As structured sports continue to grow, more young athletes are involved in competitive situations that may place undo stress on their capacity to perform. While this stress may be self-imposed, many competitive athletes face greater expectations and rigid structures that press them beyond their present ability to cope. This can lead to burnout, drop- out, performance anxiety, and in some cases, clinical issues such as depression. Also, many young athletes are involved in structured programs that can become consuming to family life, and wring the enjoyment out of the process of play. Consider this statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (PEDIATRICS Vol. 107 No. 6 June 2001, pp. 1459-1462):
“During the latter part of the 20th century, "free play" or unstructured games primarily gave way to organized sports. The starting age for organized sports programs has also evolved to the point that infant and preschool training programs are now available for many sports. Organization of sports has potential benefits of coaching, supervision, safety rules, and proper equipment but can also create demands and expectations that exceed the readiness and capabilities of young participants. Organization can also shift the focus to goals that are not necessarily child oriented. Clearly, the nature of the organization can determine if it has a positive or negative influence.”
Without the proper mindset, competitive sports can be a great source of stress, as can competing to gain entry into a program or academy. Given the reality of this trend, how do we empower young athletes to meet their athletic goals while developing in a healthy manner? One of the fundamentals will be to help young athletes develop resilience—the capacity to deal with the demands of competitive sports, as well as the ability to handle adversity with a healthy perspective.
In my work as a coach, consultant, and counselor, I have found that the principles underpinning a healthy and developmentally appropriate path toward athletic achievement are often not clear to parents and coaches. Often they are muddied in promises and high expectations within the program, thus program or individual goals can become less than child-centered. A child must develop in body, mind, and spirit for it is imperative for the child to remain whole rather than have their identity consumed in the chase for the trophy.
Toward this end, the following are tips excerpted from my recent work: Helping Young Athletes Grow Mentally Tough: Lifetime Skills Parents Can Teach Children— On and Off the Field. These tips offer parents and coaches fundamentals that will keep sports endeavors child-oriented, help young athletes develop resilience, and help to align the vision of our children at their highest and best with a day-to-day process. While I speak predominantly to parents in this work, coaches will benefit from these tips as the “adult in charge.”
TIP # 1: Teach and Model Responsibility
Until our children are truly independent, a part of them still remains dependent on our connection, leadership, modeling, and teaching. What better gift to offer than learning that we all have the power of choice and can exercise this freedom to grow stronger.
This principle helps the young athlete to develop an internal locus of control. Her choices and decisions become more and more based on internal references, values, and beliefs rather than what others think or value. In time, the athlete sets goals based on her internal mindset and no longer seeks the approval of others. She accepts her results, respects all competitors and her sport, and most importantly, expects more of herself than any other person in her life
Finally, teach young athletes the process of setting goals—the ultimate in making personal promises.
TIP # 2: Focus on What You Want to See
When giving young athletes feedback, use empowering language. Make it productive and positive, meaning they can visualize what you are saying.
Be patient. Exude confidence in the learning process. If you are impatient, chances are you are sending a message of doubt.
Avoid “don’t” and negative criticism. Labeling an error as a character flaw or negative attribute is a misuse of authority. Assume that the child is executing at their present level of capability and work from that point.
TIP # 3: Help Your Child Enjoy the Process of Play
Along the way, some children get a misleading message about competition, and winning at all costs becomes a way of life.
Young children play quite naturally. Their interest and curiosity is something to behold. But, when we coach them away from the joy of playing, perhaps we need to step back for a fresh perspective.
When children play free from stress and pressure, they maintain a calm and alert mind, and a relaxed and energized body. The fact that some young athletes don’t experience this state may indicate they have gotten the wrong belief about play. They may fear losing. They may be anxious having the eyes of certain spectators upon them. They may seek someone’s approval. They may feel the pressure at certain points of the competition and create negative ideas about themselves. They may be playing only for the results and forgetting the value of the process. All these scenarios are learned and these beliefs are pulling them away from what is a natural state of play.
Why does this matter? Very simply, the focus is in the wrong place. The only control we have is in the moment. The only control we have is what we are doing right now. You may have the greatest plan, but if your attention is in the past or the future, you will surely drift off course. All of the above challenges represent projections out of the present moment, ideas that are associated with negative outcomes.
It is fine to set outcome goals, but, teach your children to enjoy playing for the sake of playing. Notice their full engagement and enjoyment in playing a game that they love. When play becomes a stressful task for a young athlete, adults need to step back and notice the messages they are sending. Sport provides a healthy outlet to learn about oneself as well as an opportunity to re-create. (Play is truly recreation!)
Developing Mental Toughness: Building the Foundation, is now available. This e-book is the ideal start to building the foundation for mental toughness in any sport. For more information click here.
New E-Book now available:
Helping Young Athletes Grow Mentally Tough: Lifetime Skills Parents Can Teach Children— On and Off the Field. For more imformation click here.