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Unlike other theories of motivation, the Goal-Setting Theory is rather straightforward. This theory "states that the source of motivation is the desire and intention to reach a goal" (PSU WC, n.d., p.2).  In the following case study, Mark reaches for the goal of competing an Ironman Triathlon. Based on the definition of a goal, Mark "consciously desires to attain" the successfully completion of an Ironman Triathlon (PSU WC, n.d., p.2). In Mark’s efforts to attain said goal, he utilizes the goal-setting process as he determines the specific levels of performance to successfully compete in the triathlon.

Like other theories of motivation, Goal-Setting Theory has a cognitive basis, as it assumes that Mark will "rationally and consciously decide...which behaviors are necessary" for him to reach his goal (PSU WC, n.d., p.2). Mark decides that his goal is acceptable, and he adjusts his behavior to reach this goal.

In this case study, Mark exercises all four goal mechanisms in order to achieve competitiveness in the triathlon. First, this goal has directed his attention in which actions he will take to achieve the goal and what behaviors he will avoid (PSU WC, n.d., p.3).  Second, he "mobilizes [his] efforts" to achieve this goal (Psu WC, n.d., p.3). Thirdly, he maintains a persistent effort in order to achieve the goal, by incorporating "a greater amount of time spent on behaviors directed toward goal attainment" (PSU WC, n.d., p.3), and lastly, Mark searches for "effective strategies" in order for him to achieve this goal (PSU WC, n.d., p.3).

Mark's goal also meets the following conditions: first, Mark is committed to his goal; his efforts reflect his acceptance of and efforts toward attaining the goal (PSU WC, n.d., p.4). His goal is specific; Mark wants to complete the designated measures of the Ironman Triathlon. Next, Mark's goal is difficult; as Mark has neither a running, biking, nor swimming background, his efforts will be tremendous to achieve the stamina and strength in these areas to successfully compete. 

Finally, Mark’s goal meets the criteria for a S.M.A.R.T. goal (PSU WC, n.d. p.5). His goal is Specific: compete in the triathlon, finish the 5k, improve time by 1:00. It is Measurable: achieve the ability to run, bike, and swim; time and distance are measurable. The goal is Assignable: Mark has nothing that would impair his ability to prepare for the triathlon. It is also Realistic: Mark's physical and mental abilities are compatible to that of the triathlon requirements - he knows that he can do it if properly committed. Lastly, Mark's goals are Time-Related: the triathlon is in 'X' days, and he has to be ready by then. 

Case Study

The Ironman Triathlon is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. Completing this is an aggressive goal indeed; yet individuals accomplish this feat, often regardless of their athletic background. “The truth is, anyone can do the distance if they want it badly enough” (Friel & Byrn, 2009, p. 3).  A team member of this assignment team has completed three of these events. As it turns out, goal setting is a critical aspect of seeing something of this magnitude through to the end. 

"Mark," as he will be called, has heard about Ironman Triathlon and wants to complete one. He has neither a running, biking, or swimming background, but likes to hike in the hills with his dog. He is rather adrift in his personal life and wants to complete something “big” to get himself out of a rut and get back on track. Mark knows that this goal could take some time, possibly years, but he thinks that it is a worthy goal and is willing to do what it takes.

Mark knows that he has to change his lifestyle in order to accomplish this goal. He begins this right away. He immediately cuts down on carbohydrates in his diet, focusing on natural foods. He purchases books on triathlon training and starts reading blogs and message boards in relation to triathlons. He joins an adult swim class. He starts jogging with friends. He starts cycling to work.

After a few months, Mark finds a local 5K running race and competes in it for fun. Up to this point, it is the hardest thing he has ever done. He struggles, but gets through it. He finds another 5K race a couple of months down the road. Wanting to improve, he sets a goal of improving upon his time by 1 minute. He establishes a training plan with the help of a friend who has been running for a few years. Establishing a plan and sticking to it taught him a lot, and in the next race, he knocks 2 minutes off of his time.

Excited at the success he has seen, he increases his training time by waking up at 5:00 in the morning to train. He purchases a road bike to begin riding on the roads. He has now been training for nine months. He feels that he is ready to (gulp!) try his first triathlon. It is markedly shorter, at 500 yd swim, 12 mile bike, and 3 mile run. It is about 1/10th of his goal distance, but it is a key building block to get him there. It, again, turns out to be the hardest thing he has ever done, but he is more invigorated than ever. He met some triathletes at the event who had competed in Ironman distance events, and uses that opportunity to ask questions and get some feedback. 

He continues on in greater and greater distance events each year, including Olympic distance and Half Ironman Distance. He has found enjoyment in simply waking up early and jumping in the pool. He has a network of friends that he competes with in the local events. He even hands out advice to others.

On the big day, he toes the line for the Ironman he envisioned almost five years ago. Due to the fact that he has done triathlons of half this distance well and that he has learned much about nutrition, technique, and equipment, he is confident. His ability to rise to the challenges that previous events have put before him has developed his self-efficacy to withstand and adapt to the challenges of the day. 

…the gun goes off….. 

Applying Goal-Setting Theory

In order for Mark to achieve short and long term goals, it was critical for him to apply one of the theories of goal setting. For these goals, the SMART method was an ideal application. By utilizing these components of goal setting–specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related–Mark was better positioned to not only achieve his goals, but also to grow, develop, and build on his intermittent successes.


In order for Mark to succeed in this incredibly challenging sport, he had to develop a specific plan for reaching his goal of competing in the Ironman Triathlon. Specific goals increase motivation and help to achieve high performance (Locke & Latham, 2006). Taking into consideration that he had no experience with any of the triathlon events, he understood that this goal was very ambitious and would not be easy to achieve. Mark took an incremental approach when constructing his plan towards completing his first triathlon. He started with what could be considered the most difficult aspect: changing his lifestyle. As McDevitt (2014) states, realistic healthy goals need to be characterized. Mark realized that long-term lifestyle changes would be required. He created a diet for himself by carefully calculating his carbohydrates. He then conducted thorough research and immersed himself in literature pertaining to triathlons that helped him further manage his plan. He then started to focus on improving his skills in the triathlon events. He finished running two 5K races and successfully completed the second one two minutes faster than the first. He also took swimming lessons, started jogging, and rode a bicycle to work.  


Mark's deep commitment to lifestyle change motivated him to compete in a 5K race. His success motivated him to compete in progressively more difficult races, motivating him to move forward until he was ready to compete in his ultimate goal, the Ironman Triathlon. These incremental goals are measurable by their competition distances. He took his goal inch by inch (Psych 484 Wiki L. 6). The goal-setting theory states that one of the components of a SMART goal is that it has to be measurable (PSU WC, p. 4). Getting appropriate feedback allows one to know whether the goal is complete, and if it still is in progress, that it is on the right track (PSU WC L.6, p.4). Mark needed to receive feedback on the progress of his goals. With each race he completed, he received plenty of physical feedback in terms of his completion time, endurance, and fatigue level. He also gained feedback by speaking with seasoned triathlon athletes. He asked questions and took their advice. When he interacted with his colleagues in this sport, he was able to use their mistakes to avoid making his own in the future. By looking ahead to his goal, he could measure what he had already done in terms of time and distance, and what else he needed to do (McDevitt, 2014).  


In order for the goal to be successful, it also needs to be assignable (PSU WC L.6, p. 4). Even though Mark had no background or experience in triathlons, he learned that his goal would still be achievable. According to his research and feedback received from the triathlon community, he found that it would not require any particular sports background. He considered the consequences and decided he still wanted to do it. He developed a set of incremental goals and assigned himself the task of completing each of them. Mark wanted to do it no matter what.


As Mark worked towards accomplishing his primary goal of completing the Ironman triathlon, several smaller goals needed to be made, as well as completed or adjusted. Each of these goals needed to be realistic (or achievable) to support the over-arching goal of completing the big event. One of the first areas of application for the setting of a realistic goal was when Mark started training by focusing on a much smaller race – a 5K. He knew that goal completion of several smaller races and other performance goals would be critical to whether or not he would be able to achieve the big goal. These types of smaller goals, the ones that comprise a to-do list, are the building blocks for achievement and lead to feelings of positive self-efficacy through goal acceptance and achievement (Psych 484 Wiki L. 6). Examples of the realistic goals that Mark set for himself included: reading books about the triathlon, which solidified his commitment and generated excitement; developing healthier eating habits that would support rather than detract from his energy levels, accepting of the necessary changes; and partnering with peers that also have fitness goals, allowing for feedback and support (PSU WC, n.d., p.4). Each of these adjustments helped Mark bring his goal into focus and supported its attainability; according to Psychology Today, “When athletes are helped to set realistic goals, they inevitably experience more success and feel more competent” (Smoll, 2013). Another aspect of setting realistic goals that Mark employed was allowing for flexibility in his plan. Mark participated in several 5Ks, with goals of reducing his finishing time and increasing his stamina. By participating in several events, Mark was able to learn from what was and was not working in both his training plan and endurance, further supporting the realistic achievability of meeting his over-arching goal.


For Mark to successfully train and complete his Ironman Triathlon, he needed to first look at the time frames and set a specific event goal. Mark trained for nearly 5 years before participating in the big event; however, he participated in smaller, scheduled events to bench-mark his progress. In goal setting, it is important for the goals to be both short term and long term – “Without short-term goals, athletes can lose sight of their long-term objectives, and the sub-goals needed to attain them” (Smoll, 2013).  Furthermore, by scheduling these goals in advance, the athlete is essentially making a contract with themselves, and able to plan and push accordingly.  In Mark's case, he researched, registered for, and competed in specific scheduled events to provide him with goal attainment, as well as to increase his abilities to participate in the Ironman Triathlon. In accordance with this, breaks down the time component thusly: “Set Time: Your goals must have a deadline. This again, is so that you know when to celebrate your success. When you are working on a deadline, your sense of urgency increases and achievement will come that much quicker” (, n.d.). 

By applying the SMART approach to goal setting, Mark was better able to work up to his specific goal of finishing his first Ironman Triathlon within five years of the start of his training. Furthermore, each goal that he achieved motivated him towards new or re-evaluated goals and reinforced behaviors that could be applied in other situations besides physical fitness.

Negative Application

Whilst Mark was successful in achieving his goal of competing in the Ironman Triathlon, it is important to discuss how the outcome could have been different, had he not used SMART goals in his training. Competing in an Ironman Triathlon requires dedication and self-discipline, as well as many other goal mechanisms and conditions.

If Mark had not established a specific training plan with realistic goals suited to his increasing abilities, there could have been numerous negative outcomes. First and foremost, had Mark not trained over a long period of time to allow his body to build endurance, he may have suffered physical or psychological trauma during the race. Specifically, a psychological injury due to over-training could have lead to symptoms of burnout. This state of mind would have been detrimental to Mark's mindset and focus during the race, causing a probable loss of motivation. Next, if Mark's goals were not realistic, he may have resorted to illegal performance enhancing drugs to complete the triathlon. Thirdly, if Mark had not set specific goals along the way, such as completing a 5K, Olympic distance, half-Ironman and other triathlons to build up his stamina, he may not have ever been physically able to complete the Ironman Triathlon. Lastly, without Mark's task persistence, he may have gotten sidetracked and lost sight of his goal (PSU WC, 2014, L6. P.3). As mentioned in the time related portion of this page, focusing on these small achievable goals along the way allowed Mark to keep focused on the larger goal.

Goal difficulty is also a key factor in this particular scenario. Research has found a positive correlation between the difficulty level and the amount of effort given to the task (Locke & Latham, 2006). By setting his goal to compete in an Ironman Triathlon, the goal difficulty played a role in his successful achievement. Had Mark wished to complete the triathlon without any research or training, thus making the goal too difficult to achieve, he probably would have not been able to complete the race. Furthermore, the energizing effect of goal setting may not have been present, and his performance would have been negatively affected (PSYCH 484, Wiki 6).



When it comes to Goal-Setting theory, words such as "overwhelmingly positive," simple, and elegant have all been used to describe what is unquestionably "the most popular theory of motivation in I/O psychology" (PSU WC, 2014, p. 6). As such, it is not surprising that Mark is not alone in his success in reaching his goal with the application of Goal Setting Theory. This theory carries the weight of 40 years' empirical research behind it, making it "one of the most well-supported theories in all of I/O psychology" (PSU WC, 2014, p.5). Its applications within organizations are extensive, so much so that "79 percent of British organizations use some form of goal setting" (PSU WC, 2014, p.5). The success of goal-setting has even lead to the development of even more specific procedures and applications of goal setting, such as Management by Objectives. MBO has shown, through both field experiments and meta-analyses to be astoundingly effective: "97 percent of the 23 studies reviewed found increases in productivity" (PSU WC, 2014, p.5). 

Furthermore, the effectiveness of goal-setting reaches well beyond the work force: Lock and Latham have used their extensive reseach to determine the high level of generalizability, such that it is valid "not only to individuals, but to groups, organizational units, and entire organizations" (Lock & Latham, 2002, p. 174, within PSU WC, 2014, p. 5). This means that, just as Mark had success with his fitness goal using these theories, organizations, despite their industry or size, should have just as much success when properly applying the mechanisms and conditions. Ludwig and Geller (1997) found success with pizza delivery drivers, and Latham and Baldes (1975) found success with lumber crews. The implications stretch as far as to say, if there is a goal, there is motivation to reach it.

There are a few weaknesses, however. The first is the cognitive quality of this theory as a whole. Much like other cognitive motivation theories, it takes for granted the fact that "people can take action without being aware of what is motivating them" (PSU WC, 2014, p. 6). More tangible and challenging goals, like Mark's Ironman, would be much more difficult to pursue subconsciously, largely due to the amount of planning and forethought required to accomplish it. Second, the prevalence of goal-specific "tunnel vision" can make it so that individuals become overly focused on their goal and ignore other important aspects of their jobs or lives (PSU WC, 2014, p. 6). Unlike the first, this weakness would be much more pronounced with more difficult and intense goals like Mark's. The third downfall is the potential for conflict between goals (PSU WC, 2014, p.6). Much like tunnel vision, this is likely to happen in Mark's situation, because of the intensity of the Ironman training; he would likely have no time, energy, or resources left to pursue another goal. The fourth and last weakness is the lack of defined translation between goals and job performance (PSU WC, 2014, p.6), for which future research may be able to refine. 




Much of popular literature and articles on Goal-Setting theory relate to organizational applications, which involves highly complex factors, contributions, and results. This case study instead focuses on using the goal-setting theoretical construct to motivate a single individual, with no organizational influences, to accomplish a very large goal by mastering smaller goals along the way.

Though this case study with Mark did not illustrate that he sat down and mapped a five-year plan to accomplish his goal of completing the Ironman Triathlon, the theory has been retrofitted to show its efficacy even when unconsciously applied.  Specifically, Mark followed the most common of Goal-Setting methods: SMART. As the analysis of application demonstrates, Mark’s goal was very specific: the Ironman. The Ironman Triathlon is a well known sport with specific components that make it a unique experience. His goal was also measurable, as the Ironman has defined metrics about the number of miles that must be swum, biked, and run. Mark additionally created more measurable benchmarks along the way about personal times for each of those goals. He was also able to assign the goals to himself. Though he did not start out in top shape, he had no known impediment to training and continually built up towards his goal. His goals were realistic as well; while competing in the Ironman Triathlon is not common in the general population, it is done often enough that it’s clearly something someone can accomplish with the right training. Mark’s goal also was time-related. While he did not set a specific date to compete in his first Ironman, he pushed himself through milestone after milestone consistently over a period of five years. It is when one examines the time-related factor of the SMART method that it becomes clear that Mark had to set multiple smaller goals in support of the larger Ironman goal.  Those smaller goals also benefited from application of the SMART methodology. As Mark’s case study pointed out, running his first 5K and his first triathlon were the most difficult things he had undertaken and had to build up to each of those with equal vigor as the Ironman Triathlon.

Mark’s case study is an inspiring one for anyone who is looking towards goal-setting theory as a method to motivate individuals within an organization. By examining one’s individual application of the SMART method, motivation is seen stripped of many confounding factors that organizations experience–such as extrinsic rewards like pay raises, prestige, or power–to examine the efficacy of this method and theory. Mark’s case study shows the theory and SMART method are highly effective and applicable to even the most challenging of goals and that its generalizability is very high.



Friel, J., & Byrn, G. (2009). Going Long: Training for Ironman-Distance Triathlons. Boulder, CO: Velo Press.

Latham, G. P., & Baldes, J. J. (1975). The practical significance of Locke's theory of goal setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 60, 122-124.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey.American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.

Locke, E., & Latham, G. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 265-268.

Ludwig, T. D., & Geller, E. S. (1997). Assigned versus participative goal setting and response generalization: Managing injury control among professional pizza deliverers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 253-261.

McDevitt, K. (2006, February 10). Goal Setting as a Strategy for Healthy Behavior Change Date Released : Retrieved on October 1, 2014 from

Olympic.Org. (n.d.). Setting Smart Goals. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from Olympic.Org:

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2014). PSYCH 484 Lesson 6 Wiki. Retrieved from:

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2014, September) PSYCH 484 Lesson 6: What am I trying to achieve in my work? Retrieved on September 23, 2014 from

Smoll, F. A. (2013, November 18). Coaching and Parenting Young Athletes. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from Psychology Today:

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