Helping Youth Athletes Trust in Their Skills

In this article

Trust equals self-confidence.

When a youth athlete trusts themselves and their skills, they play with freedom.

Instead of holding themselves back and playing it safe, they’re more aggressive and giving full effort.

When your child doubts their skills, it’s likely they’ll play it safe. It’s as though they’re playing with their foot on the brake.

Something is keeping them from playing with the freedom you’ve seen them play with during practice (and in the backyard).

And that something is a lack of trust.

Which is why, in this article, you’ll learn a strategy to help your youth athlete build trust in themselves and their skills.

Why Youth Athletes Doubt

Before we dive into the strategy, I want to tell you a quick story that captures a few of the main reasons young athletes will doubt themselves within sports.

A mom reached out to me about her son who played soccer.

He was a very talented child, yet his play in games did not reflect this talent.

If he went into a game (and he often didn’t), he played scared and held himself back. He looked like a completely different person out there compared to the player she and everyone saw during practice.

Now, when he wouldn’t go into the game, it wasn’t because the coach wouldn’t put him in. He always tried…but the young athlete told him no.

The athlete was the one that chose not to go into the game.


Because of doubt!

As he and I began working together, my goal was to help him uncover what was causing this doubt.

It turned out to be a combination of fear and anxiety, driven by the memory of past mistakes.

In the past, he’d seen a coach get mad at a player because of a mistake. He’d never actually been yelled at, but seeing another kid get yelled at left a seed of fear in his mind.

As games approached, his mind was full of anxious and fearful thoughts about not wanting to make mistakes and not wanting to get yelled at.

The more he thought about what he didn’t want to have happen, the more he doubted himself and his skills. Instead of trusting himself, he was scared. So scared that he wouldn’t even go into the game most of the time.

He and I have worked together for quite some time, and I can happily report he is going into games by choice now and playing extremely well. And most importantly, he’s trusting in himself and having fun!

So what changed?

His thinking.

But I’ll get more into that in the next section.

What I want to highlight right now are the main driving forces behind his doubt…fear, anxiety, and mistakes.

Fear, Anxiety, & Mistakes

When a young athlete experiences fear and anxiety, they are thinking about what they don’t want to have happen. As they think about that, doubt will grow.

I like to compare this to looking at a big TV screen before going out to play, and on that screen are a bunch of videos of the young athlete making mistakes.

That’s in essence what’s going on in their mind when they’re fearful or anxious…since they’re thinking about what they don’t want to have happen.

The young soccer player feared making mistakes. His fear drove him to worry leading into games, resulting in anxiety.

Fear and anxiety can make avoidance seem like the best option. And that’s exactly what he ended up doing most of the time…avoiding playing by not going in the game.

Even when he did go in the game, he still avoided mistakes by playing it safe. Which leads me to the third driving force for doubt: mistakes themselves.

In the past, the young soccer player had made a few mistakes in games and felt upset with himself. Combine this with the player he saw get yelled at, and this left a strong imprint on his mind.

The memory of those mistakes fed into his doubt moving forward. And so did any new mistakes he made.

Just a second ago I mentioned that when he did muster the courage to go into the game, he avoided the ball and played it safe. To him, this type of playing was seen as a mistake…only worsening his doubt and creating a frustrating cycle.

This example shows just how strong fear, anxiety, and mistakes can be and the negative impact they can have on a youth athlete’s trust in themselves.

A Strategy to Build Trust in Youth Athletes

As with any strategy, this one requires consistent effort.

Knowing fear, anxiety, and the memory of making mistakes is what drives doubt, those are the forces we must counteract with this strategy.

To counteract them, we will focus heavily on the youth athlete’s thinking.

Since it is their thinking about the future (fear and anxiety), along with thinking about mistakes they’ve made in the past that is lowering their trust.

And the first place we want to look in terms of their thinking is the language they’re using when talking to themselves.

Change the Way They Speak to Themselves

Imagine your child is about to start a game and there are two choices as to which type of thinking they can have.

The first type of thinking involves thoughts like…

  • I can’t make any mistakes today.
  • I hope I don’t mess up.
  • If I don’t play well coach will get mad.

The second type of thinking involves thoughts like…

  • It’ll be okay, I know I can play well.
  • Just go out there and have fun.
  • I believe in myself.

Which type of thinking would you rather them have?

The second type! It’s a no brainer!

Yet…the first type of thinking is more common.

Especially when they’re doubting themselves.

Trust is built with the second type of thinking. And just because it’s more common for young athletes to have the negative and fearful type of thinking, doesn’t mean they can’t develop more confident thoughts.

That’s exactly what the young soccer player was able to do and his trust in himself skyrocketed!

To help your child change their thinking, you first need to help them understand how hurtful the first type of thinking is.

Because when fears are felt, it’s natural to think things like, “I hope I don’t mess up.”

Of course they don’t want to mess up…but the more they think about the possibility of messing up, the more they doubt themselves and grow afraid.

Increasing their chances of making mistakes during the game.

Once they understand the importance of having more confident thoughts, it’s time for some training.

Thinking, just like physical skills, needs to be trained. The training takes place through the repetition of statements.

What you can do is work together with your young athlete on a list of ten statements that are positive and confident.

Then, have them reread that list each day (and especially before games).

Teach Them to Focus on What They Want

Instead of thinking about all the things that could go wrong, you want your child focused on what could go right!

When a young athlete doubts themselves and their skills, it’ll be natural for them to think about all that could go wrong. Not because they want it to go wrong, but because they don’t want it to go wrong.

However, while they may be thinking about how much they don’t want something to happen, by giving attention to it, they are only worsening their fear and causing more doubt.

Instead, you want them to focus on what they do want to have happen during the game.

This will involve the result (scoring a goal or getting a hit), but it’s more helpful if it’s focused on the process.

The process involves the steps that lead to the end result. By focusing on the steps, the young athlete significantly increases their chances of getting the result.

When I say have them focus on what they want to have happen in terms of the process, this means they are focused on what they want to do.

For example, a pitcher in baseball will focus on throwing with intent and hitting his target. By doing so, he increases his chances of throwing a strike (the result he wants).

This builds trust because the young athlete is no longer giving so much attention to what they fear.

Also, the more focus is given to the process, the better their chances are of playing well. And the more they play well, the more they’ll trust themselves.

Help Them See Their Progress

I was texting with a dad yesterday whose son is working with me on his fears.

The dad and I were discussing the importance of having his son see the progress he is making. Because progress builds confidence.

If you want your child to trust in themselves and their skills more, they need to see the progress they are making, instead of thinking about the progress they haven’t made yet.

By giving attention to the improvements they’ve made and the success they’ve experienced in games, their trust will grow.

This isn’t always the easiest thing for young athletes to do…especially if they are high achievers.

However, it’s a key piece to helping them build trust in themselves and their skills.

Final Thoughts

Trust allows a young athlete to play freely and with full confidence.

Instead of worrying about everything that could go wrong and all their different fears, trust frees them up to simply go out there and play.

But trust isn’t always the easiest thing to come by. Especially if your child is dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety, and thinks a lot about the mistakes they’ve made in the past.

To help, have them speak more confidently to themselves, focus on what they want to have happen instead of what they fear, and see the progress and improvement they’re making.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth approach to helping your child build trust and confidence in themselves, along with the many other mental skills they need to become mentally tough, then click here to learn more about The Mentally Tough Kid Course.

Thank you for reading and I wish you and your child 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 Straw

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.

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Learn more about our two main mental training courses for athletes: Mental Training Advantage and The Mentally Tough Kid.

The Mentally Tough Kid course will teach your young athlete tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage mistakes, increase motivation, and build mental toughness.

In Mental Training Advantage, you will learn tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage expectations & pressure, increase motivation, and build mental toughness. It’s time to take control of your mindset and unlock your full athletic potential!

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