Written by: Charles Drinkwater

Why do you do sports?
Why do you enter competitions?
What would you like to achieve through your sport participation?

These are just some of the questions that, quite possibly, have gone through your mind at some point before, during or after a competition or training session. In an attempt to increase performance and give purpose to your sporting involvement it is worth taking the time to answer the first two “Why- questions” above.

Based on these answers you would think that answering the third question would be quite simple? However, research over the last few years has demonstrated that there are a number of key characteristics the athlete or coach has to take into account when setting their sporting goals for the season ahead and beyond. This blog will seek to outline what these characteristics are and how these factors will help the athlete to maintain their motivation and performance throughout their pursuit of fulfilling these goals.

1. How does the athlete judge success?

Different people are motivated by different things. Some athletes are motivated by how they improve week-on-week or month-on-month from their statistical performance in training or competition (e.g. maximum power output, amount of sprint intervals is able to complete in running before reaching complete exhaustion, beating personal records) while other athletes are motivated by how they are perceived from the outside and tend to compare their performance more against their teammates or opponents. The former motivation type is called intrinsic motivation because the location where the subject motivation comes from is from within.

“For myself, losing is not coming second. It’s getting out of the water knowing you could have done better. For myself, I have won every race I have been in.” (Ian Thorpe, 5-time Olympic champion swimmer)

The second type of motivation is called “extrinsic motivation” as the athlete looks outside to judge their success in performance. It is completely normal for an athlete to be motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically; however, the degree to which they are motivated in one way or another needs to be communicated in some way to the coach so that the coach can conduct the training and give feedback accordingly.

“I’m not used to winning nothing – it’s the first time it’s happened to me. I’m disappointed. It’s a failure.”
(Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Swedish football legend, who has won 33 trophies with nine clubs between 1999 and 2022, commenting on his club AC Milan not winning the league in 2012)

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has spoken about Jose Mourinho being the best manager that has been able to get the best out him the best (Image from Sky Sports)

It has been shown that a positive relationship between coach and athlete where both parties are clear on how they both perceive success leads to clearer goals being set that are catered to individuals.

2. Is the goal difficult enough?

When setting a goal to aim for, research has shown that both an objective that is too easily reached or too difficult will lead to a decrease in athlete focus, motivation and effort due to complacency or giving as there is no tension or doubt for that the athlete will achieve the objective even if they do not put in maximum effort.

On the other hand it has also been shown that setting a goal too difficult will lead to a decrease in athlete persistence and motivation. A general recommendation that is advisable to coaches and athletes when deciding on what goals to set is to set the performance bar no more than 5% of the current performance level. This can be applied to intrinsic personal goals (e.g. time taken to run 5km) or goals that focus on result (e.g. finish on the podium at a championship).

Tom Dumoulin exhausted after losing the Vuelta Espana on the final day (Image from Sky Sports)

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