I will start this article with the acknowledgement that goal setting is a frequently targeted topic by sport psychology professionals.  Though I’m sure I will cover a few points that others often do, my hope is that I will also provide some perspective for coaches and parents in a way that helps them to be an ally for their athletes and teams.

Let’s start with the recognition that nearly everyone who participates/competes in a sport has a goal for doing so, regardless of their age.  These goals can vary widely, and at times can be something the athlete is unaware of; like being a subconscious element of participation. Athlete goals can also be vague, leading to uncertainty and confusion.  And when asked about their goals, athletes can find themselves in an awkward position – for instance, their own goals are different that their parents’ or coaches.  Rather than dealing with this, the athlete tries to suppress his own goal, leading to anxiety and eventually poor quality in play.

This situation is often misread by the adults involved as evidence of low motivation, a lack of focus, or a lack of mental toughness.  The responses I often hear from parents and coaches are attempts at coaxing the athlete into a higher level of performance with statements such as, “Just have fun kid!”, or “Try harder…” (leaving the athlete confused and questioning themselves), or quizzing the athlete with questions that can only have unsatisfactory answers (for the adult) such as “Why did you do that?”

To be certain, having discussions about play can be a good thing.  Cheering athletes on is always recommended.  But keeping in mind that having her own goal(s) is a key to motivation is an important consideration when having these interactions.  Allowing an athlete to establish her own goals empowers her to define her own sense of purpose, direction, and focus.  Doing so provides autonomy, an important quality that will be valuable later on in other adult endeavors (i.e. a career in another field).  For coaches and parents, you also gain the benefit of inner satisfaction of helping someone achieve their own goals, rather than feeling the negatives of pressuring someone for more.

Also important to recognize is the potential pitfalls of goal setting.  If not done well, or without collaboration and guidance, goal setting can lead to selfishness as an athlete becomes self-absorbed in their own successes.  This can be further complicated by strained relations with teammates.  There is also the possibility that the athlete falls victim to tying his self-worth to goal attainment.  Many athletes determine their value, as well as worth of commitment, to whether or not they have achieved the goals they set out to accomplish.  It is important to help athletes realize that goals are meant as targets for focus, rather than absolute markers of evaluation.  And with proper direction, goal setting can be a powerful means of promoting growth.

So let’s take a minute to focus on the “How” of goal setting.  To begin with, start with the end in mind.  Be open an honest about what it is you (the athlete) want to achieve/accomplish, and then work backwards by breaking it down into steps of progress or pieces of that whole.  In essence, develop markers of performance that help you determine if you are on the path to reaching your goal.

Next, develop a To-Do List – a series of processes and tasks that will help you develop and improve as you try to hit the performance markers.  Once you have established these tasks, keep your focus on the process.  This means committing to your plan, and being willing to reflect after a practice or performance rather than continuously trying to adjust on the fly to get a desired outcome.  Instead, evaluate and reflect afterward, and be flexible enough to make an adjustment on the next attempt, practice, or game.

Another important consideration when creating your goals is to be realistic.  Though you may have future aspirations of greatness, make sure the goals you are setting for this season are based on your present level of skill and talent.  Secondarily, if you are still in the process of “developing” as an athlete, build from previous accomplishments by setting goals that are reasonably beyond what you have accomplished before.  Think of it like climbing a mountain.  Though you may want to reach the peak, you can only get so far in a given amount of time, and this is dependent upon your current level of fitness and skill.  Try to do too much, and you risk serious set-backs.  Try to do too little, and you may never get where you want to be.

Finally, if you are part of a team, keep your goals secondary to the team’s goal(s).  Remember, you are a percentage of the whole.  When you put your own goals in front of the collective, you become a distraction to others, and risk preventing the team from achieving together.  In fact, future coaches often search for signs that you know how to focus your talents in a way that helps the team collectively, and will “walk away” from recruits who show signs of selfish play.

Hopefully this gives helpful insight to athletes, parents, and coaches on the power of goal setting.  When done well, it can promote greater motivation and satisfaction for all involved.  Goal setting is also a life skill that promote growth in future endeavors.  Should you find yourself wanting specific guidance in this area, why wait?  Make the call, bring in an expert.

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