My family moved from Massachusetts to Palo Alto, California the summer before I began first grade. There were a lot of cool new things to enjoy after the move, like the beach and the three crazy older boys who lived around the corner, but Stanford University, which was a mile from our house, became my greatest discovery.
Just after I started elementary school that Fall, my dad took me to a Stanford football game. It was the first time I had ever been to a stadium and I remember clinging to his belt as we shuffled along with scores of fans through the entry gates. When we settled into our seats, the players began to take the field for warm ups and I was mesmerized right away. As the teams played, the crowd’s thundering chorus rewarded the on-field heroics and the sounds shook my rib cage, which left me thrilled.
I thought to myself, “this is it, this is what I want to be and where I want to play one day.” Even though I didn’t understand the concept at that moment, a goal was set and, subsequently, my adolescent years were spent striving to achieve it.
If you’ve read any kind of self-development material, you’ve no doubt heard the acronym SMART, as in goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound. This is a very sensible guideline, but when discussing goals with children, these steps are a bit too corporate. Was it realistic or achievable for me as a 6-year-old to set the goal of playing Division I college football at a school like Stanford? No one could possibly have known the answer to that.
Kids between the ages of 6-years-old and 12-years-old tend to dream big, but naturally lack goal setting skills necessary to chase down those visions. The elementary school years are an excellent time to start showing children how to set goals and take steps to achieve them. By the time kids become teens, goal setting ability can begin to impact results that shape their future options for advanced education and job opportunities down the line.
I’m going to share four coaching steps that help adolescents set effective goals, but before I breakdown those down for you, the following two principles are important to bear in mind.
Principle #1: The journey is always worth it. Please try not to worry about a monumental let down in their future, if they don’t achieve the goal. What youngsters learn along the way about themselves and their internal resources is priceless. Goals teach qualities such as commitment, grit, work ethic, and courage. They also engender a sense of control of the future and create purpose, which is a huge boost to self-confidence.
Principle #2: Slow starts are common. I wanted to be a collegiate football player and when I finally had a chance to play full contact football in the sixth grade, I stunk. My coached benched me for poor play during my first game. No one has to be a star right away, though our culture believes you do. All competencies and skills are subject to vast improvement over time, whether they are intellectual, musical, athletic, artistic, etc.
I often hear parents and coaches say, “make that a goal,” after a child shares something they want to achieve. But so often it’s left as a directive with no guidance. Goals are a process to teach and guide over time as described the following four steps.
Coaching steps for kids setting goals:
- Have them write the goals down. This simple process moves children from dreaming to intention. Post the goal on the inside of their bedroom door –this keeps it top of mind.
- Help create steps to take. Kids need help determining what steps to take on their way to reaching a goal. Remember, it takes a whole bunch of small steps to realize a big goal. Break those down, make your child a part of the process and map out a path with them.
- Teach and reinforce good habits. A goal is nothing without the habits to support it and kids will need plenty of coaching in this area. My dad gave me biographies of the athletes he knew were my heroes, such as NFL superstars Walter Payton and Herschel Walker, to help influence my habits. Their personal stories shared details about daily routines and the work they put into reaching their achievements. Proper sleep, healthy eating, a nightly study period, and intense physical conditioning were some of the habits Walter and Herschel discussed that I adopted on my way to playing football in college and there is no way I could have achieved that goal without them.
- Prepare for obstacles. There will be roadblocks and failures. Please don’t protect your kids from those hardships, just help them rebound, explore options and continue to move forward. Resilience is the “secret” to most of the success stories you hear about.
Goals take work and nothing happens without consistent action and the occasional bold move. Kids are certainly susceptible to stress and most will feel a bit exposed when reaching for achievement of any kind. They will need help managing their emotions and fear throughout the journey. The development of internal resources that empower them move past those trying moments is what makes this process so incredibly valuable.
Choose a step to implement in the next week and tell me about it. I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.