When Children Set Aggressive Goals

Part of the I’Mpossible Run Club involves teaching children to set realistic goals.  Though everyone was timed for a mile run at the beginning of the session, many did not want to make their goal to run it faster.  We wanted the goal to be very personal so it could be a mile for time, or to run a half mile without stopping, finish a 5k or anything else that made sense for that child.  It was a very individualized goal.

But it was trickier then I thought.

The goal was for children to struggle a little bit but ultimately be successful

The goal was for children to struggle a little bit but ultimately be successful

One of our fastest runners is Nancy in third grade.  This girl not only has talent, but also works hard.  She is disciplined, enthusiastic, eager to learn and do the training … she is a Coach’s dream.  Except she wanted her goal to be a 6:00 minute mile while her fastest 5k mile was an 8:10 minute mile for a 25:25 finish.  There are nifty online calculators for pacing goals.  When I put Nancy’s info, it told me her mile goal time should be around 7:10.  So we had a little discrepancy.

Now, for the last eight weeks I had been telling Nancy that nothing is impossible, hard work pays off, if you believe it you can achieve it, and all sorts of wonderful positive things.  So now I had to tell her well, not everything is possible after all, and probably not a 6:00 minute mile.

We had a talk, I said:

“I believe there is a 6:00 minute mile in you.  But I am not sure you are there yet.”

In typical Nancy fashion, she just smiled and said, “I can do it.”

I thought she was setting herself up for a disappointment and I was not sure how to handle it so I called her mom.  She also thought 6:00 was too aggressive and said she would talk to Nancy that night.  I finally got this text:


6:55 was the best we could do.  More aggressive than what my calculator said, but probably doable given how she had been practicing.

Then there was my son Fearless. He said he wanted his mile goal to be 8:30 while he hasn’t run a 5k under 30:00 minutes ever, and that is a 10:00 minute mile.  But he is a shorter distance runner, so I knew he could run a mile faster than 10:00 minutes.  But not 8:30 fast.

I told him that it was fine, but to remember there was a chance he wouldn’t make it. In my mind I was protecting my son from a disappointment.  I didn’t want him to be left out and not earn his medal while his teammates did just because he set a goal I thought was too aggressive.  He immediately said “no, no, no … then let’ say under 10 but try for 8:30.”

That’s when I finally caught on.

Fearless was afraid failing, and I had something to do with it.  The whole thing felt wrong.  Why was I telling these kids their goals weren’t realistic? Wouldn’t it be better for them to aim high and miss, then not to aim far enough?  Hadn’t I been talking about empowerment and I’Mpossible for months?


I took a step back and asked Fearless:

“What is the worst that can happen if you don’t beat your time?”

“I don’t get my medal.”

“You don’t get your medal … that day.” I emphasized. I explained if he didn’t make it, he could try again and whenever he got it, he would earn his medal.

I told him “it’s better to set a goal that is a real challenge and fail, then to set one you know you can beat and beat it.”

I know my son. If he set his goal at under 10:00 he would push himself only as far as under 10.  If he set his goal to under 8:30 he will certainly run faster and push himself closer to an 8:30.

Race day came and 38 children showed up for the mile test. The energy was infectious.  Each child reiterated their goals to me and I wrote them down on my sheet to make it official.  Parents were responsible for timing their child, and two by two they set off.

Not sure how useful for my Kinder and 1st graders.

Not sure how useful for my Kinder and 1st graders.

A two loop course, we could see the monumental effort each child was putting on.  They passed by signs on the road and were cheered by their friends and families who had come to watch.  Every child ran faster than they told me they could.


Guess what times Nancy (6:55 goal) and Fearless (8:30 goal) got?

Nancy                     Fearless


Both were breathing hard and clearly had tried their very best.  Both were thrilled with their results which begs the question: had I not talked Nancy out of shooting for a 6:00, would she have run even faster?

Nancy getting her medal and probably thinking "I told you so"

Nancy getting her medal and rightfully thinking “I told you so”

Note to self: children are very much capable of setting their own goals.

27 thoughts on “When Children Set Aggressive Goals

  1. I am a Mom of 4. Three are athletes. My oldest is a D1 track athlete so you can imagine how the rest are… I wish when she was younger she had a coach like yours with realistic goals. Always too much pressure. My youngest on a travel lax tea $$$$ ..so I find myself stopping before I speak to not force more pressure. So impressed with the childrens times .. they should be quite proud

  2. It is so important to let kids have their goals but let them know how to get the steps. I loved that the kids were okay if they didn’t reach them but they were able to crush them!

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