We all know a small percentage of young athletes will get a full scholarship to play in college and an even smaller percentage will make it to the professional level, yet it seems we continue to push the “more is better” mentality. There are articles popping everywhere discussing concerns with injury, burnout and quitting when children are pushed to their maximum level. Any coach and parent wants to see their child succeed and reach peak performance in athletics, however the most important teaching moments are frequently neglected. We tend to measure quality coaching by technical and tactical knowledge associated with a specific sport rather than character. What separates a good coach from an exceptional coach is one who can help youth learn beyond their physical success on the playing field.
In Sport Psychology, the term mental toughness is used to describe how an individual can adjust to adversity while still maintaining consistency in performance. A mentally strong athlete may have a personal crisis they are coping with on the outside but continue to play at their optimum level during game time. This is also the athlete who plays just as hard against teams significantly below the skill level of their own team. Emotional well-being significantly impacts progress and performance in sports, but how much of what is taught through Sport Psychology can also be applied to everyday life? A majority of youth play sports to meet their own individual needs for socializing, spending time with friends, feeling a part of a team and fun. Boys and girls have different reasons for why they like playing at different developmental stages. If those needs are not met by the environment created by their leaders the young athlete will most likely quit. Statistically, a small portion will play beyond high school, therefore coaches and parents need to think about how their athletes will get the most from their experience. Every child and teen should be learning these six skills while playing youth sports.
Confidence is a delicate term that can either be ruined or strengthened based on a young child’s experience. Every athlete needs to be validated for where they currently are in skill level and not asked to meet expectations that are beyond their ability. Confidence is also inhibited when players are constantly yelled at. No Individual, including adults, handle verbal abuse well so constant yelling will destroy self-esteem. Strengths should be used to positively reinforce and weaknesses used as teaching moments for improvement. The mindset of parents and coaches need to be absorbed in the process rather than results driven. An athlete who feels a sense of accomplishment from achievement on the playing field will carry the same feeling off the field.
Commitment is frequently underrated with today’s generation. Many youth are quick to drop out of something the first time a challenging situation arises or a parent is unhappy with playing time. Athletes participating in sports should understand the importance of being part of a team and how their behaviors will impact everyone else. Athletes who are committed to their team will more likely be committed to any individual and group task they are involved in outside of sports. They have learned the importance of dedication in completing a task and the feeling of accomplishment. This mindset will be crucial when the opportunity for college arises or when competing for a job decision. Committed athletes will never give up the first time they are faced with a challenge. Coaches and parents can encourage their youth to use supports such as teachers, trainers and team leaders to get their needs met when negative events occur.
Composure is a trait that has been cultivated through excellent mental focus. No matter what the circumstance is an athlete maintains consistency even in high stressful situations. Overexposure to various situations that produce a stress response will result in having composure when the coaches, parents and leaders provide the necessary support to help the young athlete work through the problem. This applies to not only game situations but also challenges that may arise with teammates or academics. Stressful circumstances will always be present in daily life but it’s the response that matters in determining anxiety and the level of reactivity. Great coaches will help their players perceive difficult situations in a positive manner without responding to immediate emotion that surfaces. Adults who show reactivity when stressed are teaching youth that is alright for them to do the same. Young athletes who are composed will also be able to handle adverse situations better than others in all environments.
Courage is the ability to face a difficult or fearful situation head on. Children involved in youth sports should feel encouraged to take risks even when the end result may be failure. Everyone learns through making mistakes and when given the opportunity people will stay with what feels comfortable. Unfortunately many miss out on tremendous opportunities and happiness from not taking risks. Coaches and parents have the opportunity to allow young athletes to try new things in safe situations. Youth coaches should be enforcing the importance of making mistakes during practice and knowing the difference between trying something new in less stressful situation. An athlete will develop awareness for timing of difficult situations. For example, a youth football team will try a new play during practice before ever trying it for the first time during a game situation. Not only would it be a set-up for failure if it didn’t work but it discourages youth from new experiences when the result is always negative. Children need to have success at safe opportunities in order to build resilience when situations don’t turn out well. Life requires making choices under difficult situations every day and children involved in sports should have plenty of experience on ways to effectively cope with adversity.
Teamwork is needed in all aspects of life, but how frequently does “I” become stronger than “team” in terms of athletics. How far will an athlete get pushed to be on top in order to get a small percentage of college
scholarships offered? Youth sports are not the opportunity for children to become superstars but rather understand what it means to compromise, work hard for a team goal and problem-solve difficult situations with peers. The more athletically talented will show without needing to be portrayed as the center of attention. Children are aware of their own skill ability and will benefit from coaches who focus on being efficient as a group including all performance levels. Being part of a team also allows children to understand personality differences and have respect for one another even when they disagree with their peers. This is far more valuable than measuring success by wins and losses.
Goal setting is something even adults struggle with. There may be a vision but fear or lack of action steps get in the way of ever achieving that goal. Youth sports provide a foundation for learning how to set reasonable goals and expectations. Coaches and parents should set the tone in helping their youth accomplish these goals. They should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Of course children will always have dreams of one day becoming a professional athlete or a doctor. It is crucial to never discourage these dreams but continue to focus on what steps can be taken today to reach the first goal the child has. Great coaches will assess individual and team goals at the beginning of the season and ask each athlete to keep a journal of action steps and progress. If the goal is to be able to juggle a soccer ball 50 times, a possible action step may be to spend ten minutes after practice working on it. The key to goal setting with children is always to start small and allow choice. Parents and coaches are quick to get frustrated with children when they aren’t living up to their potential. They need to have some success in order to set more challenging goals but also need that reality check when they fall short. Even in sports there are great teaching opportunities to allow the young athlete to figure it out. Listen to their frustrations and validate feelings while asking them what they felt went wrong. The responsibility and ownership is then put back on the child in order to make any necessary adjustments to their goal.
In participating in youth sports athletes should attain these six skills as they relate to everyday life. They will be well adjusted, able to adapt to life situations, work well with others, evolve into great leaders and have increased success. Unfortunately, the focus has been on winning, being the best and making it professionally resulting in young athletes losing interest. If children aren’t having fun they will lose out on an opportunity to benefit from all that youth sports have to offer. Parents and coaches should always remember the overall goals of sport participation regardless of whether it meets their own expectations.
If you are looking for a step-by-step guide for coaching athletes to have greater confidence and more focus, check out Melissa’s Athletic Mind Mastery Program.