Helping Young Athletes Manage Mistakes
As a coach or a parent, one of the most frustrating things is seeing a young athlete lose control after a mistake. Not only because you know that it’s not helpful, but also because you know how much the mistake is hurting the young player.
When a kid gets really upset after making a mistake, if this goes on long enough, an honest reaction on their part may be to want and quit, since it’s so emotionally taxing to get so frustrated and down on yourself.
That’s why it’s important for young athletes to learn how to manage themselves after a mistake.
Working to develop this skill will help them right now, but it will also help them as they get older. Because no matter how good you are, adversities and mistakes will happen to all athletes. What matters is how well you can respond to such things.
So, in this article, you will learn a strategy I use with the young athletes I work with in mental performance coaching to help them better manage their reactions to making mistakes.
Understanding Why Young Athletes Get Upset
Why athletes get upset about making mistakes seems pretty straightforward. They get upset because they don't want to make the mistake. But what we need to do is dig a little deeper than that.
When I talk to young athletes, as we really dive into the true reason as to why they get upset, all of them come back with the same answer: because I don’t want to make that mistake again.
So really, what’s happening is that getting upset, while it is an instinctive emotional response, occurs as a way to teach themselves a lesson. The lesson being, let’s not make that mistake again.
So all in all, the driving force behind getting upset-not wanting to make mistakes and especially not wanting to make them again-is good. Or it at least comes from a good place. It just so happens that getting upset isn’t the best way to keep from making another mistake.
Now, I know there’s a lot of embarrassment and anger that also plays into getting upset. However, once again if we dig deep, it all boils down to not wanting to make the mistake again in the future.
The reason it’s important to identify this as the true cause is so the athlete sees they are not necessarily doing anything wrong. They are just going about getting what they want in an ineffective way.
We can use that driving force-not wanting to make another mistake-to our advantage by helping to show the athlete a better way to respond.
And I’ve found that if a young athlete feels that responding a different way will help them play better, they are much more likely to apply the strategies to help them respond differently.
Getting Young Athletes to Manage Mistakes in a Different Way
Before we get into the strategy you can use to help your young athlete manage mistakes, a key point to make is that our goal is not to have them never get upset. That’s very important for the young athlete to understand.
In the previous section, I said the underlying force as to why athletes get upset is that they don’t want to make the mistake again. That’s great for us to use from a psychological standpoint, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that getting upset is natural.
Feeling frustrated after a mistake is natural and trying to never get upset forces an athlete to feel like they have to become someone they’re not. Or worse, completely stop caring at all about their sport and their performance.
It’s natural to feel upset…what we’re trying to make sure is that it stops there. The young athlete doesn’t hold onto the mistake, get overly frustrated, and carry it with them moving forward.
That’s why I say we are working to manage mistakes instead of saying we are working to not care about mistakes. There’s a big difference.
So, let’s get into the strategy you can use to help your young player manage mistakes during practices or games.
Managing Themselves in the Moment
The first part of this two-part strategy to manage mistakes involves what a young athlete can do in the moment immediately following a mistake.
This is where they need to take control of themselves and stop all those negative thoughts and feelings from consuming them.
To help with this, you want to work with them on creating a thought-stopping phrase.
A thought-stopping phrase is something they can say to themselves in that moment that does three things:
- Gets them to stop thinking about the mistake.
- Helps them to calm down.
- Gets them refocused on the next play.
Now in these moments, it’s not going to be easy for them to remember their thought-stopping phrase, so you want to make it as simple as possible. In addition, it’s important they repeat it to themselves every day to begin memorizing it.
Here is a very simple example of a strong thought-stopping phrase I’ve had success with:
- Take a breath, let it go, refocus.
In the beginning, it’s going to be difficult for them to apply this phrase. But it’s the intent that matters early on. The more they try, the more aware they are that they are working to respond differently and the easier it will become to manage mistakes.
Changing How They View Mistakes
The second part of the strategy involves changing how a young athlete views mistakes in general. Now this is definitely a long-term approach. But one that works wonders over an extended period of time to help them reduce how upset they get following a mistake.
This part of the strategy requires a little more support from you as the coach or the parent. Because it involves you changing how you talk to them following a game or practice.
The idea is to help them see mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than an indication that they aren’t good enough.
What you want to do is get them to ask themselves these questions following a game or practice:
- What did I do well today?
- What can I improve on from today?
It’s very important to go through the questions in that order. You are first helping them to identify things they did well. Athletes who get overly upset following a mistake tend to be perfectionists and brush over the parts of their game where they actually did play well.
By focusing on these areas first, they build their confidence over time.
Then, by asking where they can improve, the young athlete begins to form the understanding in their mind that mistakes are learning opportunities rather than something to fear.
Mental Coaching for Young Athletes
By using this two-part strategy, you can help your young athlete manage mistakes in a more productive way. And if they can respond to mistakes differently, that’s going to help them play better, and most importantly, enjoy themselves more.
Now, if you’re looking for a more in-depth approach to helping your young athlete manage mistakes, then you may be interested in one-on-one mental coaching.
Within mental coaching, I will work directly with your young athlete to help them understand exactly why they get upset following a mistake and find the right approach for them to manage mistakes and respond in a different way.
To learn more about mental coaching, please fill out the form below or schedule a free introductory coaching call.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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