Sports Psychology for Kids: Mental Skills For Young Athletes
The field of sport psychology is often associated with high-level athletes. Many universities and professional organizations have mental skills coaches on staff who work with the players.
Those who don’t have access to a sport psychology professional within their team often seek help from private coaches who can help them with their mental game. But again, this tends to be centered around professional, college, and high school athletes.
But what about youth athletes?
Is there such a thing as sport psychology for kids? The answer is yes! In fact, in my work, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to begin working with athletes when they’re young.
Now, there are differences in the minds of older athletes and younger athletes that must be taken into account when the work is being delivered…both in ways that make working with younger athletes easier and in ways that make it more difficult.
But the bottom line is that sport psychology is crucial for kids, and the earlier young athletes can build mental toughness, the better. And so, in this article, you will learn why sport psychology is important for kids and some strategies you can use to begin teaching mental skills to young athletes.
Why Sport Psychology is Important for Young Athletes
sport psychology is important for youth athletes for the same reasons it’s important for older athletes…the role the mind plays in sports.
As a sport psychology consultant, there are two sides of working on an athlete’s mindset. One involves overcoming mental challenges such as anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, pressure, and others that work against their mental health.
These challenges lead to lower levels of performance, but worse, they tend to result in an athlete losing the love for the game and considering (if not actually) quitting their sport.
The other side involves using sport psychology techniques to improve mental skills with the intent of improving their performance.
This is where the athlete may not necessarily be struggling with their mental health, but they are noticing a difference in their play between practices and games. So, we work on implementing mental skills to elevate their play during competition.
Now, how do these two sides of mental coaching play into the importance of sport psychology for young athletes? Well, because, as a kid gets older, they are going to be met with similar challenges. So, the sooner they learn to manage these challenges, the better.
Benefits of Teaching Mental Skills to Kids
There are many benefits of teaching mental skills to kids. What I want to do, before we get into the strategies you can use to apply sport psychology techniques to young athletes, is get into some of the main benefits that can be expected from the work.
The earlier an athlete understands confidence, the better. Now, what do I mean by understanding confidence?
Well, confidence is a skill that needs to be developed. But in order to do so, you must understand where confidence comes from and how it can be controlled.
One of the most dangerous places to find yourself in as an athlete is having your confidence be dictated completely by external factors. Of course, external factors will influence your confidence, but they cannot control your confidence.
If that happens, your confidence becomes fragile.
By learning mental skills, young athletes gain a better understanding of their confidence and trust in themselves more as they get older.
More Enjoyment in Their Sport
I was talking with a young athlete just the other day who was considering not playing sports anymore. This was sad because I knew how much he loved sports…no matter what sport it was.
The reason he didn’t want to play involved the intense feelings of anxiety he experienced while performing. This highlights one of the main benefits of sport psychology for kids; it gives them the opportunity to enjoy their sport more.
When we are able to remove anxiety, fear, and the need to be perfect, kids find themselves simply playing to play once again. That is fun. And when that happens, their level of play tends to go up because they are enjoying themselves that much more.
Better Emotional Control
Nobody wants their emotions to get the best of them, no matter how old you are. And no parent wants to see their kid losing themselves because of a mistake or being depressed due to a bad game.
Mental skills will help your young athlete manage their emotions better. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I am working with a young athlete right now. To help her manage herself after making a mistake.
After a mistake, she would get upset with herself and begin to lose control. We are working on implementing tools to manage her reactions, so she can let go of mistakes, play better as the game goes on, and enjoy herself more.
An Edge Over the Competition
This benefit covers a broad range of benefits that can be expected from sport psychology, all under the umbrella of performance improvement.
As your young athlete gains valuable mental skills, their physical play will improve. They will understand how to control themselves after a mistake, how to play with more confidence, how to center their focus, and much more.
All of these mental skills will have a positive effect on their play. That gives them a huge edge over the competition. As they get older, they will already have a set of skills that many athletes never obtain, or if they do obtain them, they come much later in life.
Sport Psychology Strategies for Young Athletes
The best way for young athletes to learn mental skills is through one-on-one coaching. If you are interested in learning more about the coaching we offer, click here.
In addition to one-on-one coaching, there are certain strategies you can use as a coach or parent that will help your young athlete develop stronger mental skills. For the rest of this article, I am going to break down four sport psychology skills you can begin using today.
Strategy #1: Teach Them the Importance of Their Thoughts
Within mental coaching, an enormous amount of focus is placed on understanding and managing thoughts. This is because of the relationship between thoughts and feelings.
As you think worrisome thoughts, anxiety increases and confidence decreases. That is disastrous before or during a game.
The same goes for fearful, perfectionist, or any other unhelpful or negative forms of thinking. They drive unhelpful and negative emotions. Therefore, it’s crucial to learn how to control what you’re thinking.
We begin with awareness. If an athlete is not aware of their thoughts, there is little hope to change them. Therefore, we must begin with understanding what thought patterns the athlete currently exhibits and how those thoughts are impacting how they feel.
From there, we can begin to think about some more beneficial thoughts and work on implementing them on a regular basis.
Now, how can you use this concept? By following the same idea and applying it to your athlete through the use of a simple exercise.
Here’s what you can do:
- Step 1: Have them write down what kind of thoughts they have before, during, and after a game.
- Step 2: Go through and ask them if each thought is helpful (meaning, does it increase their confidence, or cause them to feel anxious/fearful or etc.)?
- Step 3: Remove all the unhelpful thoughts from the list and replace them with more positive and productive ones.
- Step 4: Now you should have a list of positive thoughts. Review them with your young athlete each day and have them read the list to themselves.
Strategy #2: Show Them the Power of Visualization
A valuable skill for an athlete at any age is visualization. This is the practice of mentally rehearsing skills in your mind. There are many different ways visualization can be applied to sports.
An athlete can visualize to improve confidence. This happens by imagining yourself performing well on a consistent basis. The more you see yourself succeed in your mind, the more confident you will be when it comes to actually playing in a game.
Another way visualization can be used is to help perform better under pressure. This is done by imagining yourself in a pressure filled situation. Really feel the emotions you typically feel in that environment.
Then, switch those feelings for feelings of calm and confidence, and then see yourself perform well.
To use this technique with kids, you can have them either write or explain to you what happens when they play well. As they do this, they will naturally create a scene in their mind. Once they are comfortable with that, have them close their eyes and mentally rehearse themselves playing.
A great way this can be applied to training is to pause between reps and have the athlete visualize themselves for a brief moment.
For example, let’s say you are throwing batting practice to a youth athlete. Before each pitch (or before every five pitches) have them close their eyes and imagine themselves hitting a nice line drive back up the middle.
This helps to teach them the power of visualization and the importance of using it on a consistent basis.
Strategy #3: Train Them to Control Their Breathing
As simple as it is, breathing correctly has a huge impact on performance. Breath can calm nervousness, improve focus, and make you feel more confident.
But the skill of controlling your breath must be developed.
Breathing is a natural process, and since it’s natural, we don’t often give it much attention throughout the day. The same is true when an athlete is performing. There are so many other things going on that it’s easy to overlook a natural process like breathing.
However, breathing is your base. It dictates so much that it deserves proper attention. But more than that, it deserves training.
I’m sure every young athlete has been told to take a deep breath. That’s great, but what I’m talking about gets even more specific than that.
I’ve found two main benefits to controlling your breath in sports. One is the commonly known effect of calming you down and slowing down your heart rate. But in addition to that, I’ve also found controlling your breath helps with focus.
This is because, as you turn your attention onto your breath, you remove it from external factors causing you to be distracted, or worse…anxious and fearful.
An easy way you can help your young athlete control their breath is through a breathing exercise. Now, I’m a huge fan of mindfulness meditation and recommend it to all athletes. But sometimes it can be difficult for young athletes to use.
If you don’t want to make use of mindfulness quite yet, a good substitute is count breathing. Here are the steps for making use of a good count breathing practice:
- Step 1: Sit in a comfortable position in a chair with your back straight.
- Step 2: Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, just getting yourself relaxed.
- Step 3: Begin the count breathing (breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of 10).
- Step 4: After a few minutes, open your eyes and you are finished.
This practice helps so much because the count breathing can then be transferred into games. Whether right before the game starts or during a moment of anxiety, the athlete can return to the count breathing that they’ve grown comfortable using.
Strategy #4: Help Them Evaluate Their Game
Evaluate, not judge…there is a big difference.
One of the best parts about implementing mental skills training in youth athletes is that once a habit is developed, it will stick with them as they get older. However, this same principle that makes mental training helpful can also be detrimental.
That is, if the habit that forms is not one you want to be formed.
A prime example of this is judging performances in a negative way. After every practice or game, the athlete points out what they did wrong. This is done with the intent to improve, but what really happens is that it tears down confidence over time and leads to perfectionism.
Instead, you want to help your athlete learn how to properly evaluate their game.
Rather than judging themselves with a critical eye, they should evaluate their game from an objective perspective. This works to increase confidence while simultaneously providing them with true ways they can improve.
As a coach or parent, this can be done by altering the way you talk to them following a practice or a game. Instead of pointing out everything they did wrong, you want to start by looking at what they did well.
Then, don’t dive into the mistakes they made head on. Instead, start to talk about ways they can improve. That subtle shift in approach, looking at what can be improved rather than what went wrong, does wonders for their mindset.
A strategy I like to apply is the use of two questions, asked in this specific order:
- What did you do well?
- Where can you improve?
Simple, I know, but it helps to instill the habit of evaluating their game rather than judging their game and being overly critical with themselves.
Mental Coaching for Young Athletes
Sport psychology for kids is just as important as sport psychology for older athletes. The mental skills they learn will help improve their mental health, along with increasing their performance.
Now, the best and most effective way to build mental skills in youth athletes is one-on-one mental coaching. If you’re interested in learning more about mental coaching, please fill out the form below.
In addition to one-on-one coaching, there are strategies you can begin to implement as a coach or parent to help build mental skills in young athletes.
The important thing to remember, though, whenever you’re working on a youth athlete’s mindset, is that repetition is key. You must apply these strategies consistently for them to have the most impact.
If you do, they will help develop valuable mental skills that will stick with them as they get older.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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