Main Body

2 Goal Setting for Athletes

Back to our elite athlete, she is struggling with the return to her sport. Keeping in mind, as she plays more with her teammates she feels defeated because she realizes her teammates have grown a lot while she was out. She starts to lose her drive and motivation. Feeling like she is losing her touch, she is frustrated and struggles upon return. As we continue to explore what can be done to help her, in this chapter, let’s focus on how she can regain her motivation and sense of self as an athlete so she can get back to her college goal. Despite the desire to return to competition, athletes may experience declines in motivation and effort expended in their sport (Weiss, 2021). This is why it is so important for athletes to recognize their struggles when returning to training and competition and this is where the framework of the working self, the Self Memory System, or SMS, goal-setting, and motivation comes into play.

First, let’s start broad with the self. There are three main domains of the self. The actual self is a representation of one’s self (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). The ideal self is what the self aspires to be (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Finally, the ought self is the self one should be, as defined by others around the self (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). More importantly, discrepancies among these three can lead to negative emotional experiences (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). When an athlete experiences discrepancies, the emotional problems they experience can begin to affect performance in their sport and overall well-being, which can then affect their performance more. Recognizing that our athlete is certainly struggling with emotional problems during return to her sport can help us determine what needs to be given to her through the wise intervention model.

More specifically within this cognitive framework, the Self-Memory System, or SMS, model illustrates the differences between the working self, autobiographical memory, and episodic memory. The Self-Memory System is considered to be the larger, complex memory system that coordinates input and output from smaller, more specific memory systems (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Further dissecting this model, the working self is the conceptual self and the goal system combined, which shapes memories and determines the knowledge that is encoded into the autobiographical knowledge base (Conway & Loveday, 2015). Autobiographical memory contains autobiographical knowledge and episodic memories. More importantly, a general function of autobiographical knowledge is to “ground” the self which is important to keep in mind (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Episodic memories are “fragments of knowledge derived from experience…” (Conway & Loveday, 2015). Each of these together creates the SMS which explains how several kinds of memory and the working self work together. However, especially from an athlete’s perspective, the working self is what needs to be focused on throughout goal-setting and motivation so let’s look more closely at how the working self and goal setting can be beneficial to our struggling athlete.

Exploring deeper into the working self and how this translates to goals, the working self has the ability to determine what autobiographical knowledge can be accessed and how it is constructed into memories (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). Memories are related to goals and “broad subgroups of similar goals may selectively raise the accessibility of groups of goal-related memories” (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). This model is a kind of cognitive-motivational model of autobiographical memory which is important to understand for goals and goal-setting. “Goals of the working self form a subset of working-memory control processes organized into interconnected goal hierarchies that function to constrain cognition, and ultimately behavior, into effective ways of operating on the world” (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). This working self goal structure is essential to both the encoding and the retrieval of autobiographical knowledge. Autobiographical memories are generally “records of success or failure in goal attainment” (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). However, goals for anyone cannot be super unrealistic or simply be adopted on-demand. Effective goals are grounded in the Self-Memory System, specifically the working self (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). They are effective because you can actually see yourself doing them, they are relatable. And when goals are relatable, they fit into an athlete’s integrated motivation. With this knowledge, we can use autobiographical memory as a way to inform and instruct goal-setting endeavors for our athlete returning to play, and hopefully, for many other athletes in similar situations.

Another important aspect of this cognitive framework is the Remembering Imagining System or the RIS. The Remembering Imagining System is a “window of accessibility of memories of the recent past and the near future” (Conway & Loveday, 2015). The most effective way to think about the Remembering Imagining System is to imagine a fish-eye lens where the image at the center of the lens is sharp and clear, then progressively becomes less focused the further away from the center you get (Conway & Loveday, 2015). The further away from the center you get, the more general and unclear things become, which is why it is so critical to support goal processing.

This is also where motivation begins to play a role. There are several different kinds of autonomous motivation. The main ones to focus on here are integrated and intrinsic motivation. People need to feel competent and self-determined, which is where intrinsic motivation comes from. For example, “intrinsically motivated athletes participate for the love of the sport, may enjoy competition, focus on having fun, and are excited to learn skills which improve performance” (Deci & Ryan, 2000). In comparison, integrated motivation can lead to the desire for athletes to create paths for and see their own growth based on external rewards such as winning a tournament. This is then where goals and goal-setting come into play. “Goal setting involves the development of a personal action plan that directs individuals’ actions, not only helping them to monitor and evaluate its performance but also motivating them” (Gerani, 2020). Athletes are constantly motivated, striving to better themselves, and in this process, they need to evaluate where they are starting from and where they want to end up. And goal-setting can be the tool to help them create a path between these two places and monitor their progress along the way.

We know that generally, goal structure is vital in encoding and retrieving, but more specifically, creating and tracking goals is an effective and beneficial way for athletes to track and facilitate their growth. Monsma says there are twelve principles of setting and attempting to achieve goals (2007). The first principle explains that athletes need to identify what makes up the general goal in order to label and track the specific pieces of each goal (Monsma, 2007). The second principle states that athletes need to “clearly identify the time constraints”  because creating time constraints for each goal will help with specificity and measurability (Monsma, 2007). The third explains that athletes need to create goals that push themselves so that they can grow and feel a sense of accomplishment when the goal is achieved, but not make it too difficult, otherwise they will struggle to attain it and lose motivation (Monsma, 2007). The fourth principle explains the importance of writing their goals down, for example, by keeping a journal, and regularly keeping track of their progress (Monsma, 2007). The fifth states that athletes need to “use short-range goals to achieve long-range plans” because long-term goals often take a lot to accomplish and this way the athlete can feel that sense of satisfaction as they climb the mountain with each smaller goal being reached (Monsma, 2007). The sixth principle notes the importance of setting competition and practice goals as it is just as important for the athlete as it is for the team and coach to recognize the growth during training (Monsma, 2007). The seventh principle states that athletes need to “make sure goals are internalized” which means that the athlete, not the coach, must create the goal ensuring that the athlete will be able to accept their own goal and work towards it (Monsma, 2007). The eighth principle explains that personality and individual differences need to be considered in goal setting, meaning that coaches need to remember that different personality characteristics of athletes, such as task-oriented vs. ego-oriented, can change the success of the athlete’s goal (Monsma, 2007). The ninth notes the importance of setting positive goals rather than negative ones, which means that the goal should focus on present behaviors rather than reducing the ones that are currently there (Monsma, 2007). The tenth principle states that a goal-achievement strategy needs to be identified as it is essential for the athlete to understand the difference between goal-setting and the strategy used to accomplish their goal (Monsma, 2007). The eleventh states the importance of seeking support for goals as this can help with the ability to accomplish them (Monsma, 2007). Finally, the twelfth principle explains the importance of setting team and individual performance goals, as individual and team goals can both be effective in strengthening an athlete because it allows athletes to focus on several different areas of growth at once (Monsma, 2007). All of these principles are essential for athletes to recognize and utilize during the goal-setting process as they each have a specific purpose in facilitating and developing their performance and growth as an athlete, and even further in lifelong skills.

Monsma’s work illustrates the importance of the working self and integrated motivation combined. Goal setting, guided by her principles, aims to help athletes grow and track their progress along the way. In the companion workbook, goal setting is the first main section where athletes will learn to create and track their own effective goals based on the information they have learned from this book. As we continue, it is important to remember that this sense of growth and ability to accomplish goals is crucial to an athlete’s success in high performance. We will continue to see this highlighted by the concept of growth mindset in the next chapter of this book.