Youth Sports: Life Lessons on the Mental Game

The authors of “Beyond The Scoreboard” share lessons to help parents and coaches learn how to best support kids through sports

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Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/USAG Humphreys

By Michael Kasdan

We’ve all seen that crazy parent, or that obsessive coach, pacing the sideline at a youth sporting event, yelling, shaking their finger after the game. We watch cringing and feeling awful for the kid and justified in our own toned-down approach to supporting our kids through sports.

But could the seemingly small things we do or say affect the mental game of our young athletes just as much as the “crazy” adults and their explosive behavior? Are words of encouragement, like, “Just go out there and try your best!” actually doing similar damage?

In his new book, Beyond the Scoreboard: Learn It Through Youth Sports, Carry It Through Life, co-authored by Celeste Romano, Dr. Nick Molinaro, a licensed psychologist who specializes in performance and sport psychology, decodes how an athlete’s environment can either positively impact their mental game or contribute to burnout, resentment, and even physical injury. From what to say after a big loss to help your child maintain their passion to how to really achieve a growth-mindset lifestyle, Beyond the Scoreboard is packed with ready-to-use pointers and insights.

Dr. Nick and Celeste sat down with Good Men Project Sports to share their insights on how parents and coaches can best help their young athletes and children. These lessons about the “mental game” and how to develop a young athlete’s mental toolbox, have an impact that stretches beyond the ball-fields.

As they told us, “When 70% of youths leave organized sports by the age of thirteen, losing out on the physical, social, and emotional benefits derived from athletic participation, we have to get serious about our approach to coaching and leading them.”

Good Men Project Sports:

Why do you think the topic of how we interact with our children in the context of youth sports is so important?

Celeste Romano:

Many sports parents I know and have witnessed seem to think the words and critiques they use are innocuous. Yet, as parents, we have more power over our children’s emotional well-being than we know. We think sometimes that they aren’t listening to us or care what we think, but the truth is they hear and see everything we do.

I’ve witnessed, more times than I care to count, parents berate their kid’s performance in the name of “tough love” and every time, I’ve seen the kid shrink from it. You can see it on their faces or physical response and it’s hard to watch — their emotional well-being is bruised. And those bruises affect performance at every turn, because on the field their mind is worried about the repercussions after the game, not what they need to do in the game.

Dr. Nick Molinaro:

Parents are the epicenter of a child’s world from birth. The environment each parent provides will affect, for the good or bad, inherent qualities given to the child by nature.

How parents communicate with their child, through words or actions, will impact their ability to develop a strong mental game. What is learned in competition, whether or not the player is of exceptional or average potential in the sport, will have a significant impact on them. Winning or losing should never be the importance of the process of playing sport. Playing should be enjoyable and executing at one’s highest level should be instilled in competitive situations early on in life.

For example, if a parent focuses on the importance of winning, they convey to their child that winning is what matters. However, high performing athletes are high performers because they have a passion to perform. Winning is just a by-product. High performing athletes see failure as a growth opportunity, to redefine their skill parameters raising their performance bar, not something to fear or be defeated by. So, if a parent’s sideline conversations revolve around winning or admonishing the player over a loss, they send the message that winning is what matters and, in the end, stifle the child’s ability to grow as a player — they have in fact limited their child’s potential.

High performers that I’ve worked with all share one thing in common. They all have a low need for positive reinforcement. Basically, these athletes perform at such a high level because during practice and competition they are solely focused on the skills they need to do. They aren’t worried or preoccupied with anyone’s reaction on the sidelines.

If a parent constantly praises everything their athlete does, they will foster a child’s need for that approval. But, if a parent provides feedback with critiques specific to performance skills, encourages them to learn from their failures instead of fear them, and doesn’t tie their love to the child’s performance, the child will, in practice and competition, be solely focused on the skills they need to execute in competition. Ultimately, they will then perform at a higher level.

GMP Sports:

As an expert who has studied psychology and worked with athletes, what are some of your key observations about what parents and coaches most commonly get wrong?

Dr. Nick:

Parents and coaches alike foster the false theory that all a player needs is confidence. Two basic processes influence confidence; both are frequently unreliable indicators of success. The first is “belief.” Many say that what a person believes predicts their behavior. Values are great examples of beliefs. However, beliefs don’t always tell us the truth. The second process influencing confidence are “feelings.” Like belief, feelings also don’t always tell us the truth. You can believe/feel something is true, but that does not necessarily make it so. High confidence does not necessarily correlate to high performance; nor does low confidence correlate to low performance.

You may find this hard to believe, but as a sport psychologist, I don’t want the athletes I work with to focus on how they feel about their performance. Emotions are not part and parcel with good performance. Confidence and emotions are overrated in performance.

Quite often a coach or parent comes to me and says, “Oh he just needs a little confidence and he will play better.”

My first response is, “Well if what he needs is confidence, how will he get it?”

Their reply usually is, “Once they start winning, they will gain some confidence.”

“Well, if what they need to win is confidence and you're telling me they don’t have any confidence, then how will they win?”

What players need isn’t confidence but self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is based on truth and knowledge without doubt. Self-efficacy is a more scientific approach, one that deals in facts and not feelings. In the model that confidence is essential we see an elemental flaw. I subscribe to the model of “self-efficacy” that was developed by Dr. Albert Bandura. I have extrapolated his findings to reduce it to a simple concept: The key is what is the truth about an individual’s performance — not what they “believe” or “feel.” If the truth is that the individual can execute specific behaviors that is what they should focus upon.

For example, take Michael Phelps. When he gets in the water do you think he tells himself he just needs the confidence to win? In fact, he has very low confidence if you have read any of his interviews in the past year. What he does have is a truth about his abilities to perform without doubt. How he feels when he gets into the water is irrelevant, it’s what he knows that gets him to the finish faster than anyone else. He knows he can swim faster than anyone else because he’s established his truth through hours of practice — he knows without a doubt what he is physically capable of doing and he does it even when he is not feeling great about himself. His truth drives the performance.

GMP Sports:

How do you think “What to say after the game” adds to the knowledge base and conversation about this topic?

Dr. Nick:

Importantly, Parents provide the environment that shapes their child. They build that environment with each interaction. If when the child comes off the playing field and the parent is yelling at them and giving harsh critiques, the child will see and hear that Mom or Dad is only happy when I play well.

Here are some key take-aways:

  • Parents need to not talk in overly harsh tones. They need to keep all critiques specific to how a child performs a skill. Such as: I liked the way you anticipated your opponent coming across the field. Or, I noticed your head lifting on the downswing with your driver.
  • Keep all general comments focused on the idea of the child having fun. Parents need to foster the importance of joy being linked to sports. If the child fails to feel joy, then they won’t have passion and will stop playing a sport.
  • Use every performance as a time to talk about improving by asking: How do you feel you did today? What did you learn on the field today that you want to improve on or perhaps do again because it worked well?
  • Avoid talking about winning. Change the focus from winning/losing to growing/learning. Winning should never be the focus, growth and learning should be. The player that is growth-minded will push themselves to be higher-performers.

GMP Sports:

Why do you emphasize the “mental game” in your work and how do you see that playing out in greater success not only in sports but also in other areas of life?

Celeste:

My eldest played competitive junior golf. He developed a strong mental game because in golf, you are it — there isn’t a teammate to help you out, your performance alone decides your fate.

Having developed that strong sense of self-reliance is crucial now that he is training for a career as a first responder. He won’t look for the pat on the back or wonder if he can pull the victim out of a car wreck or a burning building, he will just focus on what he was trained to do.

Dr. Nick:

The mental game can override the physical game at any turn. No matter how well trained an athlete may be if they are riddled with doubt or a need for positive reinforcement, then they will never be able to perform at their highest level. Their focus during performance won’t be on execution but on fear of not performing well. When an athlete develops a strong mental game it automatically is how they think about any task.

The skills learned in sports are embedded in who the child is and naturally transfer to all areas of life. So, as youths, if they can develop this strong mental game, they will naturally employ it in school or on the job.

Another aspect of my career is in Talent Assessment/Acquisition/Development. I am frequently asked to consult in major companies both national and international. The reason my work is highly valued is because I can predict with reasonable accuracy who will be effective in leadership based upon the “mental game.”

GMP Sports:

When you talk about this subject to parents and coaches, what is the most important piece of advice you give?

Dr. Nick:

Understanding how their child sees their environment gives them a means of evaluating how they are doing.

What does their child see when they come down the stairs in the morning?

Are they met with a smile or irritation?

When they come off the field, are they criticized or feel loved?

Once a parent can visualize the environment they are providing, then and only then they can make the changes we talk about in the book.

GMP Sports:

What “mental game” tools do you think are the most crucial for athletes to have in the toolbox and what’s your advice as to how to build out that toolbox.

Dr. Nick:

Mindset, grit, and self-efficacy are the most important tools in developing a strong mental game.

The best advice I can give parents is they need to understand the environment they provide before they can make positive changes to it, and the way to do that is to practice empathy.

Mindset is essentially teaching your child to look at failure or negativity as a means to growing and learning. Once they do, they will push themselves because they won’t fear failing anymore — they will desire the growth opportunity.

Grit under my definition contains three components: passion, perseverance and a low need for positive reinforcement. Developing grit in a player will allow them the ability to keep going despite set-backs and difficulties. To deliver a strong performance despite adversity.

Self-efficacy deals with the child knowing how much they have in them, what they can physically do without a doubt because they have proven they can. It has nothing to do with a feeling of being confident but holding a truth around their abilities.

Each of these tools is developed through sports and nurtured in the good parenting skills which we explain in detail in our book.

This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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