Smart Goals for Peak Performance: a Quick Guide to Goal Setting for Young Athletes

“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.”

- Earl Nightingale

Goal setting helps teach athletes that continued improvement is the result of dedication and effort in practice. Setting goals and achieving them enhances children’s motivation, focus, self-discipline and self-esteem. Coaches and parents can be very helpful in setting goals for their young athletes. Yet to be effective, the process of goal-setting must involve a collaborative effort. If coaches or parents set goals instead of kids, these goals become the adult’s dreams, not the athletes’ objectives. We hope this quick goal-setting guide can help you to assist your young athletes in mapping their road to success in sport. Enjoy!

Step 1 - Define Goal-Setting and Explain its Benefits

It all starts with discussing what goal setting is about. The simplest goal-setting formula is: “Goals usually start with ‘I will’ and have two parts – that is, what you want to accomplish and when you hope to accomplish it.” You can also explain your athlete that planning what you want to achieve is the most powerful tool that helps you succeed in life.

Athletes need to understand how each goal will help improve athletic performance. Talk with your child about commitment - this means they will act on a daily basis to achieve their goals. It isn’t what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, it’s what we do consistently. Athletes must therefore “buy into” goals and work toward achieving them in a systematic way.

Step 2 - Let Them Chose Their Big Goal

Discuss with your kids their dreams and aspirations, and write them down. Go through the list and help your athlete select one or two most important wishes. The best goals are challenging, yet within reasonable limits, so the goal must be within your child’s ability and be realistic. If it’s not, you might want to help your child choose another goal. If a goal is too difficult, athletes quickly lose interest and motivation. If a goal is too easy, athletes accomplish it with minimum effort. Then help your child frame the wish using the goal formula, stating what he will do and when.

Step 3 – Concentrate on the Progress, Not an Outcome

It’s critically important to encourage your child to set a goal that focus upon the process of performance rather than the outcome. An outcome goal like “winning all the competitions of the season” or “getting the national award” can provide a sense of direction and purpose, but if your child loses one of the competitions, it’s all over. Process goals focus on the daily acts of performance and learning, and they define what the athlete needs to do to be successful. For example, instead of setting a goal to win, a gymnast might strive to improve her scores by the end of the season or make a difficult element at least 7-out-of-10 attempts - that’s within the athlete’s “zone of control.”

Step 4 – Break the Big Goal Into Smaller Steps

The next step is to help your child think through how he will succeed. A goal should be set in small increments. Short-term goals are effective because they are more flexible and can be more easily raised and lowered to keep them challenging but realistic. Small goals provide more frequent evaluations of success and give athletes a sense of accomplishment, which motivates them to eventually reach long-term objectives. The most often mistake with smaller goals is setting too many goals too soon. This results in a system overload. To avoid this, prioritize goals and focus attention on one or two that are most important. The other problem is that some goals are too general. If you can’t measure the goal in terms of specific numbers, it's too vague and general to be used effectively.

Step 5 – Identify Potential Obstacles

This may include bad habits, like unhealthy eating or staying up too late, or negative thoughts, including a desire to give up. Offer yourself as a sounding board when kids run into challenges reaching their goals, but don’t solve their problems for them. Instead listen to their concerns and ask them questions. Get them thinking about approaches that might help. Instead of telling them what to do, ask if they think any of your ideas might be good ways to meet challenges. Don’t feel internal pressure to unstick a stuck child. Brainstorm with them and then let them do it. Planning for potential obstacles in advance can help your child stay motivated and succeed even in the face of challenges.

Step 6 - Track Goal Achievement and Celebrate Success

Hang your children’s goals on a wall to remind them of their intentions. Pointing out their efforts will motivate them to keep trying: “Look how much closer you’re getting to your goal!” Nothing is more affirming to children than succeeding at goals they’ve worked so hard to achieve. You might provide a small notebook to log each goal achievement or celebrate the accomplishment by going out for a family “victory dinner.” Then, help your child set their next sub-goal and the next, and they’ll learn how to work toward making their dreams come true.

Step 7 - Praise Progress and Respect Weakness

Instead of encouraging your child to be the generic best, encourage your athletes to always achieve their personal best. Celebrate every accomplishment no matter how it measures up with others. Just as strengths can be discovered and flexed for increasing success, weaknesses should be acknowledged and honored, too. The idea of respecting weaknesses rather than denying or trying to correct them may seem strange. But consider whether the investment of time and energy to turn weaknesses around is worthwhile. Sometimes flaws teach kids valuable things they need to learn. So, teach your child to forgive weaknesses and pursue the undervalued abilities he may be pointing toward instead.

As your child focuses on setting and reaching personal goals, your role as a parent is to play a long game and see the perspective. When it comes to sport, things may not always go quite the way anyone expected. This means short-term victories don’t always pan out as expected, even after much time and energy has been invested. When disappointments happen, and they will, help your child focus on the big picture. Getting the most personal satisfaction out of the process and achieving personal growth while making valuable contributions to the whole – that’s the best plan.

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