Raising Young Elite Athletes

Raising young elite athletes is no walk in the park. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole, a 20 year veteran of working with elite sporting teens, provides some tips to Mums, Dads and Guardians.

A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians

Raising Young Elite Athletes – No Walk In The Park

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 sound psychological processes can help the whole family. Raising young elite athletes (well) is no walk in the park. This blog is an amalgamation of advice I have provided the parents of my younger 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(s) or daughter(s). Almost all are readily available but tend to respect the psychologist–athlete relationship. Most parents tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy. 

Considering all the young athletes I have assisted over the last twenty 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 scuppered my attempts to help the youngster.

The Relationship Is Key

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

Here are some examples of some great questions that I have had from some of my younger sporting clients over the years:

  • How do I explain to my father that I would prefer it if he did not attend my competitions because of his win-at-all-costs mindset?
  • 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?
  • I want my Mum and Dad to be my parents, not my coaches!

When providing advice to these kinds of difficult but important questions, we rarely try to change the parents’ way of being. Let’s take the “win-at-all-costs” question above as an example. It’s unlikely that I would attempt to explain to that parent directly why that way of thinking might not be ideal.

Instead, I typically prefer assisting their offspring in understanding why many parents are so “outcome-focused” and how they can, as the athlete/performer, manage this better.

This Makes Sense, Tell Me More …

First, we prefer to spend most of the flexible consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with the athlete. Although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent, we rarely have the luxury of extra time to have extensive discussions with anyone else outside of the well-defined consulting process. This is where email/text messages have revolutionised sport psychology services. It allows parents/guardians to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s psychologist without using the 1-on-1 consultation time that is so critical during the mental conditioning process.

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. hypercriticism) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships is tough. The mental training process will remain incomplete until this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with.

If a family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process, this gives us a golden opportunity 🥳 to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words, instead of trying to make a situation mentally harder on purpose, we can use these “natural issues” to practice our newfound mental skills. Imagine this. A huge family argument the night before a big competition can work in the long-term favour of the teenager who, with the proper psychological support, has to learn not to allow this to impact what they do the following day.

How Much To Push?

Maybe the most challenging 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 young athletes face, how much pushing, nagging, and cajoling is necessary? And when does it become too much? This is an excellent question.

The clues to many psychological dilemmas are often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme can be helpful. An analogy of water temperature can help. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter, we ensure the water is neither too hot nor too cold.

Think of pushing too much as being the same as water temperature that is too hot to bathe in (40 degrees, ouch 🥵). And not bothering to push (remind, nag) at all is the same as water temperature that is too cold (10 degrees 🥶). Parents – aim for somewhere in the middle (25 degrees 😉).

From a psychological point of view, most qualified sport psychologists will be more than happy to do some of the pushing for you. Parenting is hard enough as it is without you also having to try and motivate your youngest(s) without any formal sport psychology training.

Degrees of Freedom

From my point of view, this is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are, the more I suggest you reduce the possibility of extremes and try to control the degrees of freedom. For example, for elite athletes under ten, maybe you try hard not to have that colossal family punch-up the night before. For those between ten and fifteen, if an argument happens organically, let it happen. Older than fifteen, maybe start an argument on purpose once in a while to give them an extra opportunity to implement their ever-increasing mental toughness.

Let’s use the preparation of equipment as another example of this. Very young; get all their stuff ready by yourself and let them sleep. Slightly older; remind them to do it and help a little. Older still; hope they do everything themselves and accept that if they don’t, there will be a consequence, and they will learn from it. You get the idea, no?

8 ‘Quick Wins’ for The Parents Of Young Elite Athletes:

Law of Reverse Effect

This 12 minute article is a ‘must read’ for anyone vaguely interested in sport psychology and/or human performance enhancement.

SAMARA RUSSIA – MARCH 10: Nathan Jawai of BC UNICS gets ready to throw from the free throw line in a game against BC Krasnye Krylia on March 10 2012, in Samara, Russia.

Theories Galore

One of the best and worst aspects of modern-day sport psychology is our sheer number of theories. Wow, there is a lot to choose from. The upside of having so many frameworks to draw from is it’s rare we encounter a challenge without at least some empirical guidance. Struggling with your confidence? No worries, we’ve got you covered. Finding yourself in the middle of a motivation rut during the middle of the season? Easy Peasy, we’ve got about a dozen processes specifically designed to help with that. 

But of course, there is a downside as well. Information overload! Due in part to the fact that we employ several sport psychologists and performance psychologists and, therefore, are ethically obliged to agree with one another to a certain degree, we have always been interested in organising these theories in some way.

A Theory For All The Theories

By organising, I mean sorting them into different types. For example, which of them contain useful and useable processes? When you examine many of these models properly, you’ll be surprised how many don’t contain applied advice.

Let’s take the Theory of Internal And External Motivation as an example. It is a great concept but falls short regarding practical tips. So, for example, running a workshop on types of motivation for a group of athletes rarely impacts their actual motivation.

Then, there are some theories that virtually nobody has come across. And yet, without too much creativity, they are packed with usable recommendations. The Law of Reverse Effect is just one of these.

Have You Heard About The Law of Reverse Effect?

The Law of Reverse Effect is sometimes called The Law of Reversed Effect (with a ‘d’ at the end of reverse) or The Law of Reverse Effort or The Backwards Law.

Classic psychology, we can’t even agree on the thing’s name!

Speaking of which, have you voted yet for what you believe should be the correct spelling of sport(s) psychology from now on? If not, you can vote here to have your say.

Anyway, The Law of Reverse Effect suggests that “the greater the conscious effort, the less the subconscious response” or “whenever the will (conscious mind) and imagination (subconscious) conflict, the imagination (subconscious) always wins.”

Non-psychobabble takeaway?

At some point, when your motor skills are automated enough (muscle memory has been established), then trying hard to hit the ball, stick the dismount, or make the right incision (surgeon) will have the reverse effect and potentially make you worse. It would be like trying hard to walk better.

Neuroscience Time

How is this possible? Surely, putting in the maximum effort is universally beneficial. Wrong.

To explain, we need to tap into a little bit of neuroscience. When you complete a body movement, your basal ganglia and cerebellum attempt to learn how it was done. The more you repeat the same movement, the stronger the memory of the muscles becomes. After a while, the movement becomes automatic. In other words, it can be done and prefers to be done without conscious effort. One of the best examples is walking for able-bodied people.

Thinking about how to complete this body movement acts as a circuit breaker for this automatic process. Muscle memory is blocked, and your body returns to a novice/learning mode. The prefrontal cortex overrides the basal ganglia and cerebellum. As you can imagine, in the work that we do, this is very useful information. It informs us that it is not that trying too hard is the problem but rather what type of effort is best avoided. 

Have You Worked It Out Yet?

That’s right, it is the mental effort related to the technical aspects of what you do. The biomechanics of the putt, punt, pass or pivot. In essence, the last thing we want to think about when you are lining up to take the corner kick is how to kick the soccer ball.

So, if we spare ourselves from the technical or biomechanical elements of effort when we are under pressure to perform, what does that leave us with? It leaves us with mental effort about something other than technique.

For example, saying to yourself “trust your processes or stick to your processes” doesn’t interfere with the neurones involved in automatic muscle memory. So these cognitions can coexist quite happily with allowing your body to do what it’s learnt how to do.

The same applies to reminding oneself about tactical aspects. Let’s use the previous example about taking a penalty in soccer/football. The decision about where to aim the shot is both necessary and non-interfering of muscle memory.

These mental and tactical endeavours are already occurring in the conscious front part of the brain. Therefore, by their very nature, they are completely out of the way of the basal ganglia and cerebellum. No short-circuiting is taking place.

Thoughts Are Not Essential

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention in an article of this type that there is no need to have any pre-meditated thoughts before or during one of these memorised body movements. The basal ganglia and cerebellum will do their job whilst you are thinking about almost anything other than how to do that skill.

Please note that this is only for expert performers whose skills are already automated. This does not apply to novices learning the skills for the first time.

To cut through all of this psychobabble, I often give advice to my sporting clients as follows. Put all your effort eggs into the preparation basket, and then come competition time, turn up and let it happen. And yes, this also applies at the highest levels of competition, such as world championships and the Olympics. It’s, in fact, even more important in these kinds of high-pressure situations.

Interested But Need A Hand?

Has this article piqued your interest in improving either your mental health or mental aspects of your sport/performance? Then Get In Touch via one of these methods: ⏩ Email us directly at [email protected] and let us know more about you and how we can help. ⏩ Fill in one of our four Mental Toughness Questionnaires and tick the box at the end when it asks if you’d like to receive info about our services.