How to Set Goals To Maximize the Youth Sports Experience

Playing sports is number one about having fun. That we know. One of the most important aspects of having fun is having success. In sports, most success is based on the score: if you win it was a success; if you lose it was a failure. That focus on the score and the value placed on it at the youth level (you won and you lost) is why keeping score is oftentimes viewed negatively. Keeping score is not the problem, the problem is the disproportionate amount of emphasis placed on the final score in determining the success of a player or team. Don’t be mistaken, there is nothing wrong with keeping score and/or winning and losing. And there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to win. Experiencing and learning from both winning and losing is an important part of the sports experience, even at the youth level. It is the emphasis placed on the score and the inability of the adults involved to understand how to handle the score and effectively use it as a teaching tool, that is the true core of the issue. To change the “score/winning = success” focus that plagues youth sports, we have to learn to measure success in different ways and set goals accordingly. Setting goals is an important factor in providing consistent motivation, measuring development/improvement and taking the focus off of the score, which will allow the athlete (or team) to have measurable success no matter how the final score shakes out. Here are simple ideas/guidelines to keep in mind when setting goals for your team or athlete.

Set Realistic Goals:

Any goals you set must be realistic for your athlete or team. You don’t want to be too ambitious and be faced with a situation where the athlete or team can never have any success, that isn’t any fun, doesn’t teach them anything and will only serve to demoralize the group. Also, don’t set goals that are so easy that accomplishing them requires no effort or motivation, that offers no benefit to anyone. If your child scored 10 goals in the previous soccer season and is moving up to a higher level of competition shooting for 15 goals is probably not realistic. But if your child scored 10 goals during the previous season and is in the same league, the same level of competition with a year more experience and physical development, then 15 goals might be a realistic goal. Each case is different and has many factors but if you set goals too lofty they never learn success, set them too low and they never experience having to challenge themselves. Neither is particularly helpful in terms of teaching, development or encouraging participation.

Give the child a say in what their goals should be:

Ask your child their opinion on what their goals should for a practice, game or season. You know them best and can help them to set productive, realistic goals. If your child tends to be a little more apprehensive/cautious, challenge them a little more show them that they are capable of more than they believe they are. If they lean towards wanting to do everything and setting lofty goals, you can help them realize that what they are shooting for might be a little unreasonable. Consulting the coach also offers key feedback/perspective and also makes the coach aware of the specific goals and allows the coach to help support the player during practices and games. By giving the child a say and then discussing it with them, the child will feel more empowered and energized to achieve all they can.

Discuss what it will mean to achieve the goal/Why is this goal important

Context is important. If the child doesn’t know/understand the value, or the importance, of accomplishing a particular goal, then they likely won’t be as invested in achieving it. They need to understand what accomplishing the goal will mean, in order to become committed to it. Using the 10 goal example from earlier in this article, If you said: ” I want you to score 10 goals because I want you to score 10 goals” that doesn’t mean as much as: “scoring 10 goals this season, against better competition shows you improved tremendously and your hard work and practice has paid off.” The same number of goals, against the improved competition, likely means vast improvement.

Don’t pick too many/Focus on what your team needs most:

If you have more than three goals at a time, then you have none (and even three might be too many). You can’t focus on everything so focus on what your team/athlete needs most. The great thing about goals is they can be fluid and changing as the season goes on. You may start out thinking your baseball team needs major help in catching fly balls so you focus on it and during the first game, they are perfect at fly balls but made five throwing errors. That next week of practice you can bet that you should focus on the most common throws that need to be made in a game. Once the throws are under control, you may notice they are striking out an extraordinary amount of times per game. That next week you will focus on getting the team extra swings in the cage. Focus on what the team needs and never on more than three goals at any one time.

Make them 100% self-improvement based (not competing with anyone else)

This is crucial. The goals should be 100% about self-improvement. It should never be a competition against anyone else. Here is what I mean: Setting a goal of: “scoring 10 points a game this season vs. the 8 points they scored per game last season” is a healthy goal. Setting a goal of: “Scoring more than another kid in the league”, not so healthy. Both may very well lead to the increased scoring but one puts the focus on themselves (which they can control through effort and work) and one puts the focus on someone else (which they have no control over). Always focus on self-development and the results will happen.

Build on the goals each week/game:

This is very effective in promoting the development of skills and leads to exponential improvement. If the first baseball game of the season your child’s goal is to “get on base three times” and they accomplish it but in the process, they also struck out once, great! The next week add to that goal by setting the goal of “get on base three times and no strikeouts”. If they accomplish that then next game “get on base three times, no strikeouts, and steal a base”. This challenges them to keep what they accomplished and build on it. Of course, it’s not realistic to expect them to accomplish everything each game and that’s fine. The point is to challenge them to push their limits and show them they can accomplish more than they think.

Goals should ALWAYS be in line with the team goals (Don’t put your goals before the team): 

I am a big believer in the power and experience of being a part of a team. Everyone bringing different talents and skills together to achieve a common goal. In a team situation, putting your goals above the team, to the team’s detriment, is not acceptable. Example: A child on a baseball team has a goal “to steal a base every game” and so every time the child gets on base they attempt a steal. Even if they are successful most of the time there is still a large percentage of the time that they hurt their team because they get thrown out costing their team an out and a base runner. They may get their “one stolen base a game” goal but it will cost the entire team a ton of opportunities. That doesn’t show respect for the team and won’t earn them any respect from the team either. This is where consulting the coach is a good idea to get input to as what some appropriate goals are for your child might be and how they can be in-line with the goals of the team.

Kids are never too young to learn the power and benefit of setting goals. Setting a goal, creating a plan, putting in the work and then achieving that goal is a tremendous feeling and can help them build the mindset of success. Setting a goal, creating a plan, putting in the work and falling short can help build a mindset of determination and perseverance. Experiencing successes and failures, and learning how to move on from both, are necessary, and important, in the development of children. BUT It’s not necessarily whether they succeed or fail (both are valuable experiences) it’s about the process. The process of setting a proper goal, working towards it, learning how to handle the result and moving forward. 

Thank you for reading. If you have a topic/idea you would like me to discuss or thoughts on the article please feel free to reach out to