By Melissa Lambert
Young athletes require more than physical training
As a former collegiate athlete, I remember spending my off seasons training every opportunity I had including weight lifting, running and playing with the men’s team to increase my speed of play. I took pride in having the top times in running and physically being able to outplay others. However, I remember playing our rival team and making a huge mistake that could have resulted in the other team scoring. What could have possibly gone wrong when I was in the best shape of my life? I neglected the most significant component of an athlete; my mind. The mental aspect of any sport can make or break a talented athlete regardless of their training regiment. I didn’t spend nearly the amount of time training my mind as I did training my body.
It wasn’t until becoming a girls’ premier soccer coach and a licensed therapist that I realized how much of performance was based on mental skills. More of my time was spent off the practice field counseling my young athletes than actually playing. Coaches expect players to be ready to perform and leave all baggage behind, but if the athlete lacks mental toughness they will not see peak performance. Sport Psychologist, Gary Mack, defines the seven characteristics associated with mental toughness:
Competitive: An athlete who does whatever it takes to win and will go the extra mile for a team. As a coach or fitness professional, observe whether your athletes’ fight for the ball after making a mistake or give-up.
Confident: An athlete believes he or she can’t be stopped. These athletes believe in their abilities and don’t allow self-defeating thoughts to take over.
Control: Mentally tough athletes have control of their emotions and behaviors. They won’t allow coaches, players and parents to get into their head.
Committed: An athlete who is highly motivated will avoid letting outside distractions deter them from their goals. As a coach it’s important to observe the commitment of each individual athlete to themselves and to their team.
Composure: Mentally tough athletes who can deal with adversity and stay focused under pressure. Those athletes who lack faith in their abilities have more trouble managing their emotions.
Courage: Athletes who believe in themselves are more likely to take a risk. In order to improve individually and as a team an athlete must step out of their comfort zone.
Consistency: An athlete can play their best on the worst day. They possess inner strength to block thoughts that would negatively impact performance.
What coaches don’t realize is how much work goes into developing mentally tough young athletes and the impact of environmental influences. The most significant factor in preventing an athlete from being mentally tough is known as negative cognitions or thoughts.
As humans we all have core beliefs about the way we see ourselves, others and the world based on life experiences.
Young athletes who lives in the inner city is going to see the world differently than other young athletes who lives in a rural environment.
A therapeutic tool I commonly use with both my young patients and athletes is cognitive mapping. The athlete would identify a series of events, followed by their thoughts, feelings, behaviors and consequences. The athlete would be able to visually see how a particular event led to a specific thought.
For example, a 13 year old male basketball player missed the winning foul shot and thought he must be a horrible athlete. As a result he may have felt depressed or angry, which resulted in giving up. The consequence was sitting the bench for not working hard after making a mistake. However, if the athlete was able to recognize the belief “I am a horrible athlete” as being irrational and change his thought about the experience, his feeling would also change.
Coaches can support their young athletes by encouraging them to set daily or short-term goals that are measurable.
Children specifically like to set long-term goals like winning a conference championship or setting new personal records but lack action steps to get there. As a coach, be sure to know the goals of your young athletes and check in frequently on their progress.
It is also important to stress the power of control each athlete carries as an individual and as a team. It is guaranteed mistakes will be made; however are your young athletes responding by working harder or giving up? Mentally tough young athletes have the ability to control their thoughts from becoming self-defeating.
A baseball pitcher may walk a batter, but how he perceives the situation will impact the outcome of his next series of pitches.
Coaches play an intricate role in helping to develop mentally sound athletes at any level whether it’s recreational or an elite program. Studies have proven that mental training will not only enhance performance and improve productivity but increase one’s passion or enjoyment of the sport. However, achieving inner excellence takes time and effort in the same manner as physical training.
One of the biggest mistakes coaches make is having the need to improve performance solely through training and play. Realistically, ask yourself whether it’s your need that’s getting met or the need of your Young Athletes. If you coach a high school team and have practice the week of finals, be attentive to their emotions and take time to address what’s on their mind. Performance training and talent can only go so far without the ability to conquer self-defeating thoughts.
LPC, M.Ed, YFS1, YNS, HSSCS
Child and Adolescent Therapist