There's an adult skater at our rink-- she's droll, adventurous, skeptical and doesn't take herself too seriously, all rare and wonderful traits for adult skaters. (As a breed, we tend to be wound a little tight.) She and her coach were talking about how to improve her standings in competition. "We're learning to play the game," she told me. "I've been thinking too much about improving the skating and the choreography."
Huh? Last year, skating at ISI Adult Nationals in the Light Entertainment category, she put together a skill-packed routine and lost to skaters with, so to speak, no chops but clever props. She had the wrong goal (improve her skating skills) for the outcome she was trying to achieve (win at Light Entertainment). She fixed the wrong thing. So she and her coach restrategized and came up with a new plan to reach the goal.
I'm a big believer Robert Brownings' axiom (a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?), in other words, don't set your goals too low, or if you set a minimal goal, have a new one ready when you achieve it. When I started skating, all I wanted to be able to do was cross rolls. I just thought they were so cool, and so difficult I couldn't conceive ever being able to do them. I got there pretty fast; they weren't so hard after all. But it really energized me; I thought, wow if I can do that, what else can I achieve? Four USFS tests and a PSA Senior rating later, well, a lot. I can achieve a lot.
You need to be realistic. But not too realistic. A 7 or 9 year old beginner can reasonably say "I want to skate at the Olympics!" A 16-year old beginner cannot. But she can learn an axel, or get good enough for an ice show.
There are probably self-help sites and books to teach you about goal setting, but here's a stab at it.
Make sure there's a defined outcome.
This can be short term-- get a solo in the ice show, test PreJuv moves by December, learn xx skill (more on that below); or long term-- get your moves Gold Medal by the end of Senior year, skate at Nationals, master all the double jumps-- but it needs to have an endpoint. There needs to be some place where you can say "I did that." A vague goal of "improve" or "skate 2 hours a week" is a formula for discouragement.
Have multiple steps along the way
In other words, mini-goals, or short-term goals. You need to have moments of success. When I saw the coach of this year's Junior Men's champ at our rink before Nationals this year, I told her how excited I was. "Oh, let's get to the arena first," she told me. "One step at a time."
Make sure you have the resources to achieve it
If your family cannot afford for you to be a national skater, that's a drag, but you either need to find a way to help financially, or find a new goal. This is one of the hardest things especially for talented skaters to deal with. With adult skaters, it's often time, or health issues. Your reach should exceed your grasp, but it shouldn't put you in debt, or the hospital.
The skater sets the goal
This is another tough one for children. It's also one of the reasons that figure skating is such a great thing for kids to do. The child needs to set the goal. You can guide him or her, but if the child doesn't really want what you or the coach has set out for her, it is not going to happen. You'll just be wasting your money. This is why short term goals are important. They help the skater to feel success. There's too much in figure skating of "what have you done lately." This used to drive my daughter crazy. "No one cares what I can do," she told me once. "It's always about the stuff I can't do."
Make sure everyone owns it
Singles skating is a team effort. There's the skater, but there's also parents, friends, coach, the coach's support team, maybe a dress designer, a dance class. Everyone needs to understand both their roll, and needs to share the goal. Again, my daughter once signed up for a dance program where we told the teacher she was a skater, and was in the class to support her skating. Teacher said "great!" A few months later, she told us that my daughter had to choose-- dance or skating. No problem, we said. And quit that dance program.
Let the goal change
Goals change for all sorts of reasons-- you reach the goal, or exceed it! Your life changes, or your interest in the sport changes. Changing a goal is not the same thing as failure. That said, it can't be a moving target. Set a goal with a reasonable timeline and work towards it. This gives you an endpoint, and an arc. It helps if an outside agency controls the date, like a test, competition or show. But once the goal is achieved, or abandoned, it can and should be replaced with a new goal.
Set goals for which you control the outcome
You cannot have as a goal something like "win the competition" or "be the best skater at the rink," because you don't really control that outcome. You don't know who you'll be skating against, or what the judges are looking for that day, or a million other things that you cannot control. Better goal-setting for things like competitions can be "set a personal best" (easy with the Code of Points judging system), "skate a clean program," "land the jump in competition", or even the more amorphous "place" at competition-- where you give yourself a broader range of success. A black-or-white goal like "win" means that 2nd place becomes "lose." (Especially important to remember at qualifying competitions, where you don't have to win to move on. Third place also goes to Nationals.)
I'm fine with setting a specific skill as a goal, like "master the axel." However, I think it is better to put such a goal within a set-- pass FS 5, or PreJuv Free Skate-- so that the single skill does not take on epic importance. Putting your entire definition of success into that single skill can blind you to your other achievements. Focusing on a single skill also gives that skill undue importance. A proper camel spin is every bit as hard as an axel, and just as much of a marker and milestone, but you don't see everyone getting their knickers in a twist over camels!
I've worked most of my life in fundraising. When you write a grant proposal, you follow a very specific formula to demonstrate worth. Mission-Goal-Objective-Action-Outcome-Evaluation-Next Step. The mission is vague "to be a figure skater." The Goal is specific and long term "to earn a Master Rating from the PSA." The Objectives are measurable "to take the 4 qualifying exams." Actions are the steps along the way-- "to earn the Registered, Certified, and Senior ratings". The Objectives and Actions can also serve as your interim goals, and give you markers for success. Outcome is clear-- did you do it? Evaluation is about whether the outcome matched the expectation; Next Steps, of course, is the new goal.
Finally, it's okay to fail. It's okay to not achieve the goal. That doesn't diminish the effort, or negate what you achieved in the attempt. If we always grasped what you reach for, then we wouldn't need heaven.