Setting Goals

While there are many benefits available from youth sports, such as fun and fitness, youth sports have their greatest long-term rewards – for coaches, parents and athletes alike – by serving as a framework for teaching youth life lessons.

What lessons can be more important for an aspiring athlete than the lessons of how to set, pursue and achieve goals…and how to react when you fall short?

Because those lessons are so important, and because goal-setting is so naturally built into competition, Responsible Coaches set goals for themselves, their teams and each player. Furthermore, Responsible Coaches set the right goals, pursue them in the right way and help youth athletes do the same.

Everyone wants to win, and that is certainly an important goal for many coaches, but it should not be the only goal. Responsible Coaches embrace the idea that coaches have two goals: winning on the field and winning off-the-field by learning life lessons from sports.

Setting Goals

At the beginning of the season, Responsible Coaches gather their team to discuss and set goals.  Consider an exercise where each player, individually, writes down on an index card what their goals are for the team for the season.  The write everyone’s responses on the board and get to a concise list that everyone agrees will be the team goals for the season.  Then take time to work with your athletes one-on-one to set goals for each player for the season.  Do they want to master a new skill and need your help with that?  Do they want to work on being a better teammate?  Make sure as the Coach you know what your athletes want to accomplish.

As the leader and coach of the team, add your own and talk about why you have the goals you do for the team. A key goal for Responsible Coaches is Effort.  You want your athletes to give 100% effort, 100% of the time.  It’s one of the three pillars of a Mastery Approach for your team.  (More on this in our Mastery Approach article).  

An example of an effort goal you can set for your team or for individual players is to win a majority of “50-50 balls” (or pucks or pins etc.). Or, to remove “winning” from the equation entirely, set the goal as “maximum effort” on such plays, and make sure you or your assistant coaches pay close enough attention to assess your players’ level of effort. If you can tie an effort goal (“try”) to an outcome goal (“win”), then players gain extra encouragement as they achieve the effort goals and at least move toward achieving the desired outcome goals, as well.

Remember: Goals should be those that athletes can accomplish and are within their control.  Winning is not a goal for a team’s season since reaching that goal is outside of your collective control and is dependent upon the quality of opponents, officiating, weather, etc.  Responsible Coaches stick to goals where the outcome is within the team’s control.

Pursuing Goals

One way to manage the pursuit of goals is to keep in mind the equation S=E/T (Success Equals Effort Over Time). It is important to establish that with youth athletes who are just learning a skill or attempting a major improvement so that they will maintain the level of effort required – even in the face of poor early results – until they achieve some success.

“Over time” is a key concept. Just as players require repetition to learn how to execute, Responsible Coaches must consistently repeat positive reinforcement. That way, the player fully believes the coach values effort more than results and the player feels free to adopt the same values.

Along the way, one key is to reward unsuccessful effort. That strikes many as counterintuitive. But it is essential to keeping players persistent. What else would keep players pushing toward improvement despite the physical, mental and emotional challenges of repeated failed efforts?

A Responsible Coach who sees players trying hard, yet failing to make the play, can reinforce their effort by noticing out loud how hard they were trying: “Danny, it still didn’t end up the way we wanted, but I saw how intent you were on technique. Your feet were planted just right. I know the results will come over time.”

Another way to reinforce effort is through a targeted, symbolic reward . After a practice or game you can honor players for making the desired efforts. For example, you might give the “dirty shirt award” to the player showing the most hustle.

It’s important that this award has no great value beyond symbolizing the player’s effort. That keeps the player focused on the value of the effort itself, as opposed to the award’s monetary value. Even if the player never achieves the desired result you pursued together, he or she will have the lasting life lesson of the value of effort and a tangible reminder of the coach who imparted that life lesson.

Achieving Goals...or Not

It is one of the greatest feelings in the world to work hard and achieve a goal. It can be a horrible feeling to work hard and fall short. However, if the effort was everything it should have been and could have been, there should be no regrets.

A great way to help your athletes experience and process this range of emotions is to establish intermediate goals en route to a major long-term goal. That way there are bound to be successes (to be celebrated so the athlete is inspired to work hard enough to earn the chance to celebrate achieving the next intermediate goal) and failures (to be learned from so the athlete can continue the quest).

Both situations translate to the rest of the athlete’s life – in school, career and personal relationships -- where he or she undoubtedly will continue to experience both victory and defeat. Sports as experienced with a Responsible Coach will teach youth how to handle both victory and defeat graciously, and perhaps most importantly will teach the lasting life lesson that regardless of results, hard work is its own reward.


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In an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches, this article is among a series created exclusively for partners in the Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports Program powered by Positive Coaching Alliance.

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