Helping Young Athletes Enjoy Themselves While Playing
The number one goal for young athletes should be to have fun.
Now I know that may not seem like a very competitive attitude to have, but in truth, it is. The reason being, athletes who enjoy themselves play better.
As a mental performance coach, I've worked with athletes as young as nine, all the way to the professional level. And this truth holds true no matter the athlete's age or skill level.
When an athlete has fun, they play better. When they're not having fun, they tend to play tight, have many negative and unhelpful thoughts, and overall their performance level drops.
But knowing that having fun is the most important goal for young athletes does not mean it's easy for them to have fun while playing.
There are many factors that can reduce the joy an athlete feels, sometimes even turning a sport they used to love into something they dread.
To help, in this article, I'm going to detail the main factors that lead young athletes to lose the love for the game, along with tips you can use as a parent or coach to help your young athlete enjoy themselves more while playing.
Main Factors That Cause Young Athletes to NOT Enjoy the Game
A terrible thing for any parent or coach to see is an athlete who used to love their sport all of a sudden not enjoying themselves anymore. In fact, they may even start to dread going to practice and complain about having to show up to games.
Have they really lost the passion to play, or is something getting in their way, keeping them from having fun?
Most of the time, there is some factor (whether internal or external) that is driving this loss of passion. Identifying this factor is the first step in getting them to enjoy themselves again.
If the factor goes unnoticed, this can lead to burnout and the athlete likely eventually quitting their sport. So, it's crucial to examine if any of the below factors may be leading to them not enjoying their sport any longer.
Fear of Failure & Performance Anxiety
When an athlete continually shows up to practices and games full of fear and anxiety, this will wear on them. Over time, it can lead to them dreading even going to practice because of the intense feelings they experience.
Fear of failure means your young athlete is afraid of making mistakes. More specifically, they are afraid of what will happen if they make a mistake (such as getting yelled at or embarrassing themselves).
This fear leads to worries, which results in the athlete developing sports performance anxiety. This is a mental block where they worry about what may or may not happen.
The more a young athlete experiences fear and anxiety surrounding their game, the less fun they will have.
High Expectations & Perfectionism
I encourage all athletes to aim to do their best each and every game. However, there is a big difference between trying to do your best and demanding perfection from yourself.
Young athletes with perfectionism need to be perfect. They have the belief that in order for them to have a good game, they can't make any mistakes.
Well, what's going to happen when they inevitably make a mistake? The need to be perfect will make it difficult for them to manage and move on from the mistake and will increase the likelihood they will lose their composure.
Imagine if every day your young athlete felt like they weren't good enough. Do you think that's going to lead to them enjoying themselves? Of course not! It's going to result in them feeling like there's no hope for them in their sport and wanting to quit.
When a young athlete sets too high of expectations for themselves and demands perfection, this leads them to never feeling good enough and sucks the joy out of the game.
Negative Coach/Team Environment
I advocate strongly for taking personal responsibility for the situation you're in and doing the best you can to manage it in a positive way. I never encourage athletes of any age to blame those around them.
However, we can't overlook facts. And sometimes the fact is, coaches and teams can be negative. The environment just may not be right for the athlete and is doing more harm than good.
This is a tough one, because you don't want to have your kid jump from team to team, never learning how to handle adversity and negative situations. But sometimes we must realize when it's a losing battle and leaving would be best.
If a young athlete has a negative coach, for example, they have two options: either learn how to handle the negative coach, or change teams.
In all honesty, managing a negative coach is extremely difficult, especially for a young athlete. So, as the parent, it's important to pay attention to whether the team environment may be the very thing keeping your athlete from enjoying themselves.
A fourth factor that may be keeping your young athlete from enjoying themselves is chronic self-doubt.
Not only does self-confidence help athletes play better, but it also allows them to have more fun while competing.
Self-doubt is characterized by unhelpful and negative thoughts. When a young athlete experiences these types of thoughts repeatedly, it's not a fun thing to deal with.
The more negative their self-talk is, the less fun they will have while playing.
How to Get Your Young Athlete to Have Fun
I always ask the question to the athletes I'm working with, If you're not having fun, why play?
Why put in hours upon hours of training, drive long distances to games and tournaments, if you're only going to feel miserable while playing and doubly as miserable if you play badly?
It's an awful thing to do to yourself.
But on the flipside, playing a sport you love and having fun while doing so is beautiful. And not only that...but you're going to play well as a result!
So, now that we've identified the top four factors that keep young athletes from enjoying themselves, let's dive into a few tips you can use to help them have fun once again.
Tip #1: Handle the Negative Factor(s)
If you know that a negative factor is causing them to not have fun anymore, then the quickest way to regain that joy is by removing the negative factor.
Now, that's a lot easier said than done. Especially if the factor is internal, like three out of the four are.
The simplest option is if your young athlete isn't enjoying themselves due to a negative coach or team environment. If that's the case, and it's feasible for you all, the best option is to find a different team.
However, you may choose to remain on the same team (or perhaps it's the only option around). In that case, you need to help your young athlete figure out ways to counteract the negative coach.
If they are struggling with perfectionism, you can help them reduce perfectionism and reframe their high expectations.
And lastly, if they doubt themselves a lot, you can work with them on applying confidence building exercises that will increase the trust and belief they have in themselves.
The bottom line is, if a negative factor is keeping them from enjoying themselves and having fun, the best thing you can do is get to work on helping them manage and overcome that factor.
Tip #2: Help Them Focus on What They Enjoy
Focus is an interesting thing. For some reason, it's much easier to focus on negatives, things we don't like, and what may go wrong, than it is to focus on positives.
This is something I see a lot in athletes who aren't having as much fun anymore.
They tend to hyperfocus on the negatives and everything they don't enjoy about playing. A simple switch in what they're focused on can work wonders in getting them to enjoy themselves more.
An exercise you can do is have your young athlete outline everything they love about their sport. Have them get specific about all the reasons that they enjoy it and what they have the most fun doing.
Then what you can do is ask them to focus on those reasons during practices and games.
This is going to take some time to get them to reframe the way they look at their sport, but over time it can change their perspective and help them have fun once again while competing.
Tip #3: Teach Them to Focus More on What They Did Well
Never feeling good enough is one of the main things that can destroy an athlete's love for the game. And the truth is, the young athlete may be playing very well and progressing week by week. But they just don't see it.
The reason they don't see it is because they are only focusing on what they did wrong. I see this time and again, where an athlete quickly brushes over what they did well and ridicules themselves for the mistakes they made.
Now I get it, mistakes are important. In fact, they are the best resource athletes have for improving. However, mistakes will only help you improve if you examine them in a productive way.
Something that becomes nearly impossible when you only focus on the negatives.
To help, you can teach your young athlete to focus on what they did well following a game. This will help them increase their confidence and have more fun while playing.
Once you all talk about the positives of their practice or game, then you can discuss the mistakes. But instead of being critical, turn it into a positive by getting them to think about how they can learn from the mistakes they made.
Reframing the way a young athlete reviews their performance is a fantastic way to help them bring joy back into their game.
Mental Coaching to Help Young Athletes Enjoy Themselves Again
The three tips outlined above will significantly help your young athlete have more fun while competing.
However, if you're interested in a more in-depth and personalized approach, then you need one-on-one mental coaching.
With mental coaching, I will work with your young athlete to first identify the main factors keeping them from enjoying themselves.
Then, I will create a custom game plan to overcome those factors, along with building positive mental skills that have been proven to help young athletes have fun once again while playing.
To learn more about one-on-one coaching, please fill out the form below or schedule a free introductory call.
Whether you reach out for mental coaching or not, it's crucial that you begin taking steps to help your young athlete enjoy themselves while playing once again.
Because remember, the more they enjoy themselves, the longer they will play, and the more success they will have.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
Contact Success Starts Within Today
Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.
Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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