While it may seem contrary to common belief, young athletes often deal with similar issues as their older, more experienced counterparts. One big difference may lie in that they haven't yet learned to deal with peer, coach, and performance-related pressures. Many don't know yet know how to handle new situations, or how to overcome self-doubt, for example.
Most of the time, these skills and ability to recognize and deal more effectively can come with age and experience.For example, can you remember the first time you got really angry in a game when you were a youngster? How did you handle it? Chances are, you reacted the way you naturally do when angry; this may or may not have been the ideal response.Young athletes, however, can also learn many of the mental strategies adults can, although modified.
Youth in sports often deal with focus, learning how to visualize, negative self-talk, performance and competition anxiety, anger, and of what others think of them-sound familiar? Adults tend to deal with these issues too!
To make mental training more age appropriate, the following can be suggested:
- Always take a positive approach. Make note of what the athlete did right-remember at younger ages, sports should still be about fun.
- Teach easy affirmations, explaining what they are used for, such as "I'm fast" or "I'm strong".
- Take every opportunity to congratulate skill development and good plays.
- Discuss things to improve upon in a supportive manner.
- Children can learn to visualize their performance. I tell my athletes to always be smiling when they go through their visualizations.
- Note: visualizations should be no longer than 10-15 minutes to begin with. The key is to maintain interest and attention and slowly learn the skill.
Interest and support are paramount at this stage, for example, if a young athlete is afraid or angry, they can be allowed to process and admit these emotions, however, different strategies can be introduced for dealing with them. Telling a young pitcher that it is ok to be nervous in front of the crowd and letting him talk about the fear is an example. The next step can be to discuss things that help him overcome it, such as focusing on a specific object between pitches or repeating affirmations.
As previously mentioned, athletics for children and adolescents can be very enriching and rewarding. Youth involved in sports may display less conduct and academic problems, and are given the opportunity to maintain a stable health and wellness regimen (combating the current obesity prevalence rates of 12.4-17.6 % in children and teens). Learning mental and emotional skills early can provide a greater sense of mastery in sport. This too can generalize to their self-esteem and overall well-being.
Porter, K. (2003). The Mental Athlete. Human Kinetics.
Childhood Obesity Statistics, Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/index.html