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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 22-26

Perceived performance goal barriers of Olympic athletes: An exploratory study

Department of Movement Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, USA

Date of Submission21-Jul-2020
Date of Decision27-Aug-2020
Date of Acceptance04-Sep-2020
Date of Web Publication18-Oct-2020

Correspondence Address:
Mr. Greg Sun
Department of Movement Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/sjsm.sjsm_11_20

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Background: Goal pursuit is not without its challenges because athletes may encounter barriers along the way. Moreover, these barriers may or may not produce positive affect in the setting of goals or performances. Therefore, this study explored the perceptions of Olympic athletes and their experiences encountering performance goal barriers.
Materials and Methods: A qualitative methodology was used to collect data from participants using semi-structured interviews. The interviews focused on their goals and goal setting including the barriers they perceived during their athletic career. These interviews served as the major data source and generation of the relevant themes. The purposefully sampled participants who agreed to be interviewed were scheduled according to a date and time that best suited their calendars. Participants were seven male individual sport Olympic athletes, representing four sports. These elite athletes competed in a total of 10 Games. The average age at their first Olympics was 25.1 years old.
Results: The analysis indicated that participants reported experiencing injury as their primary barrier. Participants did not mention facilities or equipment as a potential barrier. Furthermore, although they encountered barriers, they were reluctant to modify their long-term goals by remaining committed to their goals.
Conclusion: Research findings revealed that coaches, athletes, and strength and conditioning staff should pay particular attention to training and competition schedules that may initiate or aggravate injury. Moreover, all sports personnel should be cognizant that athletes can experience stress due to injury or illness. Therefore, goal setting should include planning and strategies to collaboratively deal with potential barriers.

Keywords: Goal blockage, goals, injuries, Olympian, periodization

How to cite this article:
Sun G. Perceived performance goal barriers of Olympic athletes: An exploratory study. Saudi J Sports Med 2020;20:22-6

How to cite this URL:
Sun G. Perceived performance goal barriers of Olympic athletes: An exploratory study. Saudi J Sports Med [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Feb 9];20:22-6. Available from: https://www.sjosm.org/text.asp?2020/20/1/22/298432

  Introduction Top

Goals are commonly set and used in sports. Many athletes use goals for motivation, persistence, and to organize their training activities.[1],[2] According to goal setting theory, goals work by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and encouraging new task strategies toward goal achievement.[3] Unfortunately, having and setting goals does not suggest successful and/or enhanced performances. Moreover, athletes can encounter unplanned events that could become goal attainment barriers. These barriers may or may not have been predicted prior to implementing a goal pursuit plan.[4],[5] For example, potential factors contributing to youth sport dropout were identified as: (a) pressure from parents, (b) pressure from coaches, and (c) injuries.[1],[6] Moreover, researchers recognized two major barriers in youth sports as: (a) potential injuries and (b) conflict with school.[7] However, parents were not too concerned about time constraints, injuries or decreased participation because they viewed sports participation as important.[8] Furthermore, a broad range of barriers to sport participation was identified to include sociocultural, accessibility, interpersonal, psychological, and time related.[9] Investigating Olympic athletes, Weinberg et al.[10] found that the top five barriers experienced by these athletes were (1) lack of training time, (2) low confidence, (3) absence of feedback, (4) commitments to work, and (5) shortened goal deadlines. Moreover, time-related factors such as: travel time, time commitments, and less-free time were found to be the least agreeable part of being on a youth sport travel team.[7]

When individuals experience an initial goal barrier, those without goal intentions ceased to continue goal pursuit.[3],[11] Implementation intentions are plans that specify in advance, when, where and how goal pursuit will continue. Furthermore, it has been found to be an effective goal achievement strategy by preplanning how goal pursuit might proceed when barriers arise.[12] When barriers were encountered, participants with implementations intentions pursued alternative goal attainment strategies and increased their subsequent goal striving attempts.[13] Furthermore, individuals with implementation intentions displayed more frequent and persistent effort towards goal attainment versus those with only goal intentions.[13] The lengthy preparation for the Olympics can test an athlete's resolve because they must be prepared for obstacles they may encounter and remain committed in their goal pursuit. Locke et al.[14] elaborated on goal commitment by stating, “It is virtually axiomatic that if there is no commitment to goals, then goal setting will not work” (p. 23). Therefore, without commitment, goals may not be as successful as planned.[15] Goal-setting theory postulated that difficult goals together with commitment leads to better performances but commitment as a moderator was mainly indirect.[16] However, a meta-analysis found that difficult goals were more significantly related between goal commitment and performance, than easy goals.[17]

The identification of barriers can prompt athletes to develop specific responses toward goal attainment such as: Effort, persistence, increased motivation, or development of new task strategies.[18] Furthermore, how athletes identify and respond to barriers can significantly determine their performances and/or continuation in sport. Therefore, the objective of this study was to explore the perceived goal barriers that Olympic athletes may have experienced during their pursuit of excellence.

  Materials and Methods Top

The University's Institutional Review Board reviewed the study protocols and subsequently provided permission to proceed with the study. Soon thereafter, a combined invitation (i.e., study purpose and consent form) was sent to various National Governing Bodies to be forwarded to their respective athletes. Moreover, only participants that consented to take part in the study were interviewed. Participants were seven male individual sport Olympic athletes representing four sports (athletics, cycling, swimming, and wrestling). These athletes competed in a total of 10 Olympic Games accumulating five Olympic and seven World championship medals. The average age at their first Olympics was 25.1 years (SDyears= 5.6) and they spent an average of 12.6 years (R = 8–18years) training and competing at the elite level.

The main data source for this study was semi-structured interviews. The overarching question that elicited participants' responses was, “Were there any factors that may have prevented you from achieving your sport goals? That is, possibly undermining your goal attainment?” Moreover, clarification questions and examples were explored as needed. For example, “When you say injury, can you expand on the type of injury? How did it occur? How long did the injury affect with your training?” Interview times were arranged according to a day and time that best fit the participants schedule. All participants agreed to be interviewed after reconfirming their rights to withdraw at any time. Interviews, on average were 61 min (SDmin= 5.6, R = 52–68min). Furthermore, to protect the identities of these participants, the athlete quotations are affiliated with an assigned pseudonym, therefore some identifying information such as sport and Olympic year, has been changed or omitted.

Data analysis

Analyzing data are a crucial part of qualitative research to generate meaning and summarization of the data to present it in a meaningful way.[19] Therefore, the following analytical strategies were used: (a) reading the transcripts to get an overall sense of the interview, (b) identifying prior research concepts, (c) identifying new themes and/or categories, and (d) determining how the participants' responses informed the data analysis.[20]

  Results Top

Data analysis from the athletes' responses revealed that participants perceived injury to be the most common barrier. Furthermore, to obtain peak performances, athletes should be physically and psychologically prepared. A breakdown of either one can disrupt their goal pursuit and/or success. The following results provide supporting descriptions and athlete quotations to illustrate the theme.

Internal barriers

This theme referred to the perceived barriers these athletes internalized when asked to describe the things they felt might prevent them from achieving their goals.


Athletes spend many hours training and competing, sometimes for 10–11 months per year. This can take a toll on them as Derek described by saying.

I had knee surgery 10 weeks ago… the most frustrating thing was that I did this [injury], four days after my second [training] session of the year. That was probably one of my best ever [training] sessions. It's a sport where you've got to be consistently able to perform…

Luke expressed a similar feeling when he said, “I think an injury or illness, of course, you have no choice but to put your long-term goals on hold for a while.” Whereas Eddy felt that it depended on the seriousness by stating, “I guess depending on the situation of illness… It depends on the injury or whatever. If I have something that's going to threaten me for the whole year, the goals will have to be rethought.”

Encountering performance goal barriers, especially those that hamper an athlete's ability to be successful, may be a precursor for discontinuation in sport. However, these Olympic athletes seemed reluctant to modify or abandon their long-term goals by dealing with an illness or injury. For example, Carlos acknowledged that something had to change when injured by sharing, “You have to adjust to accomplish your goal, but you may have to go about it differently. Training around injury to accomplish the goal… you have to work around it.” Whereas Eddy offered the following, “I wouldn't really change my long-term goal because that's something you can build back on if you get hurt.”

Date of occurrence and/or severity has to be considered in dealing with an injury barrier as Errol explained,

It depends on the injury or whatever. If I have something that's going to threaten me for the whole year, the goals will have to be rethought. Actually, I'm only worrying about one goal at the moment, that's making the Olympic team and doing well. Even though I have my long-term goals, I'm not even thinking about them now. It's 99 days to the Olympics, I have to think of that every day, a countdown. If I'm injured now, I can't really set goals back, because the time for competing is still the same. I'd have to get myself back in shape soon enough. It would be really frantic and hectic if a situation like that came up, and it has in the past. I'll have to try to play catch up in whatever area I'm weak.”

Moreover, in Ted's case, he would have a plan in place to address what he is able to do for training and how he would respond to injury by describing,

I kind of never try to adjust it (goals). If I got injured this year, for example, I know I'm going to be on the road most of March. I know I don't train well on the road, so I won't adjust my goal that way. My goals may be modified. For instance, I will try and do as many workouts as I can, or how can I workout within my current surroundings? Certainly my long-term goal will stay the same. I don't think when I get injured or anything else I necessarily modify my goals. They're always there, in terms of long-term goals. In terms of short-term goals, they can be modified depending on what my schedule is.

Ted continued by providing further insight about how he would adjust a daily goal by saying,

I have the workout scheduled every week, but what I'm doing this week will be the same ones I'll be doing two months from now. What changes that is if I wake up and I'm absolutely exhausted, if I'm sick, I may modify the workout based on that.

However, as Luke recalled, he had to actually had to change his goal on race day, “For my first event I was sick, not feeling well. I had a goal going 7 min 55 s… Then I changed my goal to save my energy and try to win the race.” Whereas Derek was feeling optimistic about his performances for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, an injury occurred, and he had to readjust his plans as he reflected, “… to come and do this [get injured], I have to definitely reshape a lot of my thinking.”

Finally, when athletes compete at the Olympics, their experience and exposure to a number of potential goal barriers are typically “behind-the-scenes.” For instance, Errol described the many factors that he felt would be a barrier by broadly describing the various situations,

Other factors, family life stress, monetary stress, anything that can upset you mentally, that's definitely going to affect your consistency in performance… Lots of stuff-arguing with the coach, your girlfriend or wife. Those are big. Monetary and home stress could be divided into many areas. Environment stress. Anything at home or outside the sport.

  Discussion Top

The purpose of this study was to explore the perceived performance goal barriers of Olympic athletes. These athletes provided insight about their experiences. At the elite-level of sports, injuries can be highly prevalent. For example, a study of elite female gymnasts found that 83% of them experienced an injury within a 2-year period.[21] For athletes to obtain peak performances, they must be physically able to compete. Unfortunately, lengthy specialized training and intensely competitive schedules can ultimately result in injuries. In general, competitive injuries have been found to be more prevalent versus injuries occurring in training.[22],[23] Furthermore, sports injuries can have personal (e.g., decreased sponsorships) and social (e.g., exclusion from a team) consequence on an athlete. Moreover, psychosocial factors have demonstrated a role in an injury, from onset to rehabilitation and subsequent return to sport.[24] For example, positive cognitive experiences can be achieved by athletes competing at the Olympic level. However, those experiences can become a negative stressful situation due to self-imposed and external pressures to perform, which can lead to a higher risk of injury.[25]

These athletes communicated how injury/illness could have derailed their long-term goals. Moreover, they described needing to readjust and reevaluate their goals to be more realistically in line according to their injury or illness. Perhaps athletes should therefore implement transitional goal setting that would allow them to set new short-term goals (e.g., walking and jogging) as they continue pursuing their long-term goals. Physical preparation is key in returning to sport participation. Therefore, the use of periodization principles which manipulates training to enhance preparation and combined with adequate rest and recovery, can aid in injury prevention.[26] Therefore, coaches and athletes should be proactive in conscientiously planning their training and competitive schedules to maximize performance and minimize injury. Furthermore, the periodization of psychological training has been suggested to assist athletes in coping with stress and enhancing peak mental performances.[27] Systematically planning goals to make them more effective should incorporate both physical and mental components[16],[18],[26],[27] Creating these plans should include factors (e.g., physical, psychological, social, and financial) that may become barriers, thereby preventing athletes from achieving their goals, because as Errol described, there is a broad array of potential performance barriers.

This study is not without limitations. First, the interviews were conducted retrospectively, therefore recalling specific events may be an issue. However, participant responses provided some detail, especially concerning a critical part of sports such as an injury. Moreover, researchers should conduct prospective longitudinal studies from pre- to post-injury which may assist them to better understand the predisposing factors of injury at the Olympic level. Second, these participants may not be representative of other successful male elite athletes (e.g., Premier League football, Rugby Union), therefore exploring the barriers from these athletes could build on these findings. Third, this male individual-sport only sample may not be generalizable to elite females or team-sport athletes, therefore future research should explore other demographics variables. Although this study provided some valuable insight into the perceived barriers of Olympic athletes, caution is advised when interpreting these findings to the general sport or other elite athlete populations.

  Conclusion Top

Overall, these participants provided valuable information and insight as they reflected on their perceived performance goal barriers. Interestingly, these participants persisted to maintain their long-term goals in spite of injury or illness. Discretion is advised as this was a retrospective study, and these athletes kept their long-term goals and were still successful. However, there are likely many athletes that trained through and persisted, even with injuries, but failed to continue sport participation. Therefore, athletes should be cautious about emulating these elite athletes and be cognizant that persisting through injuries can have severe and deleterious life-long effects on individuals. Finally, understanding, planning for and preventing injuries, as well as the psychological factors involved with sport should be at the forefront for all sport-involved personnel.

Practical applications and future research

This study provided information about a specific group of athletes (i.e., male Olympic), therefore highlighting the need to better understand the multitude of barriers that athletes, from various developmental levels may experience. Longitudinal studies should be conducted to further examine perceived performance goal barriers by chronological age and gender. Those investigations into barriers and persistence could help better prepare athletes when faced with adversity. Moreover, it can provide valuable insight for coaches, parents, sports organizations, and stakeholders to use for age-appropriate training and talent development.


The author would like to thank all the participants for their time and sharing their experiences.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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