Help Young Athletes Set Goals in Sports

By Dr. Patrick Cohn

Too often, sports parents set goals for their kids that are different than the kids’ goals. It’s important to help sports kids identify their own goals and then help them follow through on them.

Says Dony Wilcher, a popular basketball coach in Portland, Ore., “I had one parent who wanted the world for his child. He went out of his way to get him the right shoes and send him to the best camps. At the end of it all, he was perplexed that the kid was not a superstar. In some cases, kids will veer away from the sport altogether if the parents’ goals are different than theirs.”

At first, many sports kids generally want to play to have fun and be with friends. At that point, that’s their goal. It’s not necessary for parents to set goals with them. Adults want to structure the sports experience for kids. They can take the fun out of a simple pick up game in the back yard.

When sports kids begin to be competitive—when they play in tournaments or join competitive teams—it’s time to begin talking about their goals. This might be appropriate for some children as young as 7 or 8—if they display unusual talent and motivation.

For example, at, we worked with one 8-year-old motocross racer who spent four hours per day training. It would be appropriate to talk about goals with a child who competes at the national level.

When you’re talking with your young athlete, begin with a broad, open-ended question.

If, for example. your child’s goal is to try out for and make his or her high school basketball team, that’s the long-term goal. Ask the child what he or she needs to do to make the team.

Evaluate his or her skills in dribbling, free-throw shooting, and defense, for example. Try to de-emphasize the long-term goal of making the team. When young athletes are too preoccupied with making the team, they may impose too many expectations on themselves and undermine their confidence.

Instead, parents should help young athletes identify smaller, shorter-term goals, such as improving their free-throw shooting.

Once you’ve helped your young athletes identify their goals, it’s your job to help them follow through on them. The parents, coaches and athletes need to work as a team.

Parents should support their kids by driving them to practices, cheering them on, and finding ways to ensure they are able to follow through on their commitments.

However, it’s critical to be flexible. Parents should help kids modify their goals on a weekly or monthly basis.

Award winning parenting writer Lisa Cohn and Youth Sports Psychology expert Dr. Patrick Cohn are co-founders of The Ultimate Sports Parent. Pick up their free e-book, “Ten Tips to Improve Confidence and Success in Young Athletes” by visiting

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