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Effective Goal-Setting for Young Athletes

07/29/2017, 6:00am MDT
By Dave Pond - Special to

Winning goal. Game 7. Stanley Cup Final.

It’s a dream constantly played out by young boys and girls across the country.

But here’s the truth: you’ve got a better shot at winning the lottery than a kid has at becoming either an NHL player or an Olympian. And that’s OK.

There’s so much more to the game than making it to the NHL or earning an NCAA Division I scholarship. Hockey is fun, first and foremost, and it builds discipline, character and camaraderie, traits that will help your child grow into a successful young man or woman regardless if they medal or hoist the Cup.

So back to Game 7 and Olympic gold. Don’t hesitate to let your kids dream. However, at the same time, it’s imperative that parents and coaches alike help young players set realistic, tangible goals they can aim for, because those are the goals that will help them improve their skills and enjoy the game at the same time.

The Three Types of Goals

According to Dr. Colleen Hacker, an internationally recognized performance psychology consultant and USA Hockey mental skills coach, there are three types of goals:

  • Product goals, in which the focus is on the outcome (“I’m going to become a first-line player on my team.”)
  • Process goals, where the focus is on your own performance and on factors that you can control (“I’ll run four 60-yard wind sprints after practice three times a week.”)
  • Do-your-best goals, which sound positive but aren’t detailed or specific in nature (“I’m going to try my best when I lift weights this week.”)

“Once athletes begin to set observable, measurable goals and specify a completion date, it’s not uncommon to experience increased motivation and excitement as goals are accomplished,” said Hacker, who has served as a member of five different U.S. Olympic coaching staffs. “However, this can lead to two of the most common goal-setting problems: setting too many goals too quickly and setting unrealistic goals based on one’s current level of performance.”

The challenge is to keep your kids’ goals meaningful, relevant and motivating. 

“Goals should not control their athletic lives, or become burdensome to practice and training,” Hacker said. “Instead, they should serve as guideposts and standards of excellence that are individually significant.”

Balance Is Key

Hacker generally encourages athletes to focus on a maximum of three to four goals per week, so it doesn’t become overwhelming. For parents and coaches, that balance is key and essential in helping young players set difficult (but realistic) goals for themselves.

“The key point to emphasize is that it’s better to design fewer, high-quality goals and commit to accomplishing them, than to set too many goals and simply hope that several will be accomplished,” she said. “So, talk with your kids and decide what aspects of performance are most important and which skills you want to focus on for that particular week.”

Write Them Down

Write goals down, because it helps clearly define them (so there’s no confusion as to what the goal means), and it gives you a tangible reminder of accountability. Coaches should post team goals where team members can easily see them. For individual goals, have your kids write their goals on index cards, or in a small spiral notebook that they’ll keep with them.

“When you write goals down, make sure that you have clearly specified the observable behavior your child or team will do, and be sure to list a method of accomplishment,” Hacker said. “For example, a young skater should not set a goal ‘to become a better offensive player’ – it’s just not specific enough.

“Instead, develop a goal that says, ‘In order to become a better offensive player, I’ll stay after practice and shoot 50 pucks at least three times per week.’”

Upon Further Review

With increased coaching, practice and game play, your kids will undoubtedly become better players. So it’s vital that goals are reviewed periodically to make sure they’re still appropriate and challenging. 

Finally, remember, these are kids. Have goals, but have fun, too. And when your players achieve their goals, celebrate with them.

“It’s amazing how many people go through life dreaming of athletic fame and fortune but neglect one of the most basic tools necessary to help them get there – effective goal setting,” Hacker said. “Don’t forget to reward yourself, or your players, for successfully accomplishing goals.

“Positive reinforcement for success is both deserved and enjoyable.”

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