According to the American Psychological Association, “sport psychologists help professional and amateur athletes overcome problems, enhance their performance and achieve their goals.” Athletes might be extra nervous during competition, so much so that they can’t perform. Or maybe they are choking during critical moments. Or perhaps they are having trouble controlling their temper during the game. Athletes seek out sports psychologists for a multitude of reasons, and a big component of any sports psychology program focusing on building up the athlete’s mental strength.
Mental strength, or mental toughness, generally describes a particular attitude that allows a person to push through difficult circumstances, such as a highly competitive game or rough loss, and not lose their confidence in the process. While most youth athletes don’t need one-on-one sessions with a sports psychologist just yet, building their mental strength is definitely worthwhile.
Here are three ways youth athletes can build better mental strength:
1. Treat mental strength training as preventative maintenance.
Better mental strength helps youth athletes bounce back from defeat faster, pull themselves out of ruts and slumps, and continually push themselves to be the best they can be. But it’s not a skill many athletes are born with; they have to learn how to do all that. You can’t expect to bench-press 100 pounds the very first time you get into the gym, right? Well, the same holds true for mental strength. Like physical strength, youth athletes have to build their mental strength over time. If a youth athlete hasn’t been focused on building their mental strength BEFORE the game, there really is little they can do right before to make any lasting impact. It’s kind of like cramming before a big test—you might remember a few extra details but most of the information won’t sink in. By focusing on building their mental strength before they are in a high-pressure situation they can better trusts the skills they’ve learned to come through.
2. Don’t put so much emphasis on winning as the end goal.
Everyone likes to win, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to win, but in order to build better mental strength youth athletes have to believe that the final score is not the only thing that matters. Their attitude during the game, their commitment to their teammates, and their continuous hard work also matters.
Warrior mind coach Gregg Swanson points out that;
This is the “programing” that happens at young age by well-meaning coaches and parents. They put so much empathize on winning that if the child doesn’t win their confidence begins to diminish.
I’m not say winning isn’t important, after all that’s why we play the game. What I am saying goes back to the definition of success. When the athlete can make continuous improvements in their performance, their confidence will improve.
At the end of the game, no matter what the score is, if they played their best youth athletes should be proud of themselves. There is no shame in losing if you gave it your all.
3. Encourage athletes to focus on what they can control.
After a loss it’s easy to blame the officials, their teammates, the coaches, and the weather—anything and everything can be at fault. But if youth athletes want better mental strength they have to focus on the things they can control, which at the end of the day, is simply themselves. Blaming, complaining, and justifying put the situation and the outcome squarely in someone else’s hands, leaving the athlete powerless to make any positive changes. When youth athletes take full responsibility for the outcome of the game, and their role in it, they put themselves back in control and have the ability to make good things happen.
Mental strength is not just a sport skill; it’s also a life skill that youth athletes will use throughout their personal and professional lives. It will help them face any life challenge head-on knowing that “this too shall pass,” and taking action to ensure the best possible outcome.