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Throughout our lives we will establish many goals. Some of these objectives we will fully achieve, others we will partially attain - or accomplish in ways we did not expect, and finally, some goals we will fail to meet whatsoever. Such goals are either set by ourselves, or in other cases they are set for us. Our PSU L6 (2015) gives us two definitions, one is that, “a goal is the aim of an action, or what a person consciously desires to attain.” Another version by the same source says that, “goal setting is the process of determining specific levels of performance for individuals to achieve” (PSU WC 2015 L6, p.2). This second definition refers primarily to goals set by someone other than the one meant to achieve them, such as a manager or supervisor. In another workplace variation, we can say that goal-setting is a practical process of determining specific levels of performance for individuals to achieve a desired outcome. Taking it one step beyond these definitions, goal-setting is an important process that helps in reaching the completion of a goal because “conscious goals affect action” (Locke & Latham, 2002).
     In general, setting goals is an important step in plotting and planning the course one needs to take to ensure success. “Personal goal setting is no different than mission or objective planning in the military. All you need is a set of clear objectives that are well defined, measurable, realistic and time driven” (Chart Your Future with "SMART" Goals, 2015).
     There are men and women who make a huge decision to enlist with our military forces to help protect our nation. Their goals range from furthering their skills, attaining a higher rank, gaining education funding, and earning enough money to support a family. Regardless of their initial choice, their body’s and minds are put through intense training from the onset. In our case example, goal setting theory will be evaluated within the military setting.
For an excellent general discussion of Goal Setting Theory, please see the Parent Wiki Page, at:

The Case of the Navy SEAL

Tens of thousands of men and women are called to service every year in support and defense of America’s freedom. A select few hundred out of those aspire to answer to a higher calling. The Special Operations community within the greater military structure is comprised of 1% of the total military personnel serving on Active Duty. Each branch of the service has various Special Operations programs, and each overall mission is unique. The Navy has four specialties which consist of Divers, Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD), Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman (SWCC) and SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) also known as “frogmen.” For the purposes of our case study we’ll focus specifically on the Navy SEALs, though the selection and admittance pipeline is similar in many ways for each branch’s Special Operations personnel.
     The motivations behind joining the Navy in order to (hope to) become a SEAL are “as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Genesis, 26:4, New International Version). Regardless of what drives each expectant candidate towards the receipt of their Trident, the common factors include athletic ability, an unwavering determination to win, and a deep sense of patriotism or love of country. The first step towards becoming a Navy SEAL is to enlist in the Navy. The next step is to sign a contract stating the intention to go through with the screening required before one can even attempt to become a member of one of the world’s most elite fighting forces. Any able-bodied man can declare the goal of wanting to “be a frogman,” but to earn a contract with the United States Navy SEALs the candidate must first prove their ability with an arduous Physical Screening Test (PST). This test determines whether or not a candidate possesses the minimum physical capabilities to move forward in the process. The test consists of the following: a 500 meter swim with a minimum clock time of 12:30, 50 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, 10 pull-ups and a one and a half mile run with a minimum clock time of 10:30 (Official Website U.S. Navy SEALs). There is a 10 minute rest after the swim, with the push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups having a maximum completion time of no more than two minutes each, with two minutes rest between; another rest of 10 minutes, then the run (Official Website U.S. Navy SEALs).
     Once this initial performance challenge is met, the candidate ships off to Recruit Training Command (RTC), Great Lakes, IL. This is the “boot camp” for the newly arrived Navy men. Upon the graduation from this boot camp, the SEAL candidates attend a preparatory course to assist with further physical conditioning and the development of mental toughness which will provide critical capabilities through the SEALs career. If a candidate can progress through the preparatory course, they are awarded a spot at the infamous Basic Underwater Demolitions/SEAL (BUD/S) training camp. This course tests not only the physical limits of each man’s capabilities, but the mental rigors are equally as difficult, if not even more so, than the physical challenges. As stated on the official website of the U.S. Navy SEALs (2015), “Because of its particularly challenging requirements, many candidates begin questioning their decision to come to BUD/S during First Phase…candidates who have made a full commitment to their goal of becoming a SEAL and those who decide ahead of time that quitting is not an option, regardless of how challenging the training becomes, dramatically increase their chances”.
     Becoming a Navy SEAL requires a specific mindset – one fixed on achieving greatness; and while the preparatory course will assist one in developing the mental fortitude necessary to have a successful career, making a habit of goal setting is the most necessary key to unlock the door of ones potential.

Analysis of the Case Utilizing Goal Setting Theory 

Goal Mechanisms

Goals affect motivation, which includes direction, intensity, and persistence. The individual who has a goal has focus, and enters into the relationship between performance and outcomes. It has been well established that, “goal setting affects performance through these [above mentioned] mechanisms (Locke 1968; Locke & Henne, 1986; Locke & Latham, 2002). As a young man who approaches the task of being a U.S. Navy SEAL, their goals must first be in alignment with their behavior in order to achieve their ultimate objective. As described in the case study, the physical and mental training is rigorous. Any individual whose goal it is to be a SEAL must be well prepared in advance of boot camp or else their goal will not be realized.
     Another mechanism of goal theory is the energy which builds and pushes the individual to try harder; as the intensity of the SEAL training increases, the energy of the individual equally must increase if they are to reach their goal. Third, “goals maintain task persistence, leading to a greater amount of time spent on behaviors directed toward goal attainment” (PSU WC 2015, L6, p.3). Therefore, the individual SEAL trainee must maintain his persistence and dedicate the time commensurate with the effort. This, of course, is no small task.
     Notably, the SEAL Challenge is the toughest on record and thus, effective strategies must be incorporated to achieve the goal of becoming a Navy SEAL. “Individuals must consider how they are going to reach their objectives, especially when goals are long-term and difficult,” as is the case with boot camp and BUD/S training (PSU WC 2015, L6, p.3). It bears mentioning that the average American cannot do even one pull up, yet the SEAL candidates must complete a minimum of 10 times that amount, with ideal candidates being able to complete no less than 18. One can see that to achieve the level of fitness required, many conditioning goals had to have been set and achieved beforehand.


Goal Acceptance/Commitment

When an individual enters into the SEAL program as a candidate, he should have already accepted that it is his goal to become a Navy SEAL. They should clearly believe that they can accomplish this before setting out on such a task. “How many people make it through BUD/S? Each year, about 1,000 men start SEAL training. Although training success rates vary per class, usually about 200-250 men succeed each year” (Naval Special Warfare Website, FAQ, 2015). So, what separates the 1000 well-qualified, highly fit, candidates who enter the program from the average 200-250 who actually graduate? It is fair to say that goal commitment is the most significant factor. “Goal commitment reflects the degree to which individuals accept and strive to attain goals” (PSU WC 2015, L6, p.4). Goal commitment can also be considered to be the degree to which the individual strives, both mentally and physically, to reach the achievement of earning their Trident pin on their uniform lapel.


Navy SEALs Trident Pin (Wikipedia)

For every man that completes the minimum requirements to earn a SEAL contract and attends BUD/S (and passes) to graduate as a Navy SEAL, there are hundreds more who failed to create specific the daily goals necessary to create the behaviors that would have allowed success. Goals have an energizing effect (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015). When the trainee is unimaginably tired, soaking wet, freezing cold, starving hungry, and painfully sore, it is the energizing effect of their goal that allows them to complete the next step and continue.


Goal Specificity

As a SEAL candidate, the goal is to get through all of the training and become a SEAL. However, the ongoing malleability of the specific goal is important because there are many aspects to preparatory training. It is stated that, “the best-established finding on goal setting is that people perform at higher levels when asked to attain a specific, high-performance goal” (PSU WC 2015, L6, p.4). The specificity and high-performance level of the goal is detailed by the military, taking that responsibility away from the individual (to a certain extent). As a candidate, prior to entering into the program, it would be wise to develop very specific goals for modifying behavior and preparing for boot camp such as: run 10 miles every day, do 300 pushups daily (or every other day), practice sleep deprivation of 72 hours, etc. all in order to prepare for the intense training ahead. Setting proper, specific goals is essential for any candidate. Additionally, they must remember that the goals must be both difficult and specific, in order to increase their performance. If the goals set are achieved, and then become easier than when first started, the candidate must consider increasing the level in order to increase their performance.
     For an applicant, simply saying, “I want to be a Navy SEAL.” is not nearly specific enough to complete BUD/S training. Having a specific goal, and a deep personal motivation behind it, are what helps a man dig deep and complete the grueling obstacles. Some days that goal may simply be to finish the run or do two more pushups than they did the day before. However, having specific goals is the primary key to completing the training, and the man who can conquer his doubts and perceived limitations is the man that will look in the mirror and see the treasured gold Trident pinned to his chest.


Goal Difficulty

As stated previously, increasing goal difficulty is important in increasing performance. “Research has consistently found a positive, linear function, in that more difficult goals produce higher levels of effort and performance” (Locke & Latham, 1990). It would seem impossible to find anything more difficult mentally and physically than the BUD/S training for the SEALs. It is indicated that “specific goals will work best when they are set neither too high nor too low” (PSU WC 2015, L6, p.5). However, I think it is safe to say that in the case of the Navy SEAL, goals are set very high, far too high for most people. That being said, this is an unusual circumstance where standards must be set very high, or else the SEALs would not be the most elite military unit in the world. For how well-known and active they are, one might be amazed to know that, “there are [only] about 2,500 active duty Navy SEALs” (Naval Special Warfare Website, FAQ, 2015).
     Clearly most people simply cannot become Navy SEALs, no matter how much they desire the goal, it is simply too difficult. As for the rest of us, we need to consider how difficult each goal is so that we can continue to strive toward it and not be defeated by it.

Two members of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2 conduct lockout training with the USS Hawaii in 2007 (Wikipedia).


Goal Feedback

Our PSU-PSYCH484, L6 (2015) tells us that, “both feedback and goal setting are necessary for sustained performance.” Feedback for most individuals is a critical aspect of the goal process since many goals can be a long-term process. Individuals need to be told if they are doing well or doing poorly so that they can stay on track with their desired outcome. A critical aspect is that, “feedback needs to be specific” (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015). If the intended target is to help the individual to meet their goal, then the type of feedback is important and thus it should be noted that, “process feedback tells you what to change and how to make the changes” (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015).  As a candidate for the Navy SEALs, feedback is provided regularly, repeatedly, and typically in a manner not intended for the faint at heart.

SEALs from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two fast-rope to the deck of the USS Toledo (2005) (Wikipedia). 


Application of Goal Setting Theory to the Navy SEAL Case

In determining the relationship of goal difficulty to performance, it is important to note that “Numerous studies have shown that setting a specific difficult goals leads to significant increases in … productivity” (Locke & Latham, 1984). In the case of a Navy SEAL candidate, setting goals and the determination to meet those goals is a critical application to their overall success. As is the case with most individuals attempting to become Navy SEALs, it should be noted that, “self-efficacy correlated positively with subsequent performance” (Brown & Latham, 2000). However, this is by no means an exception for the SEAL candidate.
     Part of the process of goal setting application is to develop a plan of action. For a candidate, if they know ahead of time what they are about to encounter, their plan might be to work overtime on the physical aspects of the training. Once the plan has been established, it must be “implemented with careful monitoring of progress toward goals and feedback offered” (PSU WC 2015, L6, p.11).
     With process feedback, it might be necessary to make some adjustments along the way and devise a strategy to carry it out. There could be circumstances where the goals must be looked at and effectiveness determined. Perhaps the candidate struggles with an aspect of the physical training and must readjust. Or maybe the difficulty is with the amount of time the individual can spend underwater. If goals are set too high in beginning, the aspirant may need to make adjustments in order to reestablish their path to success in greater goals. This of course is specifically pre-entry into the program since once in the program, the goals are set for the individual and those goals are either met or failed. It is known from scientific research that, “giving people ambitious and specific goals directs their attention, energizes them, and keeps them engaged longer” (Bennett, 2009). Hence, the goals given to trainees are highly specific and quite ambitious. On site, the results of the assigned goals will continuously being evaluated.

Navy SEAL Creed

As mentioned above, for every man that completes the minimum requirements of the Navy SEAL training and goes on to graduate, there are hundreds of strong and fit men who fail.  A major factor which separates successful candidates from those which fail in training is their goal commitment. Goal commitment is one of several factors that are necessary for goal setting to successfully lead to enhanced performance (Locke & Henne, 1986; Locke, 2000, as cited by PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015).  The Navy SEAL training regiment tests not only one’s physical prowess, but also one’s mental fortitude as well.  Being that the BUD/S is a six month long regiment, it is said that many candidates do not succeed because early on in their training they lose focus and quit, (Smith, n.d.).  This is where the proper application of goal-setting theory would benefit many attempting to become Navy SEALs.  Motivation consists of direction, intensity, and persistence, all of which must be maintained (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015).  In the article Properly Set Goals Aid Success, Gergen and Vanourek (2009) explain that where many people go wrong is that when they first encounter adversity their first reaction is to automatically lower their expectations of their performance.  What this does is not only undermine principles of consistency and discipline, but also pushes the goal that much further away until the individual perceives the goal as unattainable, which in turn diminishes goal commitment.  This is due to the fact that, “to a large extent, goal acceptance depends on a person believing that the goal can be reached and that he or she has a reasonable chance of doing so. Goals can be rejected because they are perceived as too difficult or too vague” (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015).  To remedy this, Gergen and Vanourek (2009) recommend rather than lowering the bar when faced with adversity, an individual instead should increase the intensity of their efforts.  This exact response in seen in all successful SEAL candidates. 
     Aside from discouragement, another reason Navy SEAL candidates do not pass the training program is simply failing to meet the physical requirements.  One of the most important things a candidate can do to increase their chances of success is to arrive fit (Smith, n.d.).  In this regard goal setting theory may benefit new candidates through goal specificity.  It is crucial for a goal to be clear and measureable (Gergen & Vanourek, 2009).  In regards to the physical requirements needed to pass Navy SEAL training, it has been said that, “sometimes it takes a solid year of training before you are physically capable of reaching these scores” (Smith, n.d.).  In this case, goal specificity is highly recommended as, “the more specific the goal, the more explicitly performance will be regulated”, (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015).  Hence, it is very important for hopeful candidates to monitor and track their daily progress.  This tracking should continue up to the day they enlist in the Navy SEAL training program, since a goal can be rejected if it is perceived as too vague (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015).  



In 1975, Latham and Baldes provided one of the earliest studies to determine the significance of goal setting. It was the first complete study of its kind. Since this early study, researchers have been trying to identify the practical significance of goal setting. “Goal setting theory was formulated inductively largely on the basis of our empirical research conducted over nearly four decades. It is based on Ryan’s (1970) premise that conscious goals affect action. A goal [necessarily being]… the object or aim of an action” (Locke & Latham, 2002). The interest to I/O Psychologists was to “predict, explain, and influence performance on organizational or work-related tasks” (Locke & Latham, 2002).
     Some of the core findings in this research revolved around the relationship of the goal difficulty to actual performance of the individual(s). There was a general claim that task difficulty, measured as probability of task success, was related to performance in a curvilinear, inverse function. The highest level of effort occurred when the task was moderately difficult, and the lowest levels occurred when the task was either very easy or very hard” (Latham & Locke, 2002). The magnitude of the goal seemed to determine the level of effort or performance. It was also determined that goal specificity was an important feature in the ability pursue and reach an objective. Vague ideas about success tend to cause issues in the performance of obtaining the goal. The reason for this determination was because “do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically. This allows for a wide range of acceptable performance levels, which is not the case when a goal level is specified” (Latham & Locke, 2002).


Navy SEAL Training at BUD/S


Tubbs and Ekeberg (1991) have suggested that in addition to Goal Theory, therein lies the idea of intention theory as a means to create a product. They describe intention as, “a cognitive representation of both the objective (or goal) one is striving for and the action plan one intends to use to reach that objective.” They further describe the intended aspects of an action plan as including direction, amplitude and persistence (Tubbs & Ekeberg, 1991). This structure mirrors the basic premise of motivation that was outlined in Lesson One of this course (PSU-PSYCH484, L1, 2015). They also discuss that these intentional action plans are hierarchal, and attention is only given to a single level, or the “current operative intention” (Tubbs & Ekeberg, 1991). For example, while a SEAL candidate may have a goal of making it through day X of 'Hell week', their immediate attention is focused on completing the cycle of push-ups, or paddling through the surf. In conjunction with the hierarchy of the intentions theory, there is also a hierarchal feedback loop that works in much the same way as that of the goal theory feedback concept.  
     One of the standout ideas within the intentions theory is that objectives require an action plan, which develops for the user a 'means-end' relationship. As stated through the real-life case of a Navy SEAL, "One cannot simply say, 'I want to be a SEAL.' They must have a specific action plan that correlates with the ends. In other words, they have to create a road map to see how they will make this intention a reality."  



Becoming a Navy SEAL is assuredly one of the most difficult things any man can attempt to do. It is both self-evident, and expressed here through various avenues, that utilization of goal theory is essential to any level of success in that endeavor. Any lack of goal application on the part of an aspirant is virtually guaranteed to produce failure, either sooner or later in the process. Like any correctly formulated goal, becoming a Navy SEAL is not something to do or think about on occasion, instead it is something that must be a part of nearly every aspect of your life. This is true both before and during training, and afterwards if success has been met. Unfortunately, it is true that such “goals can sometimes lead to tunnel vision in that…[soldiers] can focus so intently on the goals that they ignore other important aspects of [their lives]” (PSU-PSYCH484, L6, 2015). This is a pitfall to watch out for, as no one would suggest that a soldier ignore their duties as father, husband, or son in place of training or work. A balance must be found if success on all fronts is to be achieved.

Navy SEAL with his family (Navy SEAL Foundation)

Becoming a Navy SEAL is not something that loses its relation to goal theory once one graduates BUD/S. Instead, there is ongoing training and improvement which is both required to maintain the position, and necessary to do the job correctly. Goal setting and application must continually be a part of the SEALs life, so long as they are enlisted (at a minimum). There is goal setting and training to be had in small arms tactics, hand-to-hand combat, espionage, underwater demolition, marksmanship, diving and parachuting, to name just a few. Hence, there is always new goals to set and attain, new records to break, and ones fellow sailor, who will always be ready to pose a fresh challenge and help one to find new ambitions to strive towards.

Thank you to our Armed Forces


Bennett (2009, March 15). Ready, Why setting goals can backfire. The Boston Globe, C1.
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Genesis 26 Verse 4. (1978). In The Holy Bible: New international version, containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible.
Gergen, C., & Vanourek, G. (2009, January 14). Properly set goals aid success. The Washington Times, B03.

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.

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SEALs from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two fast-rope to the deck of the USS Toledo (2005), Retrieved Feb., 2015 from:
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Two members of SEAL Delivery Team 2 conduct lockout training with the USS Hawaii in 2007. Retrieved Feb., 2015 from:
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U.S. Navy's Special Warfare insignia, also known as a "SEAL Trident". Retrieved Feb., 2015 from:

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Wikipedia – Images. Commons.


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