Teaching Mental Skills to Youth Athletes
Youth sports teach young athletes many valuable lessons. Lessons that will stick with them throughout their lives.
Many of these lessons center around the fundamentals of their sport, such as throwing, catching, swinging, or kicking.
Other fundamentals include things like working hard, working well with others, and making friends.
But there’s also the mental aspect of youth sports, including the failure youth athletes must learn how to deal with, along with the confidence they'll gain by playing sports.
And while a tremendous amount of focus is given to teaching the fundamentals of their specific sport, along with the fundamentals of teamwork and having a strong work ethic, we can't overlook focusing on building the fundamentals of a strong mindset.
As a mental performance coach, I work with many youth athletes on building the fundamentals of a strong mental game. And so, what I'm going to do in this article is walk you through what mental skills are, how mental training for youth sports works, and how you can begin teaching mental skills to your youth athlete.
Mental Skills Defined
Mental skills involve ways of thinking, both about yourself and situations.
There are many different specific mental skills for youth athletes to learn, but at the basis of each one is their thinking.
Here is a list of the fundamental mental skills youth athletes must learn:
- Managing Mistakes
- Calming Their Nerves
- Goal Setting
- Having Fun
Let’s go into a little more detail on each one of the skills.
Building trust and belief in yourself and your skills defines self-confidence. For youth athletes, developing high levels of self-confidence will not only increase their performance, but allow them to enjoy themselves more within their sport as well.
Learning what to focus on during games, and more importantly...how to refocus when distracted, is a skill that all young athletes can benefit from working on at an early age. The skill of focus involves controlling concentration. Being able to focus in the present moment on what they’re doing during practices and games.
Learning how to deal with failure is one of the best lessons sports teaches us. But that doesn't always mean it's easy. Managing mistakes is a skill all youth athletes need, because in one form or another, mistakes will find them.
Within this skill, youth athletes learn how to reframe how they see mistakes, along with learning how to manage mistakes in a productive way during practices and games.
Calming Their Nerves
Something that can quickly decrease not only performance, but also enjoyment, is anxiety. So, a key mental skill for youth athletes to build is the ability to calm their nerves and manage anxiety in the moment.
Calming nerves involves in the moment strategies for when nerves are present, along with changing focus and expectations going into games to keep attention more on the present moment instead of worrying about the future and what will happen.
There are many goals young athletes can set, and all are valuable. But it's important to know which to set at the proper time.
For example, setting outcome focused goals for games is a major cause I see for youth athletes experiencing fear and anxiety going into games.
They want to use outcome goals for long-term goals to increase motivation, while utilizing what are known as process goals for practices and games.
Yes, having fun is a mental skill youth athletes need to work on building. At the core, sports are about having fun, especially when an athlete is young. Yet, so often competition and pressure can yank the fun right out of the game for them.
Learning how to identify things that are reducing enjoyment, while also learning how to have more fun, even under pressure, is a key fundamental mental skill for young athletes to learn.
Using Mental Training to Help Youth Athletes Build Mental Skills
The mental skills outlined above are the foundations of mental toughness in youth athletes. By developing those specific mental skills, a young athlete will strengthen their mindset.
But how are mental skills built in the first place?
With mental training!
Mental training involves using sports psychology tools and techniques to build mental skills.
As a mental coach, I approach mental training in a very similar way to physical training. Meaning, it takes repetitive action performed on a consistent basis.
One thing I've realized about working with younger athletes is consistency is key! This is true when learning the fundamentals of a swing, shot, or pass, as well as learning the fundamentals of a strong mental game.
As I mentioned earlier, all mental skills are built on a foundation of thought. There is a specific form or pattern of thinking that leads to the development of a mental skill.
Confidence, for example, requires the youth athlete to think in a confident way. They need positive self-talk, and a way of thinking after practices and games that increases the ability for their confidence to grow.
Managing mistakes is another great example of how thought is the foundation of all mental skills. After a mistake, the young athlete needs a positive and productive way of thinking to ensure they do not get overly upset and lose composure.
And almost more importantly, to make sure they learn from the mistake, which makes managing mistakes moving forward much easier.
Mental training focuses heavily on building these positive and productive patterns of thinking that strengthen mental skills.
How Mental Training Works
Mental training can take place in a variety of ways, from simply having conversations with your youth athlete, to having them work one-on-one with a mental performance coach or guiding them through a mental training course.
But no matter what vehicle you use to facilitate mental training in your youth athlete, there are specific principles that need to be in place. Principles that will ensure the training has the greatest impact on developing strong mental skills.
The main principles of mental training include:
- Make it Repetitive: this is by far the most important for young athletes. No matter what mental skill you are working on, repetition is key to helping them remember the tools, apply them during games, and build patterns of thinking.
- Make it Actionable: for youth athletes, mental training and building mental skills must go beyond theory and become action oriented. This is where actionable exercises help, along with specific in game tools and strategies.
- Keep it Simple: this is a principle I apply to all athletes, no matter the age. Mental training needs to be simple, especially when it comes to tools that will be used during games. The goal is for tools and strategies to be applied during competition, which means the simpler they are, the better.
How to Teach Mental Skills to Your Youth Athlete
To build mental skills in youth athletes, you must make use of mental training. And there are a couple different ways you can go about doing so.
One option is to work with your youth athlete directly on creating a mental training routine. This is where you work together on deciding which specific mental training tools you will use, and then putting them into a routine each day or week.
To help create a mental training routine for your youth athlete, here is an article that goes into the different mental training tools you can use, along with the mental skills they help build.
Another option is The Mentally Tough Kid course. This is a six module course that teaches your youth athlete the six fundamentals of building mental toughness.
Each module includes short five to ten minute videos that are easy for them to digest, along with exercises for them to follow along with during each video.
Click here to learn more about The Mentally Tough Kid course, or use the contact form below if you have any questions.
No matter what path you take, teaching mental skills to your youth athlete is key to helping them become the best athlete they can be. 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
Mental Training Courses
Master Your Mental Game With One-On-One Coaching
Get one-on-one mental performance coaching to help break through mental barriers and become the athlete you're meant to be!