Goal Setting

Goal setting is a seemingly simple thing that can actually be incredibly challenging. Sitting down with your team with a goal setting workbook at the beginning of the season is a great start, but it isn’t enough. There is a lot of research out there about types of goals, strategies, and guidelines. Rather than reading through a few thousand pages of research on the subject, I’m here to break it down for you. 

Why Goal Setting Works

Spending time to outline goals in a strategic fashion can certainly improve performance and achievement. But how? There are a few theories, one of which is called the Mechanistic explanation. Essentially goals are a mechanism to focus our thoughts and actions on a clearly defined outcome.

By setting a goal, we direct our attention to the important aspects of the task. It helps us layout what is necessary to reach our goal. It allows us to focus our mental and physical efforts on the things that will actually help us reach our goals.

Secondly, setting goals mobilizes our efforts and improves motivation. Not only are you more motivated once you’ve set a goal, research shows your efforts also persist. It helps you continue the fight longer, making the desired result more likely. Finally, goal setting helps you develop new learning strategies. You are able to find different paths and plans to achieve your goals if, and when, you come across roadblocks.

Goal Setting

Know the 3 Types of Goals, and what you should focus on

Process Goals

Process goals focus on achieving standards of performance independently of other competitors. This usually means making comparisons with one’s own previous performance. For example, a cheerleader is trying to get a consistent back tuck, but she usually can’t complete it more than once during a practice. A personal process goal would be to land three back tucks during a practice. It doesn’t matter what a teammate is doing or what competitors can do. A process goal is about individual improvement on a specific skill.

Outcome Goals

Outcome goals focus on a competitive result of an event. For example, a final ranking in the competition, specific placement, or beating specific other teams.

Performance Goals

Performance goals focus on the actions an athlete must engage in during the performance to perform well. For example, completing the jazz routine without dropping the character or performance from your face.

Set process goals (rather than just outcome goals)

It’s usually pretty easy for teams to set one important outcome goal, they can be motivational. Whenever I go in to work with teams on goal setting it’s usually the first thing I hear. “We want to be in finals at nationals,” or “We want to win state.” While outcome goals are ok, and part of the system, the majority of your goals should be process goals.

Why? You have complete control over process goals, you don’t have control over the outcome of events. Whether your best performance will win the state championship is out of your control. But you can control if you finish your routine with no falls or a flawlessly synchronized team trick. Setting goals that focus on the process allow for a lot more success. That, in turn, increases motivation and confidence!Goal Setting Workbook

Set practice and competition goals

Don’t forget about practice goals! I often start a practice with a clear goal for the day and share it with the team. Today, we have to finish learning the choreography for homecoming. Today, I want to finish the detailed cleaning of the 8 8counts in this section. Pick a focus for the day (using the SMART goals process outlined below), tell the team, and stick to it!

Set positive rather than negative goals

Make sure the wording of your goals is positive rather than negative. For example, it’s much more powerful and motivational for a dance team’s goal to read “Land the turn section with confidence and power on ONE!” Rather than, “Don’t make any mistakes on the turn section.” Simple, but when you are brainstorming goals with your team, we often set goals based on mistakes we want to avoid. So make sure to reword it before you’re done setting goals.

Set long-term goals first, then short-term

This allows you to set a clear path of short-term goals that will lead up to the long-term goal. For example, if the long-term goal is a state championship (outcome goal), or placing higher than last year (outcome and process goal), that long-term goal lets you focus on the short-term (process and performance) goals along the way that will help you get there.

Record goals

Goals need to be written down and ideally, posted somewhere for everyone to see. During a goal-setting meeting, make ensure athletes have written down their personal and team goals. Once your team goals are established, post them in your practice room, or make them the banner behind your group facebook page, or everyone’s home screen. Whatever works for your team, just make them constantly visible!Goal Setting Workbook

Develop goal achievement strategies

A goal only works if an athlete understands how she’s going to get there. For example, if a cheer team decides a season goal is to have a team back tuck before state, that’s great. But how is it going to happen? Make sure there is a strategy. Something like: “X amount of time during practices focused on skill development for the first month. Then we re-evaluate our status and update our strategy as needed”

Provide for goal evaluation

This is the #1 thing most coaches miss about goal setting that results in a less than an ideal end result.

Reward successful goal achievement

Goal Setting WorkbookThis is another reason why practice goals and process goals are both important. They allow you to recognize and reward the small successes along the way.

Rewards can be tangible. (I’ve been known to stop a nationals practice 15 minutes early to walk across the street for team Wendy’s Frostys). Or rewards can be as simple as a public acknowledgment, hi-five, or team clap.

Involve everyone in the development of team goals

This process isn’t something for the coach or even coach and captains to do alone. If you want the best outcome, everyone should be involved! Set the tone that a Freshman has a voice too. Make sure everyone participates and feels like an integral part of the team. They are much more likely to be invested in the work it takes to achieve those long-term goals if they were a part of creating them.

S.M.A.R.T. Goals

The strategy of setting goals using the S.M.A.R.T principle is not new, but it is still very valuable. Originally written in the 1980s for businesses, the acronym for strategic goal setting has been adapted and changed over time. So while you may have heard of this before, I encourage you to make sure every goal you set is an S.M.A.R.T. goal.

  1. Specific – know exactly what needs to be done
  2. Measurable – how will you know you’ve achieved your goal
  3. Adaptable – sometimes must adjust downward or upward
  4. Realistic – know your team
  5. Time-based – set a deadline

Example 1

Often times this is easier said than done. For example, picture yourself in your first team meeting, discussing goals for the season. Your team decides they want to place in the top 3 at the state championships. That’s a good long-term outcome goal, but it’s not enough. Walk through the S.M.A.R.T steps with me…

Specific – yes, it is specific, the team knows exactly what it means

Measurable – yes, you will know if you made your goal or not by the final rankings

Adaptable – yes, if you remember to follow up and have conversations. If there is a reason somewhere during the season where this should be moved up or down, do it. Talk about it in the initial meeting that this is an early pre-season goal, and it may move.

Realistic – that’s up to you to decide, but let us assume it is

Time – yes, the state championship is a clear deadline

Example 2

Not too bad. Now, what if you set a performance goal like “We want to come off the mat with no regrets.” This is a common goal, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the sentiment. However, it’s not going to help you get there if it’s left like that. Instead, make it work for you…

Specific – what does that mean? Does that mean no mistakes or deductions? Does that mean 100% of the team or a majority? Performing with fewer mistakes than the last time out?

Measurable – how will you know you’ve achieved it? This is one of those intangibles, and sometimes that’s ok. Make sure you talk about it though, is it simply that feeling when you know everyone has given it their all? (I get it, I’ve had that feeling and always want it back. Sometimes a feeling is as measurable as it gets. Just make sure other goals are more precisely quantifiable). Or if you decided your specific goal was “no mistakes”, then the measurable part becomes a lot easier… you look at the score sheets and deductions.

Adaptable – do you want this one to be adaptable? Maybe not and that’s ok. Have the conversation and if the team is non-negotiable on this issue, go for it.

Realistic – talk about if that’s realistic and when. That will help you establish the timeline

Time – do you want that feeling or deduction free performance at any point before the championship? Or is that the goal and there are other short-term goals along the way that will help you get there?

So after all that, a revamped goal might read: “For the entire team to come off the mat after every performance with no feelings of regret.” Not as catchy, I know. You can still post NO REGRETS and the team knows what it means if you’ve really talked it through.

Ladder to Success

Another great tool for goal setting is the ladder visual. Bring it all together at the end of your meeting, by choosing your #1 priority long-term goal. Then establishing at least 4 smaller goals along the way that will help you achieve that goal.


  1. Long-term goal: State top 3 finish
  2. Short term S.M.A.R.T. goal: Clean enough routine so no changes made after X date
  3. Short term S.M.A.R.T. goal: Top 3 place at regionals
  4. Short term S.M.A.R.T. goal: Implement small group video review every other week into cleaning practices
  5. Short term S.M.A.R.T. goal: Increase cardio training to 2 practices per week

  Goal Setting Workbook

Wrap it up

At the end of the day, a goal-setting meeting should be a long, difficult, motivating, inspiring, and team building experience. It takes teamwork, disciplined focus, and a clear plan to make your goals work for you. At the end of the meeting, try to walk away with at least one Ladder for Success, with each sub-goal written as a SMART goal.

Even better, choose a few areas of success on your team so you have a Competitive Ladder for Success, a Performance Ladder for Success, an Academic Ladder for Success, and each athlete’s own personal Ladder for Success. With all of that in hand and the important follow-up step of evaluating your goals, you are on the way to the most successful season you’ve ever had!

Download the 5 Rookie Goal Setting Mistakes before you get started this season!

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