal setting, and before you can implement goals in your life or in a specific achievement domain, you must first be aware of each required component. For one, you need to know what types of goals need to be set for maximum effectiveness. The literature has clearly outlined three important goal types: outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals (Martens 1987).

Outcome Goals
Outcome goals are useful because they require you to identify your intended result. What do you want to accomplish? You may want to finish first in your class, become the best solo climber in the world, or win a World Championship in your sport. Outcome goals set the standard for your performance and are results driven. They are often long-term goals, meaning you hope to accomplish them at the end of a competitive season, across your career, or before the end of your life (think bucket list goals). Most people gravitate toward outcome goals, and they can be useful in setting long-term priorities and serving as motivation during challenging times. World heavyweight champion boxer and social justice leader Muhammad Ali said, “Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision.” This dream or long-term goal is typically an outcome goal, focused on the desired result. Common outcome goals are to score a goal, to be selected as a starter, to win a court case, or to be chosen as lead soloist. However, this type of goal has been shown to be less effective in consistently improving performance because, at best, performers have only partial control over the outcome, and these goals distract competitors from task-relevant strategies (Burton and Naylor 2002; Martens 1987). Every baseball pitcher wants to win the game, of course, or pitch a no-hitter, but focusing only on that outcome goal prevents a pitcher from focusing on the elements of performance necessary to bring about that outcome, such as the placement of their fingers on the ball or the snap of their wrist after each pitch. In addition, when performers set outcome goals and do not achieve them, perhaps because someone else was more skilled, made a great play, or even caught a lucky break, they are less likely to adjust and continue setting goals in the future.

Performance Goals
Performance goals, on the other hand, are useful before and during training sessions and competitions because they target personal improvement. One of the top speed skaters of her era and one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, with five gold medals and one bronze, Bonnie Blair spoke about this type of goal when she said, “No matter what the competition is, I try to find a goal that day and better that goal.” Notice she did not mention that her focus was on winning gold or being the best in the world. She might have had those outcome goals, but each day she identified one area to improve. Basketball players might, for example, set a performance goal to shoot 10 more shots from the wing on Tuesday than they shot on Monday. Performance goals are self-focused and completely controlled by the athlete. But even these goals can increase anxiety if they are the only type of goal that a performer sets (e.g., expecting every new performance to be a personal record or a personal best) (Weinberg and Gould 2019).

Process Goals
The third type of goal, process goals, highlights procedures, strategies, and techniques that a competitor needs to engage in if they want to perform a task well. In curling, the lead player might think “push” just before they release the stone down a sheet of ice, and a sweeper might set a goal of targeting proper hand placement so they can reduce friction better and help the rock move straighter. These are process goals that help direct the attention of the performer. Like performance goals, process goals are particularly useful before and during training sessions and competitions.

Common Goal-Setting Errors

A common error in goal setting is that performers often implement goals only before competition. Instead, goals should be set before, during, and after both practice and competition. They should be set daily and weekly and over the course of a year or season. It is also important to set all three types of goals: outcome, performance, and process. As a minimum threshold, performers should set at least five process or performance goals for every outcome goal set. Doing so allows individuals to create a vision or long-term objective for their performance while spending most of their focus and attention targeting specific elements of their technique or strategies and improving their personal performance in every session. In this way, process and performance goals allow the competitor to focus on elements they can control (e.g., their effort, their response to competitive challenges, their attitude, their motivation, their technique).

Each of these types of goals can also be considered objective goals that people use to target and approach a desired outcome explicitly and specifically. Subjective goals are, on the other hand, general statements usually about having fun or doing your best. Some research has proven that objective goals are better for athletes than subjective goals because they are measurable and specific, and a performer knows when they have succeeded or failed to reach their selected standard. The goal-setting literature is clear that “do your best” goals are contraindicated for athletes because they are too general and lack measurement capability. But when applied to new exercisers, those same “do your best” goals seem to work better than specific, process goals, which can be defeating and can negatively affect motivation and confidence. Subjective goals are also useful for athletes learning a new sport or a new skill because they help them focus on effort, work rate, and learning new strategies rather than focusing primarily on outperforming others or on errors in their technique so common in early learning stages. In addition, research in business management suggests that subjective goals help workers improve productivity and clarify their values (Weinberg and Gould 2019). For elite athletes, however, competing in the World Championships or Olympic Games, it is best to transform subjective goals to an initial outcome goal and then work back to construct several process and performance goals needed to achieve the outcome goal. The image of the goal-setting process resembles a staircase. Performers know where they are starting, and they know where they want to go. So, they need to construct the connecting steps necessary to get to the top. Those connecting steps are built with process and performance goals.

For people who are working in groups or competing on teams, setting goals as a group or team and implementing individual goals are equally important. Group goals foster collective efficacy and effort (Widmeyer and DuCharme 1997). Collective efficacy, simply stated, refers to the strength of belief members have in their collective ability to be successful. In all types of goal setting, it is important to first set long-term goals to establish a specific path forward, and then create short-term goals (individual steps) on the path to facilitate achievement of the long-term goal. When setting goals as a team or group, it is important to encourage all members to contribute and to consistently monitor and provide feedback on individual and collective progress.

Fortunately, there is a simple template for setting goals effectively. The requisite elements of productive goal setting are well established. The next section offers an example of the processes and procedures necessary to reap maximum benefit from setting team or individual goals. See the following sidebar.

Chalk Talk: Quick Hits for Goal Setting

Using a variety of goals and implementing evidence-based goal-setting strategies more frequently than other performers do, for example, are key practices for high-achieving performers. But simply knowing the types of goals a performer should set is only part of the process. Nuance matters. The achievement domain matters. The characteristics of the individual matter. The environmental factors matter. You must be aware of the personal and situational variables that affect goal-setting guidelines for individuals and for groups. To set goals effectively, you must be able to determine the type of goal, how many goals, and what areas to target for this performer (or group), at that competitive level, in that environment (sport, business, life) now. When people are not appropriately attending to the essential factors affecting goal-setting guidelines, results are predictable: Metaphorically speaking, we can expect bad-tasting bread, soggy bread, or no bread at all. Even though the rest of this chapter offers a template for setting goals, it is important to emphasize again that you must know the personal and situational variables for each person (or group), rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach. You are then able to set more appropriate and impactful goals based on sound goal-setting guidelines and recommended rationale.