Published January 2011 • Revised August 2014


Some of the greatest rewards that come from teaching and coaching are watching student-athletes improve. A student who does not improve will experience difficulty meeting curriculum expectations at the end of the year and an athlete who does not improve will have trouble keeping pace as the postseason approaches. Setting goals – and lighting the inner fire to achieve them – is one of the best methods to inspire that improvement.

The Importance of Goals

It is paramount that youth develop self-control and discipline. At school or in sport, these skills enable them to learn the material and develop higher-order thinking. More importantly, this self-control is directly linked to personal health and success later in life. Increasing one’s ability to disciple themselves during childhood and adolescence is much more impactful than targeting issues like poor choices later on (Moffitt, et al., 2010, pp. 3-6).

Left to their own devices, people remain unfocused. Goal orientation channels effort and skills towards worthwhile goals. Those who set explicit goals outperform those who do not set any and those who set qualitative objectives comparing themselves against previous efforts are likely to do better than those who only focus on quantitative benchmarks (Bandura & Cervone, Self-Evaluative and Self-Efficacy Mechanisms Governing the Motivational Effects of Goal Systems, 1983, p. 1025).

High mastery-oriented goals also deliver concrete increases in Grade Point Average (Barron & Harackiewicz, 2001, p. 709). Self-set goals and feelings of achievement can spur later academic success (Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992, p. 674).

Types of Goals

Goal-Setting Theory divides goals into three primary types: mastery oriented, success-oriented, or failure-oriented.

Summary of Different Goals
Orientation Outlook Effort Response to Failure Focus
  • Positive
  • Confident
  • Consistently High
  • Increased Effort
  • Problem Solving
  • As High As Required
  • Low Effort May Be a Coping Skills
  • Negative
  • Pessimistic
  • Reduced Effort
  • May Give Up

Mastery-oriented goals emphasize the entire process or performance, for example improvement in the subject area and personal effort. Success-oriented goals are related to the outcome of the academic or athletic endeavour. Often, performance is compared with others, leading to confusion about one’s identity.

Failure-oriented goals indicate low self-esteem because they highlight the ideal of “not failing” instead of actively achieving accomplishing meaningful objectives. When learning and improvement are critical, failure-oriented goals are disastrous. Student-athletes will delegate effort towards tasks which are easier to achieve and sacrifice progress in order to avoid public failure (Burton & Naylor, 2002, p. 480).

Goal Setting Strategies

Focusing on Mastery Oriented Goals

Athletes participate in athletics because of skill mastery, fun, social connections, self-esteem, and personal fitness (Von Meter, 2004, p. 17). Obviously, student-athletes attend school and participate in sports to better themselves and prepare for adulthood. Out of all the millions involved in youth sport worldwide, eighty percent drop out by age seventeen.

When a high importance is placed on ego, there is less enjoyment. Mastery-oriented goals promote enjoyment (Cresswell, Hodge, & Kidman, 2003, pp. 16-17). Student-athletes who pursue mastery goals are more likely to select challenging tasks, persist in the face of difficulty, make use of more sophisticated preparation strategies, and retain a more positive attitude than those who use other strategies (Barron & Harackiewicz, 2001, p. 706).

Sample Mastery-Oriented Goals
  • I want to learn as much as I can during this class/practice.
  • I want to improve my skills in this area.
  • It is important for me to understand this concept.
  • I always want to give my best effort during this course/season.
Sample Performance-Oriented Goals
  • I want to ace this test.
  • I want to win this game.
  • I want to do better than my teammate.

Relevant Goals

There is a strong connection between mastery-oriented goals and intrinsic motivation. The goals can become a motivation for youth to engage in learning and higher-level skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. If students perceive the task as relevant to their future goals, intrinsic motivation increases. When teachers provide the rationale for mastering a skill, they should emphasize the value of the learning, demonstrating how it will help students reach their intrinsic goals (Lee, McInerney, Liem, & Ortiga, 2010, p. 275).

Current goal orientation may focus on intrinsic objectives, such as the value of learning or acquiring new skills. If this matches with long-term future intrinsic aims, the current and future goals can mutually strengthen each other. Intrinsic goals like family, career, and contribution to the community are more powerful than simply money and power because they inspire the heart. Those who do not share this focus report lower levels of happiness and personal pride, may withdraw their effort under pressure, procrastinate, or avoid difficult tasks (Lee, McInerney, Liem, & Ortiga, 2010, pp. 275-277).

Link Practices to Games: Shots and drills repeated during workouts and practices should be closely tied to what the team is trying to do during games. After missing a catch and shoot shot in the left corner of Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, Vince Carter practiced the shot every day for the next thirteen years. He was given a chance at redemption during the 2014 Western Conference Quarter-Finals and made the shot to win the game.

Coaches can assign more responsibility to players by asking them where they would like to get the ball during games and what they want to do offensively so the players feel that their individual practice is tied to their success in games.

High Standards

Self-set goals, pointed towards high standards, provide the greatest increase in effort and performance. However, individuals will not simply absorb the standards of others but rather create their own personal standards via reflection over time (Bandura, Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation, 1991, pp. 252-254).

At the beginning of the year or the season, each student-athlete is at a unique level. The purpose is not to create an unattainable pipe dream but focus on challenging standards. When instructors familiarize themselves with everyone’s ability level, they can set goals which are within the zone of proximal development but just out of reach at the moment. The targets are reachable but demanding and therefore rewarding (Duncan-Andrade, 2010, pp. 98-100).

Even when goals are set by others, individual self-discipline skills and motivation determine how effectively effort is mobilized. When self-satisfaction is conditional on performances that match personal standards, effort is increased. Strong perceived self-efficacy for goal attainment, personal dissatisfaction for substandard performance, and challenging standards maximize improvement (Bandura, Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation, 1991, pp. 257-262).

Players Help Set Standards: The goal of the 2008 United States Men’s Basketball Team was simple enough: regain the Olympic Gold Medal that had been lost four years prior. When Mike Krzyzewski took over the Senior Men’s National Team in 2005, he knew that it was necessary to plan the many steps they would need to take along that road. The coaches would need to get together and not only plan the selection process, training camp and the team’s schedule during the games but each practice and meeting in detail.

Krzyzewski decided that the best way for the team to remain accountable to each other and achieve its goal would be the consistently follow high standards. Krzyzewski and the coaching staff chose two themselves (eye contact and treating each other like men). He also informed the team leaders ahead of time that they should contribute something so Jason Kidd (be on time), Dwyane Wade (commitment to each other) and Kobe Bryant (defense and rebounding) added their standards. Others mentioned connectedness, hunger and trust before Krzyzewski added “no bad practices” during the thirty-five days when they would be together (Krzyzewski, 2009, pp. 68-77).

Smaller Goals

Mastery-oriented goals are demanding for all stakeholders because they demand consistent effort over the long-term. Adolescents may have trouble visualizing an improvement plan that is stretched over several months. It is imperative to break the large task into smaller, manageable components. This offers a chance for more feedback and a greater sense of accomplishment when smaller goals are reached (Burton & Naylor, 2002, p. 473).

Successful completion of difficult goals – properly acknowledged – can result in large gains in self-esteem (Bandura & Cervone, Self-Evaluative and Self-Efficacy Mechanisms Governing the Motivational Effects of Goal Systems, 1983, p. 1027). Smaller goals offer more opportunities to raise self-esteem. Focus on short-term goals permits all team members to concentrate on skill development. When a player believes that they are playing well, self-efficacy is heightened (Von Meter, 2004, p. 18).


If the task includes some sort of co-operative element, collective goals are as effective as individual mastery-oriented ones. Often, exigent team goals are more effective than pleas for each member to increase their effort. In order to reduce loafing, individual performance must be identified. Collective goals should be a combination of mastery and success oriented objectives and never failure-oriented (Burton & Naylor, 2002, p. 475).

When goal setting is a collaboration between student-athletes and teacher-coaches, goals are likely to be very relevant and engender a high degree of commitment. Self-determined goals, in concert with parental goals and caring adults can inspire real improvement in school and sport (Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992, p. 665). Peer tutoring can be quite valuable in terms of encouraging enthusiasm for learning (Peter, 2005, p. 159). Social support can reduce stress and improve performance. An additional incentive to reach goals is that adolescents do not want to let down their peers and teammates (Iso-Aloha, 1995, p. 197).

While well-conceived group activities can add a touch of competition and motivation, simply scheduling the activities does not entail immediate improvements in performance (Bandura, Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation, 1991, p. 267). The goal-orientation may temporarily focus effort and skills but the instructor must get to know what structures and rules optimize performance.

Non-Judgmental Observation

While coaches and teachers must empower students and raise self-esteem, it is not necessary to solely provide feedback which doubles as encouragement. Tactical and technical instructions are common among elite basketball coaches and highly-conducive towards mastery-oriented goals (Bloom, Crumpton, & Anderson, 1999, p. 167).

In order to change habits, teenagers must commit to the process and trust themselves. They must set small goals and visualize successful outcomes. After each performance, they should debrief themselves and make plans for the next time (Gallwey, 2008, pp. 76-77). Once learners set individual goals, instructors provide technical feedback (Iso-Aloha, 1995). Goals and objective feedback are far more effective than either component separately (Bandura, Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation, 1991, p. 261).

Solely praising ability convinces learners that it is a fixed trait which cannot be changed. Such feedback causes children to measure themselves according to performance goals. Complimenting effort promotes improvement over time, self-esteem, motivation, and learning skills. It can be an effective strategy to assist young student-athletes who display prodigious skills early, which puts them at risk for later challenges (Mueller & Dweck, 1998, pp. 48-50).

Dynamic Lessons

The attitude of students-athletes towards the tasks is vital to the goals that they will set for themselves. When a teacher-coach introduces the activity, they should include why it is important and how it will benefit them by developing their skills and knowledge. Tasks that involve variety and diversity are more likely to foster willingness for students to put forth maximum effort and become engaged in the process (Ames, 1992, p. 263). Dynamic lessons allow each learner to fulfill different roles and expand the skills in their zone of proximal development and collaborate with each other, for example in leadership roles.

Instead of lingering on a single drill or activity, lessons should be dynamic and alternate between a number of smaller exercises, each showcasing a distinct aspect of the concept. A variety of tasks shows how different components fit together and illustrate multiple ways that one can hone their skills. John Wooden would always show the idea first and explain how it can lead to team success before outlining the processes to be mastered. He packed practices with specific non-judgmental feedback to help players improve (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004, p. 122).


Unfortunately, each youth possesses varying ability to discipline themselves and everyone is not capable to manage themselves at the start of a season (Grow, 1991, p. 126). Poor self-management strategies are the most common internal barriers to learning (Peter, 2005, p. 159). Without a sense of discipline and autonomy, athletes will not be able to experience dedicated intrinsic motivation (Von Meter, 2004, p. 19).

A teacher or coach who focuses on self-directed learning may not get the results that they hope for because students do not have the tools to succeed in that style. Dependent learners lack the self-disciple to work on their own and may actually resist instructors who require them to do so (Grow, 1991, p. 141). At first, the instructor may need to devote their time and attention to clear and specific tasks with a high degree of supervision.

The first step towards any goal is assisting with the genesis of self-discipline. Structures that reward effort and perseverance enhance the adoption of goal orientation (Ames, 1992, p. 268). Modelling the way remains imperative. When student-athletes understand the choices they face and value the consequences, they can take responsibility for their own learning.

Recovery from Failure

Recovering from shortfalls presents a tough challenge for athletes and coaches. In some cases, the failure can be demotivating and discouraging. However, when the target appears reachable, extra-effort can be mustered. When the problem appears solvable, additional critical thinking skills are utilized (Bandura & Cervone, Self-Evaluative and Self-Efficacy Mechanisms Governing the Motivational Effects of Goal Systems, 1983, p. 1027). Encouraging feedback and positive self-talk can keep learners focused.

Put Failure into Perspective: Gregg Popovich admitted that he was initially quite “lugubrious” because of San Antonio’s shocking loss to Miami in the 2013 N.B.A. Finals but was able to put the bad bounce at the end of Game 6 in context with winning the 1997 Draft Lottery in order to select Tim Duncan and balance one loss in a Finals series with four previous championships. Popovich and the Spurs understood that they would not be defined by a single moment.

The Spurs began the process of moving on by watching Game 6 entirely at the start of training camp. The coaching staff roomed together during camp in order to integrate new staff members and grow closer together (Shelburne, 2014). He also continued to incorporate new ideas into his coaching, so that the team would evolve and be better prepared to overcome adversity, for example pushing the team to play at a higher rate and pass the ball over 330 times per game. The Spurs led the league in assists and secondary assists and overwhelmed the Heat in the 2014 Finals.

Multiple Goal Perspectives

Most students and athletes hold both mastery and success objectives as they are not mutually exclusive (Lee, McInerney, Liem, & Ortiga, 2010, p. 275). Those who combine purposeful mastery goals with some success goals can also reach high levels of success (Pintrich, 2000, p. 553). Also, these multiple goal perspectives can inspire those with lower levels of achievement motivation (Barron & Harackiewicz, 2001, p. 719).


Pre-existing cognitive structures and self-esteem bias how one monitors their performance. Moods and emotions can affect self-perceptions of behaviour as it occurs and when it is recalled later (Bandura, Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation, 1991, p. 250). Emphasize positivism so student-athletes feel in control of the situation. Reframing the situation and seeing other perspectives turn a negative situation into an optimistic one (Jensen, 2003, pp. 29-32). Ultimately, the responsibility rests with the learner to choose to change their own situation.


Instructors must know the learners under their care. They must know where they are at the moment, where they want to be, and where they need to be. A styles clash between instructor and learner can lead to disastrous results and stop progress (Grow, 1991, pp. 141-142). Only a combination of strategies designed to suit each individual can enable and inspire all student-athletes to reach their mastery-oriented goals.

Works Cited

  • Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, Structures, and Student Motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology , 84 (3), 261-277.
  • Bandura, A. (1991). Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes , 50, 248-287.
  • Bandura, A., & Cervone, D. (1983). Self-Evaluative and Self-Efficacy Mechanisms Governing the Motivational Effects of Goal Systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 45 (5), 1017-1028.
  • Barron, K. E., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2001). Achievement Goals and Optimal Motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 80 (5), 706-722.
  • Bloom, G. A., Crumpton, R., & Anderson, J. E. (1999). A Systematic Onsevation Study of the Teaching Behaviors of an Expert Basketball Coach. The Sport Psychologist , 13, 157-170.
  • Burton, D., & Naylor, S. (2002). The Jekyll/Hyde Nature of Goals. In H. Thelma, Advances in Sport Psychology (pp. 459-500). Champaign: Human Kinetics.
  • Cresswell, S., Hodge, K., & Kidman, L. (2003). Intrinsic Motivation in Sport. Journal of Physical Education in New Zealand , 36 (1), 15-26.
  • Duncan-Andrade, J. M. (2010). What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher. New York City: Peter Lang.
  • Gallimore, R., & Tharp, R. (2004). What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004. The Sport Psychologist , 18, 119-137.
  • Gallwey, W. T. (2008). The Inner Game of Tennis. New York City: Random House.
  • Grow, G. O. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly , 41 (3), 125-147.
  • Iso-Aloha, S. E. (1995). Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Factors in Athletic Performances. Scandinavian Journal of Medecine, Science, and Sports , 5, 191-199.
  • Jensen, P. (2003). The Inside Edge. Rockwood: Performance Coaching Inc.
  • Krzyzewski, M. (2009). The Gold Standard. New York City: Hachette Book Group.
  • Lee, J. Q., McInerney, D. M., Liem, G. A., & Ortiga, Y. P. (2010). The relationship between future goals and achievement goal orientations. Contemporary Educational Psychology , 35, 264–279.
  • Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., et al. (2010, December 21). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Retrieved January 26, 2011, from PNAS Early Edition:
  • Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for Intelligence can Undermind Children’s Motivation and Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 75 (1), 33-52.
  • Peter, C. (2005). Learning: Whose Responsibility Is It? Nurse Educator , 30 (4), 159-165.
  • Pintrich, P. R. (2000). Multiple Goals, Multiple Pathways. Journal of Educational Psychology , 92 (3), 544-555.
  • Shelburne, R. (2014, June 16). Started from the bottom. Retrieved August 4, 2014 from
  • Von Meter, K. (2004). Coaching Adolescent Athletes. Strategies , 17 (6), 17-19.
  • Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-Motivation for Academic Attainment. American Education Research Journal , 29 (3), 663-676.

Leave a Comment