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An Important Message for all Parents

By Shaun Hathaway, 01/15/20, 11:00AM MST


Setting Goals and Limiting Expectation to Fuel Passion

Strategies to Foster Success in Athletics and Life 

Dreams are the fuel to ignite passion, and passion is the foundation for setting goals, not expectations. According to Dr. Jim Taylor, an internationally recognized authority in sports and parenting psychology, goals are possible accomplishments that may or may not be achieved; expectations are assumptions of achievement. John O’Sullivan, the founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project, defines two types of goals. Process goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Forward moving goals are hard to measure, at times not very specific, and are rarely timely, but are crucial to energize children and allow them to dream big.

Without process goals, forward moving goals are rarely achieved. Aspen Junior Hockey provides a structured curriculum with process goals embedded as a part of the of player development plan. Once players are able to take ownership of their process goals, forward moving goals and dreams take shape. Parents should allow coaches and sport administrators to shape process goals, support forward moving goals, and encourage their players to dream without expectations.

Parental expectations of success removes forward moving goals and dreams from the equation, adds a tremendous burden on children, and can have a detrimental effect on both confidence and passion. Instead of expectations, parents should simply encourage their kids to have fun, and dream about undiscovered possibilities. The key is for parents to separate their dreams from their child’s. Driven by thoughts of a college scholarship or a professional contract, many parents live their own dreams of stardom through their kids. These parental dreams usually manifest in expectations of development and performance, which has negative or fatal consequences for youth sport participants.

Parents should avoid placing expectations on development and performance, allow the experts within the organization to manage the process, and simply encourage effort instead of focusing on outcomes. In 2011, an important study by Knight, Neely and Holt examined adolescent female athletes’ preferred parental behaviors at team sport events. Their results revealed that prior to competition kids appreciated parental help in preparing to play by providing proper nutrition, however the young athletes preferred not to talk about the upcoming performance.

During competition kids preferred that their parents encourage the entire team, focus on effort not outcome, control their emotions, avoid coaching, and refrain from arguing with officials. After competition, kids preferred their parents to provide positively phrased and honest feedback, while allowing time to process negative emotions independently. Focusing on behaviors and attributes that children directly control like effort and hard work is very important in youth sport development.

Avoiding judgment and pressure helps kids take ownership for their sport experiences. Research supports that simply telling their children that “I love to watch you play” is a powerful strategy to instill passion and self-drive. Non-verbal communication is also a powerful tool to display encouragement and positive support. Being an attentive silent listener is often the best strategy to encourage young athletes, even if you know exactly what is needed to improve performance. Always providing children advice to solve problems is not listening, and can actually hinder the process of developing creativity, intrinsic motivation and self-determination, which are necessary ingredients for athletic success.

Outside of formal practices and competition, parents should expose their kids to elite games either live or on television. Watching junior, college or professional hockey games provides children an opportunity to dream big by recreating highlight moments and discovering heroes. Dr. William Gayton, a sports psychologist at the University of Southern Maine, argues that observational leaning is one of the primary avenues for children to learn, and that sports heroes will help model behavior.

Together youth sport organizations and parents have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to teach kids the tools necessary to achieve success in life beyond sports. When executed properly, process goals and forward moving goals create opportunities for kids to dream big. Keeping the process of development in perspective, and allowing young athletes to take ownership will help ignite and burn the flames of passion. When we develop a deep passion for an activity or lifestyle, we increase the chances to turn dreams into reality.