The young girl sitting across the table from me in our goal setting session was as spirited as usual. She looked familiarly determined, but her courage seemed to falter as she contemplated something. She placed the pen on the worksheet to write her goal, picked it up, placed it down, picked it up… then eventually asked what proved to be a very poignant question:

Can I just name a general [race] series that I’d like to win instead of naming the specific event? 

Why do you prefer not to be specific about the event you want to win?” I ask.

Well–” she started, but stopped abruptly and glanced at her teammates sitting beside her, deliberating as to whether or not to continue.

I interrupted her silent reverie in hopes of breaking the ice on a conversation that athletes aren’t “supposed” to have, since we are always meant to be tough and confident.

It’s scary to set specific goals, isn’t it?” I ask.

Yes.” She replied, all of her teammates nodding their heads in agreement. “What if I don’t achieve that specific goal?

Tightrope Walking

Imagine I laid a line of tape on the floor and asked you to walk across it. Would you do so confidently? I bet you would. Now imagine the same width tightrope, but it’s 30 feet off the ground; would you walk across it with the same blatant disregard for the ground as you did before? Perhaps… but most likely not.

Specific goals are a tightrope walk. The girls considered this metaphor for setting specific goals and the impact of putting their specific goal out there in the world. Their fears around specific goal setting were altogether heartbreaking and insightful: Setting specific goals is scary. Suddenly you’re accountable for a whole lot more than you might have bargained for. Your focus and commitment to the task must increase exponentially because, metaphorically, hitting the ground is gonna hurt a whole lot more from up there. The “ground” for these intrepid young ladies came in the form of fear of failure.

Failure / ˈfālyər/ n. : the omission of expected or required action.

If they were to fail at their specific goals, they would disappoint their coaches, their families, their friends, and ultimately, themselves. If they were to leave their goals as vague as possible, no one else would know if they hit their mark, they could choose to do what’s easy instead of what supports their goals, and they wouldn’t have to feel accountable for their greatest hopes and dreams. What if I don’t achieve my specific goal? What then? Who am I then?


You’ve set your goal, you’ve made a plan to achieve that goal, you’re on your way. Then, something goes wrong, and then another, then another, until you start to feel like you can’t move. You can’t breathe because you’re in over your head, just like quicksand. As I shared these words with the girls, they again nodded in agreement. I watched as they began to understand that this as is a universal experience instead of a solitary and isolating one.

Failure… Failure. This is a word everyone I know, athlete or otherwise, has mulled over at some point. Seven letters that are substantial and painful for many of us.

Did I fail at my sport? As a friend? A boyfriend or girlfriend? A spouse? A sibling? A student? A parent? A coach? The list of things we beat ourselves up for “failing” at is generally long and scrupulous. So how might we go about walking our own tightrope and avoid that quicksand with a sense of confidence?

Goal setting can help.

Spunky adjective \ˈspəŋ-kē\: Full of spirit, courage, and determination.!

SPECIFIC – Set specific and measurable goals that you know if you’ve achieved.

POSITIVE AND PRESENT – Say your goal like you are already doing it

UNDER YOUR CONTROL – What can you control in the process?

NOTIFY SOMEONE – Let trusted confidants hold you accountable

KEEP REVISING – Goals evolve, so evolve with them!

YOU GOT THIS!! – Positive self talk is a great supporter of success!

One last thing lay under the surface for my group of goal-setting young ladies. Their homework was to “N”otify someone of the goal they wrote on their worksheet.

Who do you notify? Who is in your corner and willing to fight the good fight with you?

They feared that telling their teammates would make them seem cocky and upset their teammates. They feared telling their family would place a burden on them so they MUST achieve their goals. They feared that telling their coaches would make their coaches think the girls were unrealistic and silly.

So who do you notify?

In a world where cyber bullying and Insta-fame are flagrantly and superficially running rampant, it certainly seems scary to me to share my greatest hopes and dreams for fear of being judged swiftly and harshly. So whom do you notify? Well, here’s some food for thought:


Fail big or small. It is inevitable, so don’t be afraid of it. Chase your goals with miles and miles of heart so when you fail, you know you tried so hard and cared so deeply and that’s why it hurts so badly. You will learn from it and I can almost guarantee you that someone will find you in that hole you crawled into after failing with two flashlights. Your support person will help you revise your goals into action-oriented, positive goals so you can find your way out. Those people who crawl in that hole and say, “You gave it your all and that was a great game, and it’s not over yet,” are the ones you notify.

Set big, specific, scary goals and go for them with heart. You will inevitably “fail” at something along the way, but that does not define you as a failure. Instead, let it inform how you choose to move forward in pursuit of the next goal by making you smarter and stronger. When you failed at a goal, big or small, take a look to see who’s still around, take a look at how you can revise your goals, and how to remain positive. You can do it because you have the heart and the vision and you’ve wisely stacked your deck with these crazy wildcards we call friends, family, teammates, coaches, and confidants.

– Kirsten Cooper –