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The Importance of SMART Goal Setting

The Importance of Goal Setting

It is hard to achieve anything if we don’t know what you are trying to achieve. How can you know how to get somewhere if you don’t know where you are trying to go?

Goal setting is an important part of exercise as it gives us something to strive towards. We can all benefit from setting goals, no matter how much experience we have, how fit we are or how competent we are at performing the type of exercise that we take part in. However, goal setting is something that a lot of people neglect to do. It can be particularly difficult for people who are new to exercise or a particular exercise class but it is worth doing and the more we set ourselves goals, the better we become at doing it and it starts to become part of our natural routine. 

There are many benefits to setting short, medium and long-term goals but we have outlined some that we consider really important below.

Improving Confidence

Confidence and self-efficacy can be improved by achieving goals or taking steps towards achieving a goal. The act of achieving a goal allows you to realise your own strengths and how far you have come as a result of your training and hard work. It also allows you to identify how you were able to overcome barriers on your way to achieving your goal. This can improve confidence in the future when faced with similar barriers, as you will be more aware of your ability to face these challenges head on and you will possess the skills and mentality to not let them stop you.

Task Persistence

Without a target to strive towards, it can sometimes be too easy to give up when we face a setback. However, with a clear goal and a clear pathway for achieving that goal, we can make it easier for ourselves to not lose motivation following a setback. For example when trying to improve our fitness through regular spin classes, if we have to skip a couple of classes due to a minor injury, it can be much easier to return to our class in the future if we are striving towards a specific goal like improving our 20km cycling time by 2 minutes within the next 3 months. If we didn’t have this goal, we would be much more likely to stop attending the class.


Setting achievable goals can help us to control our performance anxiety as we have a clear pathway for successful performance which can make everything less daunting, especially when we are learning something new! Goal setting can give us a sense of control which can reduce our stress levels in situations where we would normally have negative thoughts about the likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome.

Tracking Your Progress

By setting goals, we have something to aim for and a way to track our training progress. It allows us to see if we are making progress towards achieving what we want to, which can provide positive feedback when things are going well. On the flip side, it can provide valuable information when we are not on track and this can be used to adjust our training to ensure that we get where we want to go.

SMART Goal Setting

It can be hard to know how to set appropriate goals if you have never done it before. A good way to ensure that goal setting is effective is to use the SMART principle to guide us when we are setting goals:


Targeting a specific component of the form of exercise you take part helps to harness attentional focus


By setting goals that can be measured, we are able to track our progress to ensure our skill development is not plateauing. This allows us to monitor our progress and can help to improve motivation.


Goals should be challenging but not unrealistic. Achievable goals will help to improve confidence as we take steps towards achieving them.


Task persistence can be improved by recording goals as progress can be visualised and areas for improvement can be identified 


Putting a desired time frame for achieving the goal can give us a push to work towards it.

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A TARGET Approach to Motivation

We all know how important motivation is when taking part in, or leading, an exercise programme! Motivation to keep exercising can be lost for various reasons and this can prevent us from reaching our fitness goals or if you’re a fitness professional, make it harder to fill your classes. As fitness instructors, it is therefore important to understand how you can create an environment that nurtures motivation.

Motivation towards a specific goal or task is the product of an individual’s own motivation and the environment in which they are carrying out the task. One of the most studied environmental conditions is the motivational climate and it is the motivational climate that we will look to target.

In order to change the motivational climate, we must first understand what it is. The motivational climate is how an individual or a group perceive success to be defined by a ‘significant other’ such as a fitness instructor, personal trainer or coach (Smoll et al. 2007). If a motivational climate focuses on winning, outperforming others and incorporates high levels of public evaluation and punishment, the climate is deemed to be a performance climate (Ames, 1992). The opposite of this is a mastery climate which is created when learning and mastery of skills are encouraged, personal progress is paramount, mistakes are considered part of the learning process and the participants are involved in decision making (Ames, 1992).

It has been found, in sporting environments, that the creation of a mastery environment is related to the development of adaptive behaviours such as increased effort, improved skill execution and increased levels of persistence (especially after experiencing setbacks) and negatively related to practise avoidance – clearly the behaviours that you would like to promote amongst your clients! Whereas performance climates are positively related to maladaptive behaviours such as practise avoidance (Lochbaum & Roberts 1993)

How can we create mastery climates?

There are thought to be six factors implemented by a person in authority which have an effect on the learner’s perceived motivational climate (Epstein, 1988). The six variables form part of a TARGET approach to creating a mastery environment. We have outlined what each factor is and how each one can be used to promote a mastery climate below:


Task (T)

The types of tasks that are set can have an effect on the motivational climate. It is important that coaches set challenging tasks, a variety of tasks and alter the difficulty of the tasks in relation to increases in ability.


Authority (A)

When an autonomous social context (one that provides learners with choices and decision making responsibilities) is provided, the result is self-determined involvement and improvement. This shows that fitness instructors should try to provide their clients with a high level of involvement in the decision making process during a lesson or exercise programme in order to provide them with more authority over their own learning and development and promote a mastery climate.


Recognition (R)

Praise and rewards should be given to individuals privately and based on personal progress in relation to ability rather than progress in relation to other people. Rewarding in private is more likely to produce a perceived mastery climate than public reward which often results in comparisons being made.


Grouping (G)

If you group people into smaller groups within your classes, this should not be done based on ability levels. This reduces the opportunities for social comparison and uneven attention towards the groups with higher ability.


Evaluation (E)

Evaluation of your clients should be based upon concepts that relate to skill mastery rather than performance. The participants should feel that they are being evaluated in regards to effort, persistence, skill acquisition and improvement.


Timing (T)

It would appear as an obvious point that some individuals take longer to acquire or develop skills. However within an exercise context the time allocated for the acquisition of skills is often uniform across a whole group. In order to promote a mastery climate, it is important that the instructor is sympathetic to the individual needs of their clients and allows the appropriate time for them to develop their skills.