The Essentials of Sports Psychology for Youth Athletes
There are many reasons to get kids involved in sports: health and fitness, building confidence, learning teamwork. We have a social obligation to get children involved in sports and expand their minds! With a deeper dive into the psychology of sports, a coach or trainer can also help children develop skills with long- and short-term goal setting, mental toughness, and setting and managing their expectations. These life skills apply both on the court and off.
Mental health is quickly becoming a focus of most sports coaches and trainers regardless of the age of their athlete. Often, the success of the athlete will depend on their focus, determination, and perseverance.
When Does Mental Coaching Begin?
Many competitive sports, both recreational and organized, begin around age 8-10 at the youngest. Keep in mind that some kids are uninterested in mental training and many younger kids are not yet able to understand or use the coaching. In these cases, it is ineffective to try the strategies we will discuss as this athlete will be disengaged or confused. A good age to begin psychology coaching is around 12, as they are typically committed to the sport and the process of improving their skills.
Before anyone can get to where they want to be, they must first define the path to get there. Breaking the path into small goals is an effective, manageable way to teach youth athletes to slow down and focus their efforts. It will also help them understand what is truly involved in their desired outcome.
As a coach, make sure any goals kids set are “SMART”:
- S = Specific – Know exactly what they wish to achieve.
- M = Measurable – They must be able to track their progress.
- A = Attainable – The goal must be possible.
- R = Realistic – Is it applicable to the purpose or does it mean something to them?
- T = Timely – Can they complete it in a reasonable amount of time?
Short-term goals will have a shorter timeframe and be a stepping-stone towards a larger goal. Thus, long-term goals are often made up of several short-term goals completed in sequence.
Setting goals is a great way to break down sport-specific skills as a child learns them. For example, starting with a broad skill and making it more specific as they master each step. ISSA Certified Professional Elaine Lange has some great examples of skill progression with youth soccer players in Egypt. People of all ages learn by seeing and doing but helping them understand what they are learning at a deeper level increases retention and proficiency. Peak performance for kids comes from a true understanding of the task at hand and a level of enjoyment and motivation a coach helps to foster.
Communication comes in many forms with regard to sports psychology. First, the way a coach communicates to their athletes. Mary Fenerty Schumann, author of “Game-Changing Coach” breaks this down into 4 parts:
- Verbal Communication – What a coach or trainer says with their words both oral and written. As a coach, consider the tone, emotion, volume, and inflection used.
- Non-Verbal Communication – Body language, eye contact, and even physical proximity can communicate different things. Non-verbal cues must align with verbal cues given at the same time.
- Finding YOUR best method – Not everyone can be great at both forms of communication. Find a mixture of the two styles that best suits your communications style and is genuine.
- Keep it Positive! – Positive reinforcement, positive attitudes, positive feedback, and positive motivation will lead to more energetic, bold, and empowered athletes!
Next, we examine how the athletes speak to each other. The same communication components apply to youth athletes when speaking with teammates or adults. However, the emphasis on peer communication is keeping the interactions positive. Athletes should not try to coach or correct one another. Teamwork and open communication are encouraged in team sports. For individual sports like golf where they play alone but exist on a team, the focus is on supporting one another and learning from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
The coach should work for social cohesion within the team—keeping everyone bonded and invested in the success of the team as a whole. An experienced coach knows bonding is different for a boys’ team than it is for a girls’ team. Have you ever heard the phrases “bond to battle” or battle to bond”?
Typically, female teams must “bond to battle.” This means the athletes on a girls’ team must be invested in and learn more about one another to effectively “battle” together in sport or a game. On the other hand, boys typically need to “battle” together on the field and fight for a common goal to bond and have better team cohesion. This psychological and behavior difference makes sense when we consider the fact that females are typically more social and nurturing and males are more physical and aggressive. Of course, there are always outliers.
Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome
When youth athletes are learning step-by-step, it is important to bring their attention to the process versus the outcome. Help them focus on making their free throws and improving their defense versus the final score of the game. If you listen to a professional athlete give a press conference after a tough loss, do they focus solely on the fact that they lost? No. In most cases, they break down the things they or their team did well and what they can continue to focus on in practice before their next game to improve the outcome. They stay focused on the process.
Physically performing and working on a skill is one way to get better. Mental imagery is a helpful tool as well. Visualization techniques used in college and professional sports and are also gaining popularity in high school athletics. The athletes will close their eyes and are verbally guided through a scenario, a play in a game, or an in-game situation that may occur. You can even ask them to imagine being handed the trophy after winning a championship!
Ask the athletes what they feel—physically and emotionally—in this moment. How do they react? Can they see themselves executing the skill properly in the moment? Visualizations can help your athlete reduce the fear of failure in a non-threatening environment to increase their odds of success and confidence in the real-life occurrence.
There will always be setbacks and missteps in a sport and life. Also referred to as GRIT, perseverance is the likelihood that someone will push through adversity to strive for a predetermined goal. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, developed the GRIT scale to determine the likelihood that an applicant would successfully begin and complete their studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It is a short multiple-choice test to determine how likely someone is to be discouraged or empowered by setbacks, tough goals, and staying focused on a single outcome. Athletes often take this test (typically high school and older) to help them better understand their limits and areas for opportunity to gain experience and evolve.
As a coach, you can talk to athletes after a setback and work through what happened, how they feel, how they reacted, and decide out what comes next. Figure out if their expectations of themselves or their outcome are realistic and set the next short-term goal.
All these tools will take some practice to consistently use and master. Trainers and coaches must be innately aware of the needs and abilities of every athlete they work with both mentally and physically. It’s a lot of work and it takes a dedicated and compassionate individual to inspire kids! The first step is to get certified to work with youth! Earn your ISSA Youth Fitness Certification to complement your ISSA Personal Training Certification and you are on your way!
- “Chapter 1: Communication.” Game-Changing Coach: Mindful Strategies for Peak Performance, by Mary Fenerty. Schumann, IUniverse, 2017, pp. 11–16.
- Duckworth, Angela. Grit. Vermilion, 2019.