Fading or Thriving In Sport—The Mental Approach That Shapes Healthy & Happy Champions Of Tomorrow

Over the past few years, there has been an increase in visits to my office by parents with young athletes between 11–13 years of age. At first, this seemed like a positive movement, perhaps motivated by a desire to introduce mental skills training to help their children get ahead. However, there is one glaring dilemma across all these cases that is not so positive. These children are not thriving. Parents describe this as a change from enjoying their sport and showing natural talent to becoming more hesitant and fearful in their game approach, looking less confident and demonstrating a drop in performance.

This experience is counter to what you would typically expect from a child at this age who is developing physically and mentally in a way that would naturally enhance skill development through consistent game time without much intervention.

So, what is happening in the sports environment that could be negatively interfering with this trend?

There is a significant transition period in youth sport where the emphasis on the sport experience shifts from ‘having fun and learning’ to ‘competition and performance.’ Coaches would agree that a decade ago, this transition typically took place around the age of 13–15 years but over the years this has been introduced at a progressively younger age. Today, it is not uncommon to see children between 11–13 years and their parents with a purely result-oriented focus in their sports endeavors.

Anecdotally, I hear parents say, “We have just started to take things a bit more seriously with our child’s sport.”

After interviewing many parents and coaches about what ‘more serious’ actually means, I have noticed one key feature in the learning environment—a focus on skill acquisition and raising the standard of performance by scrutiny of mistakes.

When a sports environment emphasizes the inspection and analysis of mistakes in young athletes, the main source of feedback from parents and coaches gravitates toward pointing out specific errors whilst praise actually becomes more vague.

In this instance, it’s not uncommon to hear a parent say, “Good job today, BUT…” What follows is a detailed list of mistakes captured with hawk-eye vision similar to the best performance analysts in professional sport.

In this environment, how does a young athlete gauge how well or how poorly they have performed on a given day?

Interestingly, I often hear kids say, “I know I’ve performed well when I don’t get called out for mistakes on the pitch, and I feel more relaxed.”

Inside the competitive arena, the emerging pattern of behavior in children with a focus on avoiding errors is an overly cautious, more hesitant, and highly nervous young athlete, with a tendency to give up once they recognize a few mistakes have been made.

This form of negative behavior is not simply a product of your child’s lack of confidence, but rather a result of the motivational climate you create which impacts their confidence.

How can we help our young athletes raise their standard of performance whilst changing this seemingly unhelpful focus and negative pattern of response?

Introducing the Positive Behavior Chart in Sport

The first step toward change and helping your child thrive is to shift your focus [that is—you, the parent] and your athlete’s focus away from avoiding errors and toward performing positive behaviors that lead to peak performance. For example, demonstrating positive body language, taking a deep breath or chasing the ball following a mistake, and encouraging others are all general positive behaviors on a soccer pitch.

To apply a focus on positive behaviors, I ask parents and athletes to come up with a list of positive behaviors in which they would feel proud to demonstrate in their sport and thus, reflect their values.

The question to ask before a match becomes, “If I was to see you performing at your best, what would I see you do on the pitch?

Asking this question alone creates positive energy; a feeling that many athletes describe as, determination.

During a match, parents will note how often they see their athlete perform the positive behaviors, establishing a quantitative measure of performance, based NOT on the number of errors made, but the frequency of positive behaviors that lead to peak performance. As a result, athletes begin to alter the information they use to judge their performance.

The impact of applying a positive behavior chart and emphasizing this information in a feedback session is quite remarkable.

A focus on demonstrating positive behaviors creates an approach motivation—“a ‘can-do’ attitude associated with persistence and a high level of effort and engagement.” What’s more, overtime young athletes start to identify their strengths (i.e., the skills they are good at).

The combination of persistence and effort in action with an awareness of one’s strengths is the perfect recipe for building resilience – a primary element of mental toughness.

From this perspective, and contrary to traditional views, it is the emphasis on positive behaviors rather than scrutiny of errors, which helps a young athlete grow up tough.

Play to Your Strengths

When I first introduce the exercise of listing one’s positive behaviors that lead to peak performance, it is interesting to note that most coaches, parents, and athletes find this challenging. However, if I was to ask for a list of all the things they need to improve their performance, they can verbalize these factors in a quick minute.

In most performance contexts, our brain is predominantly trained to assess and resolve our weaknesses to create improvement.

Whilst it is important to understand one’s weaknesses, I strongly believe that we do not place enough focus on identifying and exploiting one’s strengths, which is why it is so difficult for people to connect to specific actions that lead to greatness.

We are far too busy focusing on what not to do.

A strength has two elements, “delivering a high level of performance and experiencing a sense of energy when you are doing it.” In other words, a strength is something you are not only good at, you are also passionate about doing it. When we solely focus on our weaknesses we are usually performing activities we are NOT good at and it de-energizes us, contributing to higher levels of stress, frustration, and doubt.

We are happier, more confident, and six times more likely to be engaged with our job when using our strengths (Linley, 2008).

Research by positivity psychologist, Alex Linley acknowledges that you can develop from working on weaknesses, however, improvement is only possible when you are also working on your strengths.

With such encouraging evidence for a strengths-based approach in coaching, it is hard to believe it is not emphasized more in the development of young talent in sport.

Cultivating Drive and Motivation

The evidence in research to support the positive influence of intrinsic motivation in sport is overwhelming. Studies in sports psychology have consistently shown that athletes who are motivated by the inherent pleasure of training and competing and hold self-referenced goals are more likely to stay involved in their sport long-term (Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2007), and less likely to burnout (Cresswell & Eklund, 2005).

 With the research findings regarding intrinsic motivation in mind, why is there a need to establish a transition in youth sport that de-emphasizes having fun and learning and increases a focus on competition and performance?

Is the focus of high-performance programs in youth sport headed in the wrong direction?

Consider the content of interviews with Olympic champions when asked about their motivation to stay the course of their athletic journey. The common theme is not winning multiple titles, but the joy they feel when performing.

Maintaining a focus on having fun is key to building energy and inspiring high performance in young athletes.

A young athlete who is passionate about their sport, exploiting their strengths, and focused on executing positive behaviors when competing is unstoppable. Sports academies, parents, and schools need to develop practices that cultivate this spirit and focus in our youth. As a starting point, I firmly believe the positive behavior chart is a simple yet powerful tool that can facilitate a confident transition into high performance.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, EaglebrookSchool.

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