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Goal Setting

Lance Smith explains how you can help your athletes set their athletic goals.

Before each competition season (beginning of summer and start of winter seasons) have athletes set their goals and objectives.  Goal setting helps them define where they want to go and what they want to achieve.  It gives a focus, sets the criteria for training and competing and the athletes start to "own their sport". Just as importantly, it gives you, the coach, a basis to set the training.

The goals need to be short and medium-term (now and the first part of the season, especially when training or technique-related), as well as being directed towards the main competitive part of the season. And they should have some bearing on long-term goals (next year, year after, next World Youth Champs, Olympics, whatever the ultimate foreseeable objective is.) For example, if the World Youth Junior Champs in two years is an objective, what is done now and next year will be important, as are the goals set for this season and next.

Goals should cover training, technique, performance, competition and can be general or specific.

Training/technique goals should be based on the athlete and coach discussing and defining the athlete's strengths and weaknesses. Examples:

  • to improve pre-season aerobic fitness.    
  • Develop a finishing kick in races by improving leg speed and running posture through mastering sprint drill techniques.   
  • Learn to look forward to races with confidence and not let nervousness detract from performance or enjoyment.
  • Learn the flop
  • Perfect an aspect of the flop
  • Increase explosiveness with plyometrics
  • Improve block starts
  • Avoid over-striding at take-off in a horizontal jump. 

Performance goals are relative to the athlete's events.

  • Breaking 2 mins for the 800m
  • Going under 34 minutes for the 10k
  • Consistently breaking 13 seconds for the 100m
  • Making an Olympic qualifying time.
  • Achieving 2 metres in the high jump

Competition goals aim towards a specific event and allow the coach to target and train the athlete towards it.  Such goals are usually the athlete's main competition for the season.    

  • Winning the New Zealand Secondary School Champs
  • Making the final of the New Zealand Champs
  • Placing in the top 10 of the regional cross country champs
  • Winning the club champs.  

Goals must be a challenge.  It is no good setting goals that can be easily achieved.  You will not gain improvements in doing that.  On the other hand, they must be realistic.  Aiming for the impossible only sets an athlete up for failure.   For example, if your athlete is one of the two or three best in the country for their age, winning the Secondary Schools would be a realistic goal and something to work hard towards.  But if their best times would not get them past the first round, winning becomes unrealistic.  Perhaps making the semis should be the aim.

Goals are stepping-stones.  Short, medium, and long terms goals allow the athlete to plan a course to the "dream goal".

Be flexible.  If an athlete is looking two, three, four, or more years ahead there are guaranteed to be changes – so goal-setting must allow flexibility.  For instance, a short-term goal may have to be changed from winning this year's championship to recovering from an injury.

Goals should be based on what you and the athlete can control.  Admittedly winning a particular race is not entirely within one's control – the other competitors have a bearing on the outcome – but being good enough to win is well within an athlete's control.   However, be careful about making performance goals too specific. For example, a PB in a chosen race might prove impossible if there was a howling headwind that slowed the time.

Have you athletes write down their training, performance, and competition goals pre-season.  Give them time to think about it.  You may want to help the athlete set the goals, as coaching is, after all, a team effort.

But bear in mind it is the athlete's goals that are being sought, not the coach's.

While goals are to help the coach, they are also there to keep the athlete focussed, motivated, and on track.

There is another goal that should be set – the athlete's dream goal. It is good to have dreams.

Page Reference

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

  • SMITH, L. (2019) Goal Setting [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase, and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in track events and jumps.