Raising Young Elite Athletes

Raising young elite athletes is no walk in the park. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole, a 15 year veteran of working with sporting teenagers, provides some tips to Mums, Dads and Guardians.

A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians

Trying to be the best parent you can be to you elite athlete son(s) or daughter(s) requires a lot more than just remembering to pack the fold-up chairs.

Introduction

A significant number of the regular readers of our Mental Toughness Digest blog are the parents or guardians of young athletes. Some are the guardians of current or previous youngsters we’ve worked with. Others are just Mums and Dads who have realised that good psychology can help the whole family. Raising young elite athletes (well) is no walk in the park. This blog is an amalgamation of advice that I have provided the parents of my youngest sporting clients over the years.

With very few exceptions I have generally found that the parents of our young sporting clients have acted impeccably. By this I mean they have helped us help their son or daughter. Almost all of them are readily available if need be but tend to be very respectful of the psychologist–athlete relationship. Most mums and Dads tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy. 

In fact if I think back to all the young athletes that I have assisted myself over the last 15 years I can only think of one bad egg. Only on one occasion with one client did a parent ‘block’ my attempt to help their child. Basically the toxic relationship between parent and child trumped by attempts to help the youngster. I followed the career of this promising young athlete and was saddened but not surprised when they quit at age 19.

The Relationship Is Key, Sacrosanct

What is far more common is for the relationship between the young athlete and their parent(s) to benefit from some ‘spit and polish’. In other words, it’s fine and functions but it could – like most things – be that little bit better. Remember parents are not qualified experts in complex concepts such as emotions and motivation.

Here are a couple of humdinger questions that I have had from some of my young sport clients.

  • How do I explain to my father that I would rather he not attend my competitions because of the win-at-all-costs mindset that he has?
  • I would like to have a boyfriend but I know that Mum would see this as me getting distracted from my long term sporting goals. Can you help me with this?
  • My folks put so much pressure on me. I don’t think they mean this but they do. Should I tell them to take it easy?

When it comes to providing advice to these types of difficult but important questions we rarely try and change the parents’ way of thinking. Let’s take the “win-at-all-costs” question above as an example. It’s unlikely that I would try and explain to that parent why that way of thinking might not be ideal. For more on this topic read this Blog post from 2018.

Why Not?

For a start we prefer to spend all of the consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with / on the athlete. Although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent we do not have the luxury of extensive conversations with anyone else outside of the well defined consulting process. This is where email/text message has revolutionised sports psychology services. It allows parents/guardians to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s psychologist but without having to use up any of the 1-on-1 consultation time.

So the advice that we generally give in these scenarios is roughly along these lines:

Genuine mental tests come in many packages. One of the most common is that the people you spend time with will not always make what you’re trying to do easy. Sometimes on purpose (e.g. hyper criticism) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships is tough. The Mental Toughness process will remain incomplete until this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with.

If family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process this provides us with a golden opportunity to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words – instead of having to try and make a situation mentally harder on purpose we can use the “issues” to practice our new found mental skills. Real confidence only really happens when you have seen it work in actual, real life situations.

How Much To Push?

Maybe the hardest part of raising young elite athletes is knowing how much to push. One of the Mothers of one of our clients recently asked the psychologist working with her daughter if he had any advice on this. In other words given the added demands faced by young athletes how much pushing, nagging, cajoling is necessary? And when does it become too much? This is an excellent question.

I have had a few weeks to think about this since the question was sent to me and now that I have this is my response.

Many of the clues to a lot of psychological dilemmas is often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme can be useful. A analogy of water temperature can be useful here. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter we take huge care of making sure that the water is neither too hot nor too cold.

In fact, when my daughter and son were babies I had a thermometer to ensure that the water temperature was always close to 37.0 degrees. As they aged the “degrees of freedom” grew so nowadays anything between 35 and 40 degrees is fine.

Degrees of Freedom

From my point of view this analogy is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are the more I’d suggest that you reduce the possibility of extremes. For example too much practice and too little. Or too many competitive situations and not enough. But as they grow older we’d want to allow more and more degrees of freedoms. In other words, although you still try and motivate them to do their homework the acceptable range becomes bigger and bigger. You might insist on them doing some homework each day but you become flexible with when this takes place and the duration.

In other words, if you’re the Mum or Dad of a 10-year-old athlete who is inclined to overtrain then I’d suggest making it virtually impossible for this to take place due to their age. However, if your child is almost an adult and is “not putting in the work” then it might be better for everyone if you just become a gentle reminder service.

Sometimes simple little strategies such as helping take the training equipment out before some home training and helping them pack away can do wonders when it comes to helping teenage athletes find the “sweet spot”.

8 ‘Quick Wins’ for Sporting Parents:

  1. Communicate with your child in a way that shows you are more interested / invested in their effort (highly influenceable) than their sporting results (somewhat influenceable). Accept that raising young elite athletes comes / will comes with its challenges.
  2. Get them to complete the free Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Athletes here and go through the results with them.
  3. The relationship you have with your son/daughter will always be more important than their sporting success. Try not to sacrifice the former for the latter.
  4. Be there for them during the good times and the not-so-good times. Let them ride the ups and downs that come with elite sport.
  5. Try not to assume what is best for you is best for them. Telling them what to do all the time with few / no choices should be a red flag.
  6. If you want to be a parent-coach (both their Mum / Dad and their coach) then first discuss the pros and cons with them. When all parties are happy clarify the dual role on paper before you jump in.
  7. Get Angela Ductwork’s ‘Grit’ then discuss the book as a family.
  8. Read this blog post from 2018.
  9. Download the below guidelines from the Western Australia Department of Sport and Recreation – Clubs guide to encouraging positive parent behaviour:

Mental Skills Etc.

Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.

Mental Skills
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mental Skills?

The term mental skill (or mental skills) is one of the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly almost everywhere in my experience. And here’s why.

The skills are the outcomes not the processes yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.

When we talk about an athlete who is technically skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. We are not referring to how they became skilful only that they are skilful. So with the technical side (engine) it’s quite easy to seperate the outcomes (ability) with the processes (how).

Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. If I compare myself with Leonel Messi you’ll see what I mean. Messi’s ability to dribble the ball is far better than mine. He has far better skills in this technical aspect of soccer than I do. But we can’t say the same about the methods (processes) that each of us use (have used) to work on this skill.

Because the most common way to become better at dribbling is by actually dribbling a ball then the skill and the process got mixed up along the way.

But dribbling is not the only way to become better at dribbling.

As I explain in this recent visualisation video I created imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. The can and should include physical skills, mental skills and tactical skills.

The main reason that the term mental skill(s) is useful incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.

Let’s All Use The Correct Terms

If I were in charge of the “sports science dictionary” so to speak I would insist on the following. All processes (activities) should contain the word ‘method’ and all outcomes (abilities) should use the word ‘skill’. So for example catching a baseball is regarded as one of the technical skills of baseball. But there might be dozens of method that good practice coaches use to hone this particular skill.

How This Plays Out For Mental Skills

There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen for mental methods and mental skills as much. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than the psychical and tactical engines. Second, it’s a much more recent participant at the performance enhancement top table.

At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.

Think of emotions as being rather similar to dribbling a soccer ball. You are either very good at handling your emotions or very poor or somewhere in the middle. And of course, regardless of how good you are, you could always get better.

So emotional management (intelligence) becomes the focus of the endeavours. If you Google ‘mental skills’ you’ll find furphies all over the screen suggesting that goal setting, visualisation and mindfulnesses are all common mental skills used in sport and performance.

They are common, but they are not mental skills – they are mental methods (processes).

The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side.

Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …

  • I could improve my flexibility by …
  • To improve my cardio fitness I could …
  • I could improve my upper body strength by …

In these three examples, the word in bold is the target – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end. For example:

I could improve my cardio fitness by running, skipping, rowing, walking, cycling and/or swimming.

One target with many physical methods.

Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance (also known as mental toughness). 

  • I could improve my motivation by …
  • To improve my handling of emotions I could …
  • I could improve my thoughts by …
  • To improve the unity of my team I could …
  • I could improve my focus by …

Not Quite So Easy Is It?

Remember motivation is the mental skill here. So the question is what processes might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation?

Our old friend goal setting might be one and we recently wrote an entire article on the mental method that some people call goal setting which you can read here. Crucially goal setting is just one of hundreds of ways to target motivations. Just in the same way that skipping is just one methods to improve fitness.

How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ and we recently created this free VSM audio file that anyone can download.

What about thoughts and thinking? I bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you? The best method in my professional opinion is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on common performance factors. For example, do you instinctively know that you have more influence on your effort than your sporting results?

How about the mental skill of Team Unity? I would suggest doing some research into someone called the 10 R’s for more on this one.

Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? In my career so far as a sport psychologist I have had huge success in helping my clients improve their focus with the use of routines.

If you’d like to develop these ideas further then there a couple of options. First, you can reach out to us and ask about the process to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport / performance psychologists. Our hourly rate varies a little depending on location and monthly option but is roughly AUS$ 200 (US$ 150) and hour. If this is beyond your budget then consider doing one of our online Mental Toughness courses instead.

Mental Toughness Is Not The Same As Mental Health

Leading Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole explains the difference between Mental Toughness for Performance and Clinical Mental Health.

Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same.
Being Mentally Well and Mentally Tough are not the same thing.

There is an encouraging change taking place behind the scenes in elite sport around the world. Mental health (wellbeing) is starting to be considered an important part of sporting excellence. This is a welcome change from the “win-at-all-cost” and “suck it up” ideologies that existed before. But it’s not all roses and bubblegum. With this Wellbeing Movement there is a risk that many people involved in the pointy end of sport will confuse mental health with mental toughness. Of course although they are related due to both being related to the mind, they are not one and the same.

Thousands of Psychological Models

Psychologists the world over vary considerably when it comes to which frameworks they use to inform their work. Maybe more so than any other regulated profession disagreement about which theories are best is common. On the one hand this is healthy as it encourages robust discussion – a key improvement ingredient of any profession. The issue with psychology, especially sport psychology, is both the size of the disagreements and how they’re handled.

When I started Condor Performance in 2005 one of my goals was to only have the healthy bit (above). By this I mean I set out to put together a team of sport and performance psychologists who all agreed on the core elements of what we did. To this day I am happy for the team to disagree about the smaller stuff but we need to be in unison about which framework is best for our sport and performance clients.

In 2005, most of the sport psychology theories were geared towards either performance enhancement or person enhancement. Often the ideas contained within wouldn’t work together. In fact, some of them would actually damage the other side. As a new qualified sport psychologist I was not satisfied with this status quo. Our clients deserved better.

Metuf Is Born

This was my starting point. Most registered psychologists are quite capable of assisting people with mental health issues (e.g. severe depression). However not many psychologists can help sporting clients with their “mental game”. The part that is getting referred to in famous phrases like “golf is 90% mental”.

I wanted to be able to do both, I wanted to bake my cake and eat it. Then I wanted other performance psychologists to be able to do the same. As 99% of the consulting we do at Condor Performance is one-on-one then I wanted to be a councillor, a coach or both to our growing client base.

Metuf didn’t come about suddenly. In fact the main elements from Metuf didn’t even have a proper name before 2010. They existed as a series of worksheets that we’d use with our clients. These PDFs, now part of our archives, declared that general wellbeing and happiness are not the complete psychological requirements needed to reach ambitious sporting goals.

There are other psychological aspects that may not be that useful for normal, everyday people. But these mental skills are mighty useful when it comes to achieving consistent success. The best umbrella term for these extra psychological strengths is Mental Toughness. 

Pre Shot Routines – A Great Example

Whenever I am asked to defend this position – that mental toughness and mental health are not the same – I use the same example. One of the most useful mental skill for start-stop sports (like golf, shooting, lawn bowls) is a Pre X Routine. For golf, that X is shot but for tennis it’s means point. These short routines have nothing to do with mental health and wellbeing. They never have, they never will.

As Metuf evolved so did it’s place in the bigger picture. We used to believe the ideas would only really work on the mentally well. In other words in the early days we’d often refer our clients to clinical psychologists for “fixing” first. But eventually we worked out that many people where quite capable of working on their mental health and mental toughness at the same time.

Where Does The Word Metuf Comes From?

Despite there being hundreds of mental skills that can be used to enhance human performance there are only a few mental targets. By this I mean when you seperate mental health from mental toughness and try to break down the latter into smaller parts you’re not left with a lot. When we refer to mental toughness five potential improvement areas keep coming up over and over again:

Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. 

The first letter of each of these five words spells Metuf – which is pronounced with a soft ‘e’ as in egg not a hard ‘e’ as in me.

If we look at these five labels we can see where the confusion between Mental Health and Mental Toughness can come from. The first three in particular look like they’d be pretty handy for anyone struggling with their mental health (think depression and motivation, or severe anxiety and emotions). 

But the M in Metuf that stands for motivation is from the context of performance not daily life. The kind of interventions that a clinical psychologist might use to motivate someone with clinical depression don’t resemble the kind of Mental Methods we use to motivate mentally well athletes, coaches, officials and performers. And the same applies for the E, T, U and F.

The Aeroplane Analogy

The analogy that we have been using more recently is that competitive athletes are like four engines aeroplanes. Overall wellbeing is like the main body of the aircraft, Mental Toughness is like one of the engines. In other words there is no point in having Rolls Royce engines if they’re attached to an aeroplane that is falling to bits.

A full explanation of this analogy can be seen through the Introduction Videos of our online Mental Toughness training courses. These intro videos can be seen for free before you decide if you’d like to pay for the entire course.

If watching some video presentations isn’t your thing then reach out to us instead. We now have a team of almost ten psychologists. All of whom can help you with either your mental health, your mental toughness or both.