Taking Aim

Whether You’re Just Starting Out Or After Something Bigger, Setting Goals Is An Important Part Of Every Player’s Game
Greg Bates


It wasn't until a breakout senior season at the University of Minnesota Duluth that John Harrington knew he had a legitimate shot at making the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team.

Harrington had set a long-term goal of making the squad. Every day, the 22-year-old worked hard to show coach Herb Brooks and his staff he could be a part of something special. Lo and behold, Harrington made the team and helped it achieve greatness on the biggest stage.

"I had certain goals. I more had aspirations and dreams of what I wanted to accomplish," said Harrington, who is now the head coach of the Minnesota State University-Mankato women's hockey team. "I think everybody should have those. You need to have something to shoot for or something to train for and something to be passionate about to give yourself the best opportunity."

The Drive To Be The Best

Whether it's a college-aged player trying out for a U.S. National Team or a 13-year-old kid trying to make his local travel team, setting goals should be an important part of  any hockey player's routine.

"The offseason is a great time to set some goals for you to get stronger, more explosive, quicker," said former Brown University men's hockey coach Roger Grillo. "Your training away from the rink is really, really critical, especially when you get to that 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and older age group."

Because each hockey player is different in their needs, desires and skill level, having an individual game plan is essential.

"What they need and how to attack it is not the same for each kid," said Grillo, who is a regional manager with USA Hockey's American Development Model. "If their stick skills are deficient, you're going to set goals for that. If their speed is deficient, you're going to set goals for that. If their strength is deficient, you're going to set goals for that.

"I think one of the mistakes we make here in the United States is a lot of the focus of our coaches, especially at the youth hockey level, is on the team and what the team's needs are. In reality, your job as a coach or somebody who's in charge of young athletes is making sure that you're attentive to the individual athletes within the team."

Seth Appert is a big proponent of having the athlete be the driving force behind a goal with the coach there to offer guidance. 

"Nobody gets incredibly inspired or wants to achieve something that somebody else is telling them they have to do," said Appert, a head coach at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. "They need help, they need direction and it needs to be realistic."

Tony Granato, the coach of the 2018 U.S. Olympic Men's Team as well as the head men's hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin, is all about having his players identify specific parts of their game they want to improve on and set goals accordingly.

"If it's improving your shot, OK, how are you going to do it? 'Well, I'm going to go out and shoot 50 pucks a day until I start to feel the progress and I start to feel more confident with my shooting,'" Granato said.

Setting Goals Properly

Dr. Colleen Hacker has been studying goal setting as it relates to athletes for a large chunk of her career. She notes that goal-setting is probably one of the strongest of all mental skills that have been studied and proven to be successful. However, results are only achieved if goals are set properly by athletes who follow through with them.

Hacker, who has served as a member of the U.S. staff for six Olympic Games as a mental skills coach and performance psychology specialist, stresses that athletes and coaches need to apply key principles when setting goals.

"You want to set smarter goals-the acronym S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals," Hacker said. "So, you need to be specific and measurable. They need to be action-orientated and observable. They need to be realistic, but difficult. They need to be time-sensitive. So, I'm going to do X that's observable, measurable, actionable and I'm going to specify the time, Monday, Wednesday and Friday of next week. Goals need to be evaluated, and you need to revisit them." 

Most coaches like to sit down with their players before the season and set goals, and then review those goals after the season. Hacker suggests to get the optimal value, goals should be revisited on a weekly basis. However, that can be time consuming, especially in season.

Hacker said that one common error that coaches and players do is set outcome goals. Those are goals such as: I want to be a starter. I want to be an All-American. I want to win a league championship.

"The literature shows that outcome goals are really common and are foremost in many people's minds, athletes and coaches, but you don't have control over those outcome goals," she said.  "We want to focus on process goals, on performance goals. Actions over which I have complete control."

The Right Type Of Goals

Granato drives home that fact with his players on an individual basis along with what he would like to see with team goals.

"We don't say, 'We have to get 25 wins this year or it's going to be a bad season,'" Granato said. "You've got to be careful because there's lots of variables and things you can't control over the full season that could affect that number."

Appert agreed. 

"I'm not a coach who loves goals that focus around statistics because I think there are so many factors and variables that go into that," he said. "I like more focus on what you want to become, you want to become something bigger within the year that you're playing. If you're a power forward, you want to be the best power forward on the team or in the league you're playing or in the country or in the world. That's not a statistic-driven thing; that's a habit-driven thing."

Setting goals should come in the form of the long- and short-term varieties.

"You have to have what you want to accomplish and see out there what you're trying to get to, but then you have to understand it takes steps to get there," Harrington said. "It's not one big leap, and it might be a step back once in a while. But I think if you go for the one big goal, you set yourself up for failure. 

"You've got to set mini goals and say, 'This is what I want to accomplish in hockey at this point in my career' and try to reach those steps so you can have success and go onto the next [goal]." 



Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wis.




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