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Sport Psychology for the Youth Athlete (Ages 10-14)

A Common Challenge

One of the challenges that I hear from parents (and coaches) is that they know that their child/player is struggling a bit from performance anxiety, stress, focus issues, emotional outbursts, self-doubt, or pressure, but they don’t know what to say to them.

And, even if they do have an understanding, they feel like it may have greater impact coming from someone else, and that it should be more ongoing. But they often don’t know where to turn. Or they repeat the same things they heard when they were kids. The problem is that these suggestions are not rooted in sound performance psychology and may backfire. The intention was great, but it’s not getting the desired effect.

So, what they do is just wait it out. Hoping that age, maturity, the right experience, a video, a book, or something else just clicks for the young athlete. The drawback with this is that each year that goes by - where it doesn’t change - reinforces the negative or ineffective thought patterns that they’re having. Essentially it becomes more challenging to break the bad mental habits.

Forming Positive Habits

Like learning a second language, it’s better to start mental skill training early.  Some of the reasons include:

  • Easier to learn skills BEFORE bad habits are formed.
  • It’s preventative rather than reactive.
  • The skills are good for sport and school.
  • There doesn’t need to be something wrong – this is about growing new strong skills.
  • While mental skill training ISN’T clinical therapy, the skills are great for building mental wellness (preventative).
  • The brain is a pattern making machine. It’s better to establish healthy and effective patterns early.
  • Regardless of if they ever play in HS, College, or Professionally these skills are applicable for LIFE!
  • Staying involved in sports is physically and mentally good for kids – having mental skills that manage emotions of stress and pressure may just be the thing that keeps them involved longer.

Pillars of Performance

We know there are four pillars of performance: Technical, Tactical, Physiological, and Psychological.

We train the first three pillars all the time in sport, but we rarely see on-going intentional training for the psychological within youth sports. I’m biased but I’d argue that of the four pillars the psychological is most important. There is no way to fully express and perform the first three pillars if the psychological isn’t strong and in place.

At WellPerformance we focus our mental performance programming in a way that makes developing the psychological pillar tangible and applicable. Here are some specific areas to focus your child’s attention:

  • Staying present – fear and anxiety live in the replay and pre-play. Patiently redirect them to the moment that is in front of them, or the game that is front of them. They can’t change the past, nor predict the future, but they can positively impact THIS moment.
  • Give all their attention to what they control – All too often we can get caught focusing on the things that others control – playing time or position being played (coach), or a call (referee), or many other things that happen during a practice, game, or season that they don’t control. Instead ask them to focus on learning, effort, finding some joy in the game, being a great teammate, and growing/improving. After these there really isn’t much more that they have control of, or that will be helpful for them. Begin here.
  • Stay away from judgment – young athletes (and even pros) can slip into self-criticism, worrying about what others think of them, and/or comparison. Help them to monitor these things. Don’t ever compare them to other teammates, older siblings, etc. Let me them be on their own journey of improvement. Specifically - at young ages - they can be on the bottom of the team one season and the best by the next season – it doesn’t move in a smooth predictable pattern. Focus only on their own progress. And, be listening for when they compare or are too consumed by what others may be thinking or saying about them.

Learning skills that enhance attention/focus, regulate emotion, self-belief, and build resiliency should surely improve sport performance, but maybe even more importantly are building the foundations for what it takes to manage all the challenging ups and downs of life.

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Stuart Singer

Stu Singer is a performance psychologist and soccer parent. He has worked with National Team, MLS, and NWSL players and ECNL and Development Academy players and teams. He is the creator of the WellPerformance on-line Sports Psychology training platform and the DoSo app that can be downloaded for iPhone or iPad.