The Path to Mental Toughness for Young Athletes

mental toughness in young athletes scaled
Youth Sports

“It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, “Always do what you are afraid to do.”” 

 Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Mental toughness is a quality that is prevalent in many great athletes and warriors. There is little doubt of its importance. The question is then, how does one develop mental toughness in young athletes?

Parents and coaches play a huge role in helping children become responsible and strong, young adults. So the goal in developing mental toughness should be to look for teachable moments in every situation to help them along in their maturation. Here are several key strategies I’ve embraced with tremendous success.

Key 1 – The Power of Positive Thinking

Young athletes need encouragement as opposed to criticism. As coaches and parents, we should emphasize effort instead of outcome and embrace mistakes instead of demanding perfection. After all, the only way you will never make mistakes is if you fail to take risks, and of course if you fail to take risks you will never achieve peak performance.

Furthermore, studies have proven the power that positivity can play in developing the brain. In their book, “Words Can Change Your Brain”, the authors Andrew Newberg and Mark R. Walden revealed their findings which found that the frontal lobe can be strengthened by encouragement and positive words. The frontal lobe is hugely important as it is the language center, as well as the portion of the brain responsible for concentration, movement, and other critical mental functions. They also showed how negative words or excessive criticism can disturb brain function and impair performance.  So much for the adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

Overall, the goal should be to teach kids to have a “can-do” mindset and a “glass half-full” perspective. Getting kids to believe that anything is possible, goes a long way to helping them become confident leaders, as opposed to pessimists with low expectations or weak motivations. The flip side of this is helping young athletes to nip negative thinking in the bud. In stressful situations or difficult moments, it is natural to be fearful, confused, or in doubt. Turning this mindset around at an early age will pay productive dividends for a lifetime.

Experts suggest focusing on having young athletes view their experiences in terms of growth as opposed to a perspective of success or failure. As young athletes compete or train, the goal should be in making continual improvement and emphasizing the small victories on the path to reaching the final goal. So after a tough loss or athletic failure, try to highlight the areas that the athlete did perform well in and build on that. In this way, a young athlete can understand their personal development better than merely looking at wins and losses as an indicator of success.

Key 2 – Learning To Focus

Concentration and focus are a huge part of being mentally tough. Having the ability to “tune-out” distractions and simply focus on the task at hand is something we see time and time again from great athletes be it a basketball player shooting free-throws in front of a raucous crowd, a baseball player trying to hit a fastball in a packed stadium, or a gymnast trying to nail a routine with an Olympic medal hanging in the balance. The successful ones are those who have laser focus, while those who lack the ability are often referred to as chokers.

Focus can be a challenge for professional athletes and even more so for young athletes who sometimes can be distracted by parents, friends, teammates, intimidating opponents, fears about performance, etc. That’s why it’s important to learn the best ways to re-focus attention to the matter at hand.

One great way to train young athletes to focus is to find one thing in your home that relates to their sport be it a basketball hoop, a football, etc. and to see how long they can stare at it before other thoughts begin to creep in. Getting them to practice long periods of deep concentration can be a tremendous way to center them when they are in game situations and surrounded by distractions.

Additionally, one of the biggest contributors to young athletes losing focus is because of input from too many “coaches.” Young athletes often get too much feedback and advice from parents on the sidelines, when they should be focused on the game they are playing. While parents are well-intentioned, they can easily distract a player from what they are being instructed to do by their actual coach. Whether you agree with a coach or not, it is important to let them do their job and not be a negative distraction that impairs your child’s ability to be successful.

Key 3 – Visualize Success

Visualization is another important tactic in building mental toughness in young athletes. Too often, young competitors envision the worst possible scenario and fear takes over. For instance, a child may worry about striking out in a critical situation or fumbling the football with the game on the line. This can prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as you are more likely to perform poorly when you lack confidence. That’s why it is important to visualize success and the right plays to make.

Before a game or match, try encouraging the player to visualize in their mind how they intend to play. It’s important to try to visualize the situation in as much detail as possible, as being too vague is not as effective for the purposes of the exercise. Focusing on the right imagery can be difficult at times, so you may want to ask leading questions that get them on track. For instance, if your young player is a baseball shortstop, you might quiz them on different plays Derek Jeter would make in different game situations. Once kids can imagine what they look like being successful in critical situations, they will have a lot more confidence about carrying out those actions in actual competition. Of course, in game situations, young athletes will make mistakes and not always perform as they may have envisioned, so continue to reinforce the positive aspects and place less emphasis on the failures. Remember, building mental toughness is a gradual process and not something you just switch on or off.

Key 4 – Setting Goals and Enforcing Commitment

Help young athletes to set goals and then hold them to them. This is an important way to develop both commitment and confidence. First of all, by not letting them back out of that which they commit to achieving, they do not get the option of choosing the easy way out. Then, as they achieve the various goals they have set out to conquer, confidence is built and in turn new and loftier goals can be envisioned.

In terms of sports, when a young athlete makes a commitment to play for a particular team or sport, hold them to it. That means showing up at every practice and game and putting in all the required work to be successful. Often there is a temptation to want to quit when things get difficult or when one fails at something. No one enjoys those kinds of outcomes. However, it is in these situations we often learn the greatest lessons and by not quitting, mental toughness develops. Then, at the end of the season once the commitment has been fulfilled, should a young athlete choose to want to not play the sport anymore, it is ok. The key is to making sure they understand the value of finishing something they start.

Key 5 – Develop More Physical Strength

While it may seem counter-intuitive, a huge part of developing mental toughness comes from building physical toughness. Having a strong body can instill confidence and in turn create a stronger mind.

Building a strong physical base serves a multitude of purposes. First of all, the more physical attributes young athletes can develop, the more confidence they build. It helps kids to allay fears about being too small, slow, or weak. Secondly, putting in the concentrated effort to enhance physical prowess, develops mental resiliency. When you work the body to push through exhaustion or weakness, you break mental barriers and prove to yourself you are capable of more than you thought possible. Digging deep builds not only strength, but character and more importantly mental toughness.

With that in mind, set a consistent workout program, outside of their chosen sport, for young athletes to engage in several times a week. It can be as simple as bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, squats, etc. The important things are to set a schedule that you can stick to and to track the results. Having a consistent schedule works to help in setting and accomplishing goals, while tracking results allows you to see the progress that is being made. Not only will your player make noticeable strides in improving their physique, but the mental payoff will be just as impressive.

Key 6 – Teach That Perseverance Is a Skill

Young athletes need to be made to understand that perseverance is like a muscle that needs to be actively conditioned. Quite simply, the more you exercise it, the stronger it will get. It is said that you will is what translates desire into behavior. Therefore, look for situations that put willpower to the test, and then push beyond your perceived limits.

If a young athlete has a goal to do 10 solid pull-ups and struggles with that, encourage them to develop a shift in mindset. Perhaps something along the lines of imagining you are hanging on a cliff and your life depends on making that last pull-up. Anything that can motivate your body to push through that which your mind says is not possible will help to build perseverance and in turn mental toughness.

In one of the classic sports movies, “Rudy”, we see the journey of Rudy Ruettiger. Rudy was an undersized (5’6”/185 pounds) high school football player who had the desire, but not the size or physical talent to play college football at Notre Dame. On top of all that, he was also dyslexic, and this made it a challenge for him to academically-qualify at the University. The movie follows his journey through every trial and the naysayers who said he could not do it. First off, he had to enroll in a different college to even qualify academically. After two years at Holy Cross University, he finally earned acceptance into Notre Dame in 1974. That year, he worked hard enough as a walk-on to the football team that he was placed on the scout team and allowed to train with the team. However, he never made it onto the field for a real game that season. In his final year of college in 1975, after considering quitting at several points, he persevered and in the last home game of the season was allowed to suit up for the contest. He did play, albeit sparingly, and recorded a sack. The bigger victory though was realizing his dream to play football for Notre Dame.

Getting young athletes to understand the importance of never quitting is probably more valuable than almost any other skill you can equip them with in life.

Key 7 – Train in Uncomfortable Situations

Like the training that exposed the Navy Seal soldiers to dangerous situations to help them overcome their fear or hesitancy in difficult situations, the same type of concept can be put into play with young athletes. The goal is to situate them into uncomfortable positions in practice or training so that when it comes to game time, they have bypassed that fear or emotional attachment to the situation and can simply perform at a peak level.

One of the best ways to challenge young athletes is to have them “play up” or train against stronger foes. From my own basketball coaching days, I managed a 6th grade team that jointly trained with an older 8th grade team. While the boys would do conditioning and drills together, the true grind for them took place when we would scrimmage. By playing up against older, stronger players, the 6th graders were forced to toughen up and raise their level of play and intensity or risk the older kids trampling them in our games. By forcing the boys to train in difficult and uncomfortable conditions, it mentally prepared them to dominate when they would play tournament games against teams in our own age group.

Key 8 – The Importance of Sacrifice & Hard Work

In this day and age, kids seem to have it all in terms of personal freedoms and easy access to luxuries such as junk food, cell phones, the Internet, cable television, video games, etc. With so many options for instant gratification at their fingertips, it is hard to not have some sense of entitlement. That’s why it is important to develop the concept of hard work and sacrifice at an early age.

Quite simply, there is no substitute for hard work. That’s why young athletes need to learn if they have a goal to be a peak performer in their sport, it can’t merely be words. It takes a commitment in terms of time and effort to develop the skills and attributes needed for success. That means being willing to make personal sacrifices like taking the time to go to the park and shoot hoops instead of wasting more hours in front of the television playing games. The point should be stressed that if you want to get extraordinary results, you need to train with a work ethic that matches your desire. Otherwise, the results are likely to be average at best.

Furthermore, with the increasing costs to play youth sports associated with travel teams, expensive gear, and more, why not consider giving a young athlete some extra chores or responsibilities to receive those benefits? By requiring them to work towards something that they really want, it gives them the chance to learn the value of concentrated effort while at the same time defusing the idea that they are getting a free ride through life. In the end, if it is something they really want and are passionate about, they should be more than willing to do what it takes to earn their reward.

Key 9 – Exercise Self-Control & Mental Resiliency

Life itself will always provide unforeseen challenges and obstacles, and sports competition is exactly the same way. The ones that are most successful in both instances are those who can mentally-endure hardship and perform at a high-level. In fact, one of the best ways to gain mental strength is in learning to let go of failure and moving on. Young athletes need to realize that there are going to be moments of failure, but that the key thing is to mentally forgive yourself and then move past the mistake. Consider in baseball, if you are batting .300 that means you get a hit three times out of every ten at-bats. That is considered a great batting average! The flip side of this is that it also means you are getting out SEVEN times out of those same ten at bats! It’s a sport where players quickly have to put a bad at-bat or error behind them and be mentally-resilient for the next situation.

As mentioned earlier, a huge challenge I had with my own youth basketball players was a lack of self-control. These were young players who were passionate about the game, but often lacked the maturity or ability to keep their cool or stop from self-imploding under stress. A questionable call or two from a ref could sometimes light the fuse of an emotional powder keg that could explode at the worst possible time. The first thing we as coaches needed to stress was that we can only control our own actions. Regardless of what happened with the officials, opposing players, or fans, we needed to be accountable for ourselves and channel our energies in a productive way. Instead of throwing a fit or complaining, we focused on redoubling our efforts as a team and letting our actions do the talking for us. Next, we enforced consequences if the issues continued. If you argued a call or received a technical foul from the refs, you immediately were pulled from a game, no questions asked. Sitting on the bench and watching while your teammates play and enjoy the game can drive home the message very quickly.

Learning to master one’s emotions and stand resilient in the face of hardship or disappointment can be one of the most challenging areas for a young athlete to develop. This is definitely an area where we as parents and coaches can have a huge impact and that is by providing an example for kids to follow. If they see adults arguing with officials or letting their emotions and words flare out of control, the message they are going to get is that this is the way to handle conflict or stress. However, if they see examples of self-control and discipline from those in authority, it speaks louder in actions than words ever could. Young athletes also need the message reinforced that it is ok to make mistakes, but that the goal should be to learn from them.

Key 10 – Be a Leader

When we look at the great examples of athletes who embodied mental toughness, we notice that all of those competitors were leaders who blazed their own trails. The same is true for successful leaders in business, education, and just about every other walk of life.

As parents and coaches, we should always encourage children to think independently and avoid following a herd mentality. Educate kids to play and perform like they are setting an example for others. That means showing up to every practice, sprinting on to the field or court, being encouraging and upbeat with teammates while not making excuses or blaming others for failure, taking ownership for mistakes, etc. Furthermore, we must demand that young athletes show respect and sportsmanship at all times to coaches and opponents. There is no place for poor sportsmanship in youth sports and it must never be accepted in young athletes.

Derek Jeter, of the New York Yankees, is the embodiment of a leader in professional sports. He played the game of baseball the right way and led by example. He did not engage in trash-talking, but chose to always remain classy. He stayed out of trouble off the field despite playing his entire career in New York where the media spotlight is always upon you. He was always quick to share advice with teammates and do his best to help others succeed. For all his considerable accomplishments, he stayed humble and was revered by both teammates and opponents. Quite simply, he is a prime example of the kind of athlete with character that all young competitors should seek to emulate.

Summing It All Up

By putting these key training concepts into practice, you can tremendously help a young athlete to develop superior mental toughness. Keep in mind that not all kids may need work in all of these areas. There may be some where they are stronger than others, so focus on the areas where they are weaker and the result will be a stronger, more mentally prepared young athlete. In the end, what they need most from parents and coaches is clear communication, especially in coachable moments. In some ways, the concept of mental toughness may be abstract to children, so the better we can relate personal examples from our own lives and noteworthy displays of mental toughness in athletes or people they look up to, the more effective the lessons will be.