How Do Young Athletes Develop Mental Toughness?
What does it mean to be mentally tough? We hear the word used a ton by coaches and parents…but as athletes it can be frustrating to know what this actually means. Especially when you’re thinking about mental toughness for young athletes.
Not only is it difficult to get a clear idea of what it means to be mentally tough, but it’s often overlooked as to how this coveted mindset is developed.
In fact, a lot of the coaches I’ve run into over the years don’t even see it as something that can be developed in the first place. They look for athletes who already are mentally tough. This signifies there is a lack of attention given to the cultivation of a strong mind.
But this idea of being mentally tough needs to be trained and strengthened just like any other skill. And the sooner the better. Which is why in this article, you’ll learn two key characteristics that are needed to build mental toughness for young athletes.
Building Mental Toughness In Young Athletes
There are many different traits that make up a strong mind. In fact, I’ve identified six key characteristics every athlete needs to build a strong mindset. However, sometimes simplicity is needed, especially when aiming to build mental strength in youth.
When talking about young athletes, it’s best to keep things simple. Which is why the first two characteristics any athlete can learn that will begin to build their mental toughness from an early age are self-confidence and the ability to properly evaluate their performance.
Having a strong mind means you believe in yourself. Which is why one of the first skills any young athlete can develop is self-confidence.
Now, self-confidence can be a tricky trait.
A lot of times we think praising youth players on their success is the best path towards developing such self-belief. However, this can often lead them to associate confidence with the outcome and external factors; neither of which lead to true self-confidence.
To build mental toughness in young athletes, confidence needs to come from within. It needs to be born out of an innate belief in their skills and abilities.
How can this be done?
By teaching them a proper way of thinking and speaking to themselves.
Confidence is a feeling. Feelings are driven by thoughts. Therefore, if we want to build self-confidence, we first must turn our attention to what thoughts are filling their head and what kinds of words are being spoken.
There is a simple exercise you can get young athletes to do that will teach them the power of words and provide them with an actionable way of training themselves how to speak to themselves.
- Step #1: List out all the negative phrases/doubts they currently say to themselves.
- Step #2: Create a list of positive/productive statements that are the inverse of the negative ones identified.
- Step #3: Repeat the positive/productive statements once every day.
This is a simple but powerful exercise that teaches young athletes how to speak to themselves in a way that increases their self-confidence.
Post Performance Evaluation
As a mental game coach, one of the main challenges I see athletes face is perfectionism. That feeling of never being perfect and always scrutinizing their performances.
Now, I am a huge advocate for constantly seeking to improve yourself. However…this must be done in the proper way.
Perfectionist thinking often forms early on. It’s a habit of always looking at what you did wrong in hopes of improving. Sure, you see what you can improve, but that’s often overshadowed by the negative emotions of knowing you made a mistake or ultimately seeing yourself as a failure.
To build mental toughness in young athletes, there needs to be a strong understanding of how to look at their practices and performances from a more productive perspective.
This keeps them from growing too concerned with outside approval; one of the key factors that works against being mentally tough.
I love to keep this exercise as simple as possible, especially the younger the athlete is. It’s broken down into two different questions:
- Question #1: What did I do well?
- Question #2: Where can I improve?
That’s it…but it’s crucial the questions are asked in that order. That way, the athlete is being trained to first focus on the positives (which boosts confidence) and then they are free to objectively look at where they can improve.
Building mental toughness has to start with a clear idea of what the term means.
In all reality, being mentally tough is a byproduct of cultivating certain mental skills and characteristics.
In youth athletes, the top two that need to be focused on first are self-confidence and a proper way of evaluating their performance.
Using the two exercises above is a great way to begin building mental toughness in young athletes. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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