New Year’s resolutions: will yours lead to sporting success or fickle failure?

The turn of the year brings to mind the long road ahead and the opportunities before us to achieve both life and sporting goals. Drs Costas Karageorghis and David-Lee Priest present a suite of  research-proven strategies to facilitate successful goal setting and a new PB in 2020!

The widely-held belief that we need the ‘permission’ of a new calendar year to set long-term goals is, of course, an illusion; we can make changes and initiate the goal-setting process whenever we want. Nonetheless, the cultural tradition of New Year’s resolutions is one that has a distinctly instructive value. The sensation of a New Year stretching out like an artist’s blank canvas suggests to us the possibility for reinvention and provides us with a simple focus: Where do we want to be in one year from now?

We can readily foresee what we want to do, but the when is a less tangible attribute – a problem that the New Year conveniently solves for us by providing an ‘off the peg’ timeline. It is true that we can easily become stuck in a rut within our athletic careers, and much of this is caused simply by the expectations of ourselves and those around us concerning our potential and limitations both physical and mental. Have you ever joined a new training group or squad where nobody knew you? Did it not provide you with a springboard in your career because, with little information to go on, your potential in the eyes of your peers was unlimited rather than artificially confined?

The experience of joining a new group is nearly always a transformative one, as it reminds us that we have the potential to change. In the main, people tend to be driven more by their fears and anxieties than their hopes; to the extent that we might agonise about the decision to leave a steady yet unfulfilling job or a loveless relationship that represented a ‘good match on paper’. What would happen if we sweated as much on our decision to stay in the job or with that cold partner? Sometimes we need to look up from the daily grind of training sessions and scan our athletic horizons, and if not now, then when?

Research-based goal setting principles

The effectiveness of goal-setting strategies implemented by psychologists has come on in leaps and bounds since the industrial psychologists of the 1960s found that tree-logging production could be increased by 18% simply by setting a target for each working team. It appeared imperative for this target to be attainable but challenging, regardless of the financial rewards that were available(1). In this section we synthesise some key recent studies and tease out what they have to say about goal-setting strategies.

It’s all about the “level”

As with so much in sport, goal setting is truly about calibration – where exactly we set that ‘motivational dial’. Goals that are unattainably high (or simply unlikely) can prove demotivating in the long-term. A study into job satisfaction that sheds some light on this phenomenon was undertaken in the Economic Science Institute of Orange County, California. Professor Gómez-Miňambres designed an experiment in which a manager overseeing a sales team measured the personal standards set by each agent and their subsequent levels of performance and intrinsic motivation. As expected, agents with goals set “sufficiently in excess of personal standards as to be challenging” experienced the highest levels of job satisfaction and intrinsic motivation.

An additional finding was that satisfaction and motivation were at a peak when “mid-range” targets were set, that is to say outcomes that were close to the mean average of the group as a whole. Those who had highly challenging goals reported a decline in their intrinsic motivation. It is of interest that we meet opposing results in the sphere of health behaviour change. Dr Emely De Vet and her team from the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at Utrecht University followed 447 overweight adults over a two-month period from the point they set weight-loss goals(2). Those who set unrealistically high goals expended more effort in their attempts and lost more weight. The authors explained this finding in terms of the way that we allocate resources to our various social, career and health goals. According to the researchers’ explanation, if goals appear to be nearly within our grasp then we devote attention elsewhere. On some deeper level, we may realise that highly challenging goals are aspirational; they connect us with an ideal that we would like to attain. It is important to reflect on your relationship with a goal, if setting an unobtainable goal is motivating you then there may be value in it, but if it represents self-defeat or an unhealthy obsession then it is time to revise it.

If you have ever set a highly taxing outcome goal which you have made little progress towards and consequently renewed every year almost as a stock addition to your list of goals, then consider revising it so that it becomes almost out of reach. Studies in educational settings have reported that the learners who perform best at university are those whose goals are better calibrated to their current performance(3). The lesson we can learn from this is that we can’t set our goals blind and thus have to be mindful of current performance, establishing our goals in such a way that they are adjustable ‘on the fly’. A further mechanism that may be at play here is the stress and distraction that can be induced by goals that are unattainable; recent research has revealed that such goals are associated with unethical behaviour – the so called “dark side” of goal setting(4).

Implementation intentions

A factor that has assumed increasing importance in the achievement of goals is that of implementation intentions. These specific plans regarding how and when to enact behaviour have been shown to be effective as primers for changing a range of health, social and organisational behaviours(5). A study by the aforementioned Emely De Vet and colleagues investigated the importance of implementation intentions in a physical activity context(6). The researchers charted the progress of 342 Dutch adults who were asked to form implementation intentions with a view to increasing their levels of physical activity. The outcome was that those who formed highly specific intentions proved more likely to increase their level of daily activity, whereas the number of the intentions had no bearing on the results. When we decide on a large behavioural change, it is important to produce a detailed action plan that describes how we will respond to the situations we can expect to face. Typical obstacles in a sporting context include staleness, a plateau in performance output, injury, unexpected defeats and non-selection.

Beliefs and goal setting

It should come as little surprise that our beliefs regarding the likely outcomes of our goals have a marked impact on whether we will ultimately achieve them. An interview-based study led by Dr Mariam Beruchashvili and co-workers from California State University focused on dieters’ beliefs about their ability to lose weight and effect change(7). Two different types of belief or ‘lay theory’ emerged: entity theory holds that change is very difficult because attributes are unalterable whereas incremental theory is consistent with the belief that abilities can be altered successfully through a learning process. The results demonstrated that dieters who held entity theory tended to set counterproductive goals that entailed the avoidance of social evaluation rather than expending effort in exercise or eating healthily. Incremental theory adherents set more proactive and targeted goals. The implication here is that we need to be aware of our relationship with our goals: why are we doing what we aim to do, and is this for reasons that are healthy?

Time frame and specificity of goal setting

Drs Andrew Gillham and Dale Weiler from the Athletics Department, Augustana College in South Dakota ran a goal-setting intervention strategy with a collegiate women’s soccer team for the length of a season(8). The strategy entailed different “levels” of goals, some applying to the whole team, some to field positions (eg strikers) and some to individual players. The study was quasi-experimental in that there was no comparison with a control group, so caution must be exercised in the interpretation of their results. Notwithstanding this limitation, the results appeared highly positive with the feedback of players, coaches and support staff being unilaterally favourable. The team also had the second-best season in its history in terms of its on-field results. One caveat to these findings was the fact that such a diversity of goals created an organisational drain for the coaching staff that became a distraction from training and team management. Another way to break goals down is to set them within a time frame; for example short-term goals (your immediate objectives), interim goals (your mid-term objectives), and long-term goals which encapsulate your overall objectives, such as entry into a national competition. It is the latter type which particularly lends itself to reassessment in the form of New Year’s resolutions.

Personality and goal setting

The effectiveness of goal setting much depends on your personality; some players find that goals are burdensome or even restrictive, while others find that clear goals facilitate their progress. In 2008, researchers Damon Burton and Cheryl Weiss created the Goal Setting Styles model (see Figure 1), which represents three distinct approaches to goal setting based on motivation and personality theories: Performance Orientated Style, Success Orientated Style, and Failure Orientated Style(9). In 2013, a group of five researchers including Burton surveyed 338 aspiring Olympic athletes from 12 sports to assess whether the model correctly predicted the athletes’ approach to goal setting(10). The results were encouraging and generally supported the predictions of the model.

It is clear that what motivates us to compete in sport has a knock-on effect on the way we go about setting goals. Another implication is that we may perform better, develop faster and experience more intrinsic motivation if we adopt the approach of the performance-orientated player; the sort of squad member who might be described as “a student of the game” in the yearbook!

Figure 1: The three Goal Setting Styles established by Burton and Weiss in 2008(9)

Note. The bullet points in bold typeface are directly related to goal setting.

Passion is a psychological construct that is increasingly being linked to intrinsic motivation. A 2013 paper by Swedish researchers Sara Thorgren and Joakim Wincent unearthed an unexpected deficit associated with high levels of passion for an activity(11). In a team-working context, passionate individuals are less able to set challenging and well-planned goals, as they have a tendency to rush in like the proverbial ‘headless chicken’. The moral of the story is that if you harbour an abiding love for your sport, don’t let it cloud the shrewdness of your judgement in terms of your goal-setting endeavours.

A goal-setting strategy to follow

Now that we have outlined some of the principles at play, let us round off the article with an applied strategy that is grounded in recent research. It follows a sequence of stages that we have developed since the mid-1990s and is depicted in table 1.

Table 1: A complete goal setting process

1) Review goals from last yearEvaluate the success of each goal in turn using the criteria established last year.To create a feedback loop and instill a sense of reward and punishment.
2) Evaluate lessons learnedMake a list of all the things you would do either differently or the same this year, and why. To maximise the learning effect of the goal-setting process.
3) Reframe existing goals and add new onesTake each goal in turn and see if you can build upon it or modify it in some way, and then add new goals to the list.To ensure that the goal setting process is ongoing and integrated.
4) Diversify goalsCreate a span of goals covering all facets of performance.This process will ensure that your goals are detailed and specific. It also increases the chances of success with the plurality of goals.
5) Create a timelineSpecify deadlines for each goal with increments (key milestones).Gives you a path to follow. You can break this down further into action points (otherwise known as implementation intentions).
6) Specify a “gold”, “silver”, and “bronze” attainment Consider each goal in turn and create three standards of attainment for each. We have had great success with this approach; it links your practice to research on calibration and manageability of goals.
7) Establish contingenciesHow will you preserve each goal and revise it in the face of unforeseen events eg injury, defeat, non-selection.Creates flexibility and maintains a sense of motivation when unpleasant circumstances arise.
8) Decide on measurement strategyIn the case of each goal, determine how you will record your results and keep them in mind.This will provide a complete feedback loop and maintain your attention and motivation. We have had considerable success with smartphone apps used for this purpose. Another good strategy is to use a progress chart on the fridge door.
9) Establish social support mechanismsConsider how your teammates, partner, friends or family members can support you.Research teaches us that our social networks can greatly facilitate or impede our progress towards our goals.
10) Create an order of priorityAssess the relative value of your goals using a point system.To prioritise what really matters. For example, don’t miss out on the experience of international competition just to improve one skill.
11) Map out time and resourcesFor each goal, work out what you will need to make it happen, and how long it will take.This stage is vital to understanding how practical your list of goals is.
12) Ensure synergy Evaluate whether attempting to achieve one goal will block progress in another area. Consider also your general (ie non-sport) goals here.Your personal resources are limited. If your goals are not consistent with each other then you won’t have time to achieve them all and you may exceed your capabilities. Be ruthless if necessary – give up your knight to capture a queen, and not the other way around!

Summary and practical implications

If you began this reading this article unsure of the potency of New Year’s resolutions or ‘targeted goal-setting interventions’, then we trust that you now share with us a sense of their pivotal importance in any achievement domain. What the latest literature tells us is that the manner in which we relate to and structure our goals is essential to their effectiveness. It is never too late or indeed the wrong time to ask yourself what you truly want and how to get it, but keep the ‘why’ in sight also. New Year’s resolutions are not just for the New Year, if they are to enhance our sporting attainment they need to branch into everything that we do throughout the year. There should also be an element of flexibility wherein you regularly review your goals with reference to recent events and circumstances. Our goals are much like the stars the ancients used to navigate the earth; if we choose them wisely, they can guide us across oceans and deserts towards the peaks of human performance.


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  7. J Consum Behav 2014;13(4):50-59.
  8. J Sp Psychol Action 2013;4(2):97-108.
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  10. J Sp Behav 2013;36(1):23-44.
  11. J Appl Soc Psychol 2013;43(11):2318-2329. 

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