top of page

When goals become habits in sport – pleasant and rewarding in and of themselves

A woman running
When goals become habits in sport

When we think about our habits in sport, we might feel that they are routine behaviours we do without thinking or paying much attention to what we are doing, but goals always seem so purposive. For example, if we were going to clean the kitchen, we might say that we are going to clean the kitchen for two hours and then have lunch. What if I cleaned the kitchen thoroughly every Saturday as a habit? Would I still consider it a goal? What if I were working on Saturdays for three weeks, the goal of cleaning the kitchen might arise because my habitual time for the cleaning the kitchen ceased? These are the challenges we face as coaches and athletes because we are trying to build good habits that automatically help our performance; yet, what happens when we need to change an existing habit or develop a new response on the field of play? Creating a new habit seems like the best option, rather than trying to extinguish an old habit.

We might begin with a goal to achieve an outcome. After enough attempts, the goal might become a habit (e.g., cleaning the kitchen on a Saturday morning). When something or someone blocks our habitual behaviour, the unfulfilled goal re-emerges. This criss-crossing between habits and goals reveals a foundation to understand better if we are to move from goals to habits for our sports and harness the best that habits offer. 

So how are habits formed? 

Habits form in contexts where the response is followed by a reward. Can you think about a child learning to catch a ball? The child throws a ball in the air (stimulus); the ball comes down, and the child catches the ball (response). We reward the child when she catches the ball (great catch!). The child sees she caught the ball (also a reward). Executing the behaviour (throwing) will bring the reward (intrinsic feeling of success). When I throw the ball in the air, I have a chance of catching it. This is the behaviour and the reward joining in successfully completing the task.

Though we often see repetition as the way habits develop, we can just as easily influence ourselves by the guidance from an authority or the advice of someone we admire. Sometimes it is a doctor telling us to eat healthily or a sports star telling us to clean our football boots after every training session.

So, what does this notion of context, behaviour, and goal mean for people who wish to make good habits a bigger part of their lives? Does it matter if the activity is pleasant or unpleasant? Kaushal and Rhodes (2015) reported that people were more likely to form exercise habits if they found the exercise to be pleasant. Besides something being pleasant, when it is intrinsically rewarding, it was also more likely to form a strong habit. Remember that what might be intrinsically motivating to one person might differ with another. One person might find reading and writing intrinsically motivating, another might find running and attending the gym intrinsically motivating.

The clever part for us as coaches and athletes is to create habits that are intrinsically rewarding in themselves for athletes. The more challenges we set up that bring a response and a reward, the more likely the new habit will develop. It’s time to think creatively about forming new habits that are a joy in themselves.


Kaushal, N., & Rhodes, R. E. (2015). Exercise habit in new gym members: A longitudinal study. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38, 652–663.

Kruglanski, A., & Szumowska, E. (2020). Habitual behavior is goal-driven. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(5), 1256–1271.

7 views0 comments


bottom of page