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Four Keys to Help Your Child Set Healthy and Realistic Goals

By Sean Jensen, SportsEngine, 01/15/19, 4:45PM CST

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Coaches, mentors and parents should steer the child’s focus away from the end result and toward the process

“If you think in positive terms, you get positive results. If you think in negative terms, you get negative results."


Charles Tillman exceeded his boyhood dreams in part because he set goals for himself then created a plan to achieve them. Getty Images/Courtesy photo

Charles Tillman achieved his bold childhood dream when he was selected by the Chicago Bears in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft. Then Tillman exceeded that dream: He played 13 NFL seasons and earned two Super Bowl and Pro Bowl appearances.

But the original dream was at a crossroad during his junior year at Copperas Cove High School in Texas. He missed most of his football season with a hip injury, he skipped a track meet, failed a class and stunningly learned his parents were getting a divorce.

This isn’t where Tillman expected to be.

So heading into senior year, Tillman jotted down his goals.

  • Earn As & Bs
  • Make the playoffs in football and basketball
  • Make it to state in track

Tillman shared his goal-setting experience in his children’s book, “The Middle School Rules of Charles 'Peanut' Tillman.” He posted the goals next to his bed, so he would see them before he went to bed and as soon as he awoke the next morning.

“Once I set a goal, now I have to make a plan,” Tillman says.

The goals were lofty. He was a good student, though he didn’t consistently apply himself. His football team played in the largest football conference in Texas and hadn’t been to the playoffs in 38 years and, as a junior, he earned a spot on the JV basketball team before he quit.

He did all those things and only needed to achieve one final goal: Make the state track meet. But Tillman missed qualifying in the triple jump by four inches.

“That still bugs me,” Tillman says in the book.

The final message Tillman conveys to anyone who reads his book is a quote from one of his favorite books, “The Strangest Secret,” by Earl Nightingale.

“ ‘We become what we think about,’ ” he says, quoting Nightingale. “If you think in positive terms, you get positive results. If you think in negative terms, you get negative results. Your mind will often return what you plant, good or bad. I decided to plant good.”

Here are four keys to helping your child set healthy and realistic goals:


Michael Phelps/Getty Images

Think big

Michael Phelps wasn’t afraid of hard work, and he wasn’t afraid to set his sights high. How else do explain his remarkable career, which officially ended in August 2016 with an Olympic record of 28 medals, including 23 gold? Phelps, in fact, has more medals than 161 countries. “I think goals should never be easy,” Phelps said. “They should force you to work, even if they are uncomfortable at the time.”

Despite not getting any interest from colleges as a junior, Tillman committed to playing his best football during his senior year. His athleticism and attitude earned him a single scholarship offer, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The football team didn’t thrive on the field, with Tillman winning just nine games in four college seasons. But he finished with 12 career interceptions and compelled the Bears to select him with the 35th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.


Bradie Tennell/Getty Images

START SMALL 

Tillman said one of the reasons for his success was recognizing that his goals weren’t achieved overnight. He noted the importance of eating healthy, lifting weights, skipping rope and avoiding alcohol and drugs to keep him on the right path.

For instance, eating whole-grain cereal and skim milk one morning will barely make a difference if one decides to have two cheeseburgers for lunch, or pancakes with butter and syrup the remainder of the week.

Consistent choices become ingrained habits.

As a little girl, Bradie Tennell headed to the rink to practice as often as her mother could afford and allow. To this day the Olympic bronze medallist and reigning U.S. women’s champion only takes Sundays off.

“When I was younger, I trained 2 1/2 to 3 hours every day,” Tennell said. “But not nearly as intense as it is now.”


Gary Hall Jr. (left) and Gary Hall Sr. Getty Images

Write it down

Like Tillman, Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Sr. benefited from written goals. Unlike Tillman, though, Hall didn’t have a choice.

“When I was 16 years old, training for my first Olympic Games, my coach wrote all of my goal times down on the top of the kick-board I was using every day in practice,” Hall recalled in “The Champion’s Mind.” “I couldn’t escape them. But the result, after executing the plan, was that I made the Olympic team.”

Hall, a three-time Olympic medalist, also helped influence his son, Gary Hall Jr., a 10-time Olympic medalist, including five golds.

Writer Bill Copeland pointed to the problems of not having a clear goal.

“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score,” he said.


Brenda Martinez/Getty Images

Focus on the process

Children often utter goals without fully understanding how daunting they are to achieve. That’s understandable, since they do not have the benefit of perspective. But to that end, it’s important that coaches, mentors and parents help steer the child’s focus away from the end result or destination — Super Bowl ring, 2028 Los Angeles Olympics — and toward the process.

A fixation on external rewards can result in temptation to cheat or sacrifice integrity. Besides, the reality is that many factors are not in a person’s control. At the United States Track and Field Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Brenda Martinez looked set to quality for the 2016 Rio Olympics in her top event, the 800-meter run. But with 100 meters to go, a runner behind fell into her and knocked her off balance. Martinez regained her footing but lost her positioning and, ultimately, an Olympic spot.

“The track doesn’t care about your feelings,” she told reporters afterwards. “You’ve just got to move forward.”

So Martinez, who was looking to qualify for her first Olympics, switched her attention to the 1,500-meter run. Days later, Martinez earned the third and final Olympic spot by three one-hundredths of a second.

“I just quickly let go of what happened in the 800-meter and got back to my routine, to focusing on all the little things I could do that would give me the best chance of running well later in the week,” she told New York magazine.

Tennell said she doesn’t concern herself with her competition or medals.

“If I say, ‘I want to win.’ Well, it’s a subjective sport. I can’t control what the judges see, if someone else skates clean,” Tennell said. “Why would I worry about that? So I control what I can control, focus on performing the way I practice.”

So instead of training to be a gold medalist, an aspiring athlete can train like an Olympian, making the daily choices and creating the habits to maximize one’s mind and body.

About Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen was born in South Korea, but he was raised in California, Massachusetts and Virginia, mostly on or near military bases. Given his unique background, he's always been drawn to storytelling, a skill he developed at Northwestern University and crafted for the last 16 years, almost exclusively covering the NFL. Sean lives in a Minneapolis suburb with his wife, two children and dog. Read more

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