Parenting a goal setting child

Goals can be really frustrating. At Gymfinity we encourage our team kids to develop their own goals and at optional levels we even require it. We set annual goals, off-season goals and in-season goals.  But, to be sure, there will be difficult patches with any goal setting program. I have written before (November 2013) about how to set goals, and maybe that post is worth revisiting. (See it here).

First problem:  Parent’s set the goals. Often parents want to help their children set goals and they end up being the parent’s goal. This is a problem because the child doesn’t end up with ownership of their own goals.  Parents are trying to be helpful but end up ruining the potential  learning that developing goals can provide.  With especially younger children the parents do need to be involved but need to function more as a guide. Asking questions about what the child wants to accomplish are a vital tool to help develop goal-oriented-thinking.  Questions like : What skill do you want to learn next? Or When do you want to move to the next level? Questions that are open ended and allow kids to come up with their own answers are best.

Starting with broad questions can set farther, long term, goals and long term goals are the way to start. If my goal was to complete a marathon, for example, the deadline might be the event date. Smaller goals can be built off of the long-term goal: what date will I be able to run 15 miles, 5 miles, 1 mile. What times and distances do I need to record a  10 minute mile. I set those smaller goals in relation to the larger one.

Second problem: Letting slow goals move us backward. Goals that don’t seem to be close to achieving can have the negative consequence of being frustrating; sometimes to the point of causing a child to  give up. We tell children that a goal is like a signpost on the side of the road. It sets a direction. When you move toward your goal you are achieving what the goal was intended to do, to progress you. If the goal is not achieved, or the signpost reached, then we have to evaluate whether that was the correct post to work toward. If it’s not then pick another signpost and begin the work again. If it was the correct post then we need to evaluate whether our goal was too lofty, or if we needed to change our small sub goals to make the larger goal more achievable. Or maybe the deadline was too short and all we need is an extension. In any case re-evaluation of a goal is not failure; it is fine tuning.

The frustration comes when the child feels that they are not making progress. Kids are quick to identify themselves as failing because they are so susceptible to the pressures of the outside world. Having a winning team, placing first, beating a time or other goals set outside the child can be detrimental to the child feeling successful on their own goals.

Third Problem: Goals are not set and forget.  As the child-athlete works toward achieving their goals there is a deep need for frequent reinforcement from an adult. A progressive minded coach will be happy to comment on goal progress if you let them in on the over-all goal program. A comment from a trusted coach can mean the difference between successful persistence or frustrated failure.  As a parent, we too need to occasionally check in with our little athletes. We can ask questions following a game or competition about how the performance helped move toward a goal, or how it may help in defining a better direction: either way, it helped, right?  This also allows us to reinforce character: “Maybe you did have 2 falls on beam, but I know you worked hard, and you are not the type of person to give up. I know you will work at making that routine better next time. What do you think you can do to make it better?” That question , or series of questions and statements, hits on many fronts: “Maybe you did have 2 falls on beam…” shows that reality is acceptable, and it’s OK. “…I know you worked hard, …”  lets them know that you value the effort. “… I know you worked hard, and you are not the type of person to give up , I know you will work at making that routine better next time…” lets them know that you believe in them and that life is a work in progress. It also tells them that there are still expectations moving forward and those expectations don’t include giving up. Lastly,  “… What do you think you can do to make it better?” Simply puts the ball back in their court and allows them to develop a new, or redirect a previous goal.

We should help them evaluate their own progress occasionally, but need to be aware that doing it too frequently can seem overbearing and can, again, deliver the opposite of what we desire. A perfect learning opportunity is to  time those evaluative questions after an event like a show, or meet because they are built in evaluations and just can help us with the process.

There may be times when the child feels that extra help is needed, or the opposite, rest may be the best plan of action. As a coach I can tell you that I have seen so many kids fail because they were never given the option of constructive recovery as a plan for getting nearer to a goal. When a child is also a high level athlete there has to be time built in for rest for the body, mind and heart. Having scheduled times when a child can be a child are paramount to building success.  Muscles need to rest and recover, and there has to be a time to switch off the pressure. We find, as adults, that a periodic vacation is needed to keep us productive at work. Why then, do we not consider it’s value for a child with something that can be laborious to them?

(Potential) Fourth Problem: Don’t forget to celebrate. Forward progress is essential but achievement needs to be celebrated. Often times when a team member achieves a goal we celebrate by saying “good job” high five them and ask “OK, what’s next?” That is not celebratory enough. When a goal is achieved we should ring the bell, toot the horn, post a sign, have a party or in some way demonstrate that achievement is worthy of celebration.  That final goal is of course important but the journey to achievement was paved with smaller successes, and failures, and should not be overlooked. Every time a step is taken toward the signpost of our goals we need to feel that the positive result was rewarded.  A series of celebrations reinforces that they should keep working and keep an eye on that next victory.

I remember once when my mother pulled out a note I wrote that said “Mom, I want to go to open gym on Saturday at the high school because I really want to get my back handspring. ” She showed it to me after a long summer of working on skills and training hard while my friends had summer off.  I had learned more than a back handspring that summer and though I didn’t have formal written goals, I did (often) tell everyone what I intended to do. She showed me the note and asked me if I remember when I thought that all I wanted was one skill. She pointed out that through hard work and determination I did what I said I would do.  I didn’t even realize that I had achieved a goal and even surpassed it.  Then, we got ice cream. That celebration was great, but pointing out that I won was even more important.  She was not one to “helicopter” us but she made it known that she was paying  attention.  From years later, looking back, I have to say “Nicely done Mom.”



  1. Mark Folger on May 21, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Great post. Goals are a critical component of maintaining motivation. Whether formal or informal, written or just thought, our children base their success (or failure) on whether they achieved their goal. Success or failure is based on whether the child made it to where they wanted to go. Many times its not skill that is the determining factor in that success/failure, but the road map (progressive goals). Teaching good goal setting skills is one of the greatest gifts a coach can give their athletes. Those gifts are skills that last a lifetime and apply to all areas of their life. If we, as coaches, want to have a long-term impact on our athletes lives, this is opportunity we can’t pass up.

    Mark Folger

    • Gymfinity on May 21, 2014 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks Mark, you couldn’t be more right. I have always felt that goal setting and goal work is dynamic. We need to reassess them periodically to be sure we are headed the right way.

Leave a Comment