Before each game, usually while I am making the line-up, I come up with goals for that game. You might wonder, “Goals…the goal is obvious – win the game”. If you believe that, you need to stop reading this and go back to reading about my youth recreational sports philosophy. Back? Good, that means you agree that winning games is not the most important thing in youth sports. It’s not just me, though…many youth sports advocates also believe this way (see Dr. Jennifer Etnier, Jerry Lynch, Mike Matheny, among others). Besides, after a game, you don’t need to go over whether you won or lost the game with the team. In just about every case, the players know who scored the most – and in many cases, there’s a scoreboard that shows the result. What I like to do is highlight how we did against our own goals for the game. In this way, we compare the team to ourselves and have something to say (often positive) regardless of the opponent and the win/loss outcome.
Lately, I have been coaching my niece’s 11-and-under baseball team. Record-wise, the team wasn’t winning many games. However, I was able to note improvement as we started setting goals for each game. As the team achieved progressively more difficult goals, they realized they were getting better – a great confidence boost given all the losing that had been occurring. Interestingly, when the team did win their first game, they didn’t achieve any of the goals we had set for the game. This highlights how sports work, though, right? You can have a great game, improving on your previous performances, achieve all the goals for the game…and lose. Or, you could have a poor game, not achieve any of the pregame goals, and still win the game.
The key, for me, is to continue to set goals prior to each game in order to focus the athletes on the outcomes I am most interested in seeing the players achieve. The best practice with the goals is to tie them to executing the fundamentals of the game. For instance, in youth baseball, I often have a goal pertaining to the number of strikeouts looking. In youth baseball, we want the players to swing the bat…especially if there are two strikes and the ball is close. I tell the players to never put it in the hands of the umpire to call them out. If it’s close, SWING. If we go down swinging, that’s fine; but don’t strike out looking. I will have established this mindset and expectation during practice. In fact, we might have a drill during batting practice where we start the count at 0 and 2. If the players don’t swing at the next pitch (so long as it wasn’t clearly a ball), I correct the behavior and remind them of my expectation.
I let the players grow into the goals. So, perhaps for the first game of the season, we will set the goal for the game at ‘No more than two strikeouts looking’. When this gets too easy, say after a game or two when this goal is met; we modify the goal to one or zero strikeouts looking. In this manner, by the end of the season we are able to compare what our goals are for the last game to what they were at the beginning and, hopefully (it has been the case in every season I’ve coached), show how the players have improved throughout the season. Sometimes, as with the strikeouts looking goal, we might not even have that as a goal at the end of the season because we will have gotten so good at not looking at third strikes that we have moved onto other goals.
What might goals look like in other sports?
- Flag Football: at least one three-and-out series on defense; at least three first downs on offense; no beat deeps (meaning our safeties don’t let a receiver catch a pass behind them)
- Volleyball: at least three plays where we execute bump-set-spike; no more than three serves into the net; zero balls that fall in between players
- Basketball: every player takes at least one shot (in some leagues this is a rule – one I like, by the way); at least five rebounds; only one traveling violation
Three is not necessarily a magic number for goals, but I do typically have three goals per game. You can see that executing these goals would contribute to winning, whether the team actually wins or not. I encourage all youth recreational sports coaches to set goals prior to each game.