Marissa is very bright. She’s aware of it, but not cocky. Her mother, Monica, wants her to use that intelligence to leverage her way into a top-notch college. [Although “Marissa” and “Monica” are real people, I’ve disguised a number of aspects of this story to protect their identity.]

For the past few years—Marissa is now 14—she’s been enrolled in various competitions that test her knowledge. She studies hard. She gets extra tutoring. She does well on preparatory tests. But when it comes to the competitions themselves, her performance is adequate, not great. She goes into competitions feeling unsure of herself. If problems seem too difficult, sometimes she doesn’t even complete the contest.

Monica knows about sport psychology and the ways in which certain techniques, like positive self-talk and imagery, can be really helpful with athletes who don’t feel self-confident. She contacts me and I begin working with Marissa.

Our meetings are productive. Marissa quickly learns and uses diaphragmatic breathing to manage tension. She increases her focus on her own work rather than getting caught up in making assumptions about other competitors. (They’re always better, more knowledgeable.)

But after a few sessions I realize that even though Marissa has learned these techniques, her attitude is still pretty much the same: she expects to be kind of average (among very bright kids). She feels pressure from her mother to be a star. She senses anger and disappointment when, yet again, she “fails.” In fact, as I meet with both daughter and mother, I realize that the two of them have ended up in a stand-off: instead of feeling supported and valued by Monica’s high expectations, Marissa feels burdened. To maintain her sense of self, her response is to expect less of herself. It’s a kind of family see-saw…and Marissa is down on the ground.

Monica and Marissa know about setting “SMART” goals (standing for goals that are Specific, Measureable, Adjustable [or Active], Realistic, and Time-Based) and “SCORE” goals (Simple, Consistent, Observable, Reachable, Explainable).

It seems to me, though, that what they need is some way to come to an agreement about what those various goal elements actually are, in this situation. And how to be realistic in their anticipations. How can they learn to neither over- nor under-predict Marissa’s accomplishment?

I suggest that they try a method developed more than 30 years ago by sport psychologists Frank O’Block and Frederick Evans, called Interval Goal Setting, or IGS. Perhaps because it takes a bit of arithmetic work to figure it out, it’s a method that never gained much popularity. It seems to me that in this situation, it might help resolve this family impasse.

As it happens, I’m not familiar with the various ways in which knowledge competitions are scored—so I leave it up to Marissa and Monica to decide which aspects of Marissa’s competition performances they’re going to measure. I’m just providing a tool that is both specific and at the same time, recognizes a potential range of accomplishment. By its very name, the focus is on a reasonable interval of achievement, with an expectation that one is going to keep on improving—within a range.

Interval Goal Setting:

[Note: Marissa is looking to increase her score. If you’re involved in a performance situation where a lower score indicates that you are performing better, then you would reverse the scoring at a couple of key spots.]

Step 1: Add up the scores on the last 5 performances, and then average them. This average =A, the current performance mid-point.

Step 2: Use the best performance of those 5 to indicate B. B is now considered the lower end of the range of performance outcomes.

Step 3: Subtract A [current mid-point] from B [best current performance]. This = PD [performance difference]

Step 4: Add PD to B. This indicates C, the anticipated mid-point in the interval from good [that is, B] performance to D, exceptional performance. A score of C is incrementally better than B, and probably the best likely outcome for the next performance.

Step 5: Add the PD to C to get the upper possible outcome for the next performance. This = D.

All other things being equal, then, somewhere in the range between C and D will be a really good outcome, based on the prior performances. In order to keep going, after this next performance, one would drop the first of those prior performances, add together and average the most recent five performances, and keep making this adjustment after every performance.

See a graphic representation of this method.

The essential idea of IGS is that performance improvements occur gradually: Just because you achieved an excellent score one time doesn’t mean that the next is always going to be even better. It’s likely that the trajectory of improvement will be more like a jagged upward line rather than a straight line.

How do Marissa and Monica handle this new approach? I’ll let you know.

You can contact me directly through my website.

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