Step by step

I have never paid much attention to professional tennis, that is until last weekend in a hotel room while waiting for my family to arrive. I also rarely watch TV, but this particular evening the TV was on, and scanning through the channels I landed on the Australian Open tennis tournament, where the 15th ranked woman in the world was taking on the top ranked woman. As I tuned in more closely I found I was captivated by the athleticism, strength, coordination, precision, and endurance these women put into their game. As number 15 slowly took command and ultimately beat number 1, I was even more intrigued. The next day, US tennis star Serena Williams took her place on the court and handily won her match – an important step in her quest to improve her world ranking after a series of injuries and starting a family. With my new found interest in women’s tennis I enjoyed cheering Serena on. Later, in the press conference, when asked about her somewhat unlikely victory, Serena said: “I set my goals, and I have worked toward achieving them step by step. I stayed focused on my goals and I never gave up.” And that, is the formula – for international professional tennis players, and for anyone reaching for a goal.

As we have explored the youth thriving indicator of intentional self-regulation (ISR), we have focused in on goal setting, management and achievement as one of the key forms of ISR. This is because having goals propels development. Think about it for a minute – when we set a goal, we also determine how we are going to reach that goal through deliberate choices that we make. The choices that we make, and our ability to stick to the choices is a self-regulatory process that propels as forward toward something.

Part of the 4-H Study of Youth Development conducted by Dr. Richard Lerner at Tufts University looked carefully at the process of goal setting, with the premise that youth who developed solid self-regulations skills would also be the youth who benefited most from being in programs like 4-H. This sounds a little circular because it sort of is: PYD theory is built on the idea that youth and their contexts have mutually beneficial interactions – youth gain from the 4-H program as much as the program gains from youth.

How about an example. I suspect we have all experienced the case of a young person with a great deal of potential and ability, who is well liked and fun to have around; someone you would love to see excel. This same young person, however, is inconsistent, sometimes not showing up for important gatherings without an explanation, or generally not stepping up in ways that other youth do, despite his or her expressed interest in being a leader. If the young person is not internally driven to make choices to be consistently engaged, then he or she will not fully benefit from leadership opportunities in 4-H. Likewise, 4-H will not benefit from having an engaged youth leader. One way to help increase self-regulation, and in this case consistent leadership engagement, is through step-by-step goal setting.

Dr. Lerner describes the SOC model of goal setting: Selection, Optimization, and Compensation.

Selection means choosing an appropriate goal from all the possible goals that one might have. Returning to the top of the international tennis rankings? Being part of a teen 4-H leadership program?

Optimization means making choices, determining strategies and seeking out resources to help you achieve that goal. If I really want to reach the goals I have for my dressage riding, then I have to choose to ride so many evenings a week and invest in coaching and training, and other activities that can help me reach my goal. Serena has to choose to get on the court daily, and our 4-H teen leader has to choose to participate fully in opportunities to build leadership skills.

Compensation happens when goals are blocked, when a strategy or choice doesn’t work and movement to toward the goal is no longer possible in the planned way. What matters here is that we don’t quit, but that we reorient and modify our goals in a way that lets us move forward. Let’s say our 4-H member’s goal was to be selected for the statewide ambassador team, but his or her name is not on the list when the team members are announced. Should the young person give up? Or?

Helping youth select goals, determine the steps and strategies to achieve them, and guiding them through steps of compensation when their goals are blocked are key ways that we can help develop self-regulation in youth. Who has an example of how you have helped a young person through the SOC process? Please share in the comments. Real stories help bring the 4-H Thriving Model to life for all of us.

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

One thought on “On Setting and Achieving Goals

  1. Your vignettes exploring each facet of the thriving model is inspirational. Your blog should be published in a daily devotional book for The youth development professional. I suppose the blog is just that and I’m showing my age for paper bound reading.

    Reply

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