As one of the provisional psychologists at Condor Performance, I have found myself working with a number of younger athletes and competitors. Basically, a healthy chunk of nine to fourteen-year-olds. It has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the concept of Sport Psychology for Kids. In other words, the way in which traditional sport psychology methodology is adapted for much younger clients. I hope, in sharing some of these reflections that I can provide some general tips to parents/carers/coaches of younger athletes and performers. This is not to imply that the suggestions are not applicable to all athletes. It’s just that they are particularly pertinent to those yet to hit puberty.
Why Do Kids Play Sport?
There are many reasons why children play sports. But to keep it simple the biggest motivations are exercise, social, mastery, and fun. Or in other words, they want to be liked, be good at stuff and have fun and get fit at the same. Sport, especially competitive sport, is unique in providing this irresistible cocktail.
They have begun school and are starting to absorb a lot of information. They want to show others that they are capable. In many ways, sports contests are the first time they will have the ability to show their skills whilst being directly observed by their friends and family. It’s hard to get a standing ovation when you ace a maths test. But scoring the winning try/runs/goal and the cheer from the sidelines can be a huge incentive to try and do it again.
The Fun Factor
The Fun Factor is also a major part of sport psychology for kids. Fun is a subjective term and it can be difficult to understand this from the child’s perspective at times. In simple behavioural terms, if something is fun we’re more likely to want to do it again.
What I try to encourage caretakers to consider is the main driver of the child’s experience of fun and development from their point of view. As adults, it is very easy for us to impart what we want and miss what the child is telling us they’re trying to accomplish. This is important because we can easily crumple the child’s sense of fun by over-imposing our values on their training. I’m sure it feels strange to sit down with an eight-year-old and let them help you design some of their training sessions. But you’d be amazed at what happens when you try this.
When the fun goes it is hard to get it back. This typically leads to kids deciding they are not really ‘sporty’ and quitting competitive sports altogether. For those interested, here’s an article and study on why kids play and quit sports (Visek et al., 2015).
What Can We Control?
When you go over a list of things that your attention goes towards during competition, it does not take long before you realise that you can’t control most of them. Burning effort and energy on factors outside of our control is something that kids are especially susceptible to. I do this exercise with young competitors where we write this list out. Most of the time they can accurately identify what is within their control (or influence) and what is not. The hardest part, as is the case with most sport psychology techniques, is applying it in a beneficial way.
So crucial is this mental skill that the younger it can be developed the better. All too often the consequence of this exercise is that the young athlete will have a short list of half a dozen aspects that they have a huge amount of influence on. In our experience as psychologists, it’s rare that these items are the same ones their parents and coaches are telling them to focus on. Hence why one of the cornerstones of great sport psychology for kids is making sure that caregivers and coaches are mentally upskilled as well. This is one of the main reasons why at Condor Performance we allow and often encourage the families of our younger clients to sit in on sessions. You can hear more about this via the answer to this FAQ.
Processes Over Outcomes
A process is a series of actions that can be repeated or have a sequence. Outcomes, on the other hand, are results or the byproduct of some actions. In the context of sport and performance, both training and competitions can have processes and outcomes. Let’s take basketball for example. Training processes could be all the practice shots attempted at the end of squad training. But the number of balls that go through the hoop and any credit you get (or did not get) from the coaches are outcomes. These two are almost the same in an actual competitive basketball match but not exactly. Suddenly in a match, you have a defender who will be trying to actually reduce the number of shots you attempt. So for this process, you might need to be trying to make shots by running hard. Suddenly, the number of shots you get joins the number of points you score in the outcome column.
When I ask young competitors what they enjoy about their sport one common answer is “winning”. It is wonderful to hear this accompanied by a big grin however for kids this is usually the extent of the concept.
Shifting their focus toward the process and away from the outcome is not easy but can pay huge dividends throughout the rest of their sporting career. Imagine how much better placed a 10-year-old is when they learn to become more process orientated and use that for the next 25 years of their career. A ‘win at all cost’ mentality is potentially understandable for highly paid professional athletes. But not for youngsters.
Thinking About Winning
Thinking about winning, or any outcome for that matter does not actually help us achieve that outcome. I know it feels like it does and I know many well-intended adults will tell you as such but it just is not the case. Our attention is better placed on the actions that we need to perform in order to give us a higher probability of that outcome occurring.
Which of these two hypothetical children do you think will fair better in their upcoming soccer/football match? The child who is saying to themselves “I must win, I must play well, I must impress my friends”. Or the child who is reminding themself before kick-off “dribble when in space, spread out and use the whole pitch and run hard, I can rest after the match is over”? A Process Oriented Mindset (POM) will also help children manage their own expectations. They do not need to produce something each week, they just need to aim to give their best effort and let the processes take care of the outcomes. Hmm, that would be a great title for a book (see right)!
In today’s world, it’s very easy to access things that bring us immediate pleasure. Largely thanks to advancements in technology we can buy most things online and have them the next day. We can watch almost any TV show or movie at the press of a button.
Communicating with groups of friends only takes a few seconds in 2022. However, there are still a number of very important human experiences that don’t have short-term solutions. These include the development of meaningful relationships and the mastery of skills.
Delayed gratification is putting off short-term enjoyment for long-term benefits. It is important for young competitors to build an understanding that their improvement will not happen overnight. If they have big goals, they might have to skip watching TV for some practice in the backyard. A much more in-depth article on this subject can be seen here.
The Relationship Between Action And Emotions
Sport provides a wonderful opportunity for children to learn about their emotions. It is very important that we start to teach them that it is okay to experience these emotions. We are all human so our lives will be filled with a full array of feelings. What we are looking to do is model for the child how we act whilst we experience those emotions.
Where we get into trouble is when we view certain emotions as undesirable. We then get into a position where we want to remove ‘the nerves’ for example because they make us uncomfortable. This results in an endless struggle because ultimately we don’t have much influence over our emotions.
We are really looking to create a habit where our actions are not conditioned by our emotions. There are a number of examples of this happening in daily living such as getting up early in the morning to catch a flight or going to school. In those moments our feelings aren’t necessarily positive but our actions are more aligned with what we want to accomplish. What we want to do is help kids increase their capacity to respond to these emotions instead of reacting. Basically, we want to reduce impulsivity as per this recent article by my colleague and supervisor Gareth J. Mole.
Resilience is a very alluring quality. When asked, most people respond by saying they want it or that they want to help their child develop it. We know a lot more about its benefits rather than how to develop it. The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”. This implies that the person has to experience something difficult first.
This puts a completely different twist on training. When practice situations are littered with difficulties this is a golden opportunity to develop resilience. The child is essentially practicing accepting the challenges, accepting their emotions, and developing helpful actions that basically equate to recovering quickly.
A wonderful post-match process is reflecting on the performance and writing down what you want to make the focus of your next practice. This reinforces the process over the outcomes, as mentioned above, and gives them a tool to continue developing their skills so that they are better equipped for the next time they meet the challenge.
Do You Want To Get In Touch?
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. We typically respond within 48 hours.