Spring and summer are high times for kids’ involvement in sports. As families head to the ballpark, it’s a good time to pause and think about how to make the most out of a young athlete’s experience.
Jedediah Blanton is an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies. His research focuses on maximizing the benefits of youth sport and minimizing the detriments. He looks at how coaches, athletic directors, and state high school associations can help foster leadership and life skills through high school athletics.
Blanton offers the following advice for student-athletes, coaches, and parents.
What is sport psychology?
Sport psychology is the scientific study of people and their behaviors in sport contexts and the practical application of that knowledge. We use evidence from our research to help people have more optimal experiences. We typically focus on working with the athletes to more consistently perform at their best, helping coaches and athletes enjoy their sport experiences more by learning valuable life lessons, helping parents to be supportive, and providing suggestions on how to navigate the pressures and stress of sport.
How can young athletes stay properly focused?
Athletes often make mistakes by thinking about too many things at one time. And often those things are parts of the game they cannot control, like the time left, the score, or what their opponent will do next. One way to help athletes when they are too in their head is to first help them recognize when it’s happening and why, and then to refocus:
Take a deep breath
Ask yourself: What can you control?
Channel your mental and physical energy there
What are the best tips for young athletes to deal with pressure?
We encourage coaches to host practice sessions that are more like games. Too often coaches run the same drill over and over and over again, and we almost never get a game situation with the same skill back to back. Gamelike practices help athletes learn to make quick performance decisions without being able to predict what will happen. This sort of practice also allows coaches and players to stop and think through a mistake if one is made.
What we perceive as performance pressure is actually a fear of letting others down. And for young athletes these others are adults—namely, parents and coaches—who dictate much of our lives and perhaps even show us varying levels of love based on our sport performance. We always tell parents to show unconditional love and to let the child drive the conversation after a game, especially a loss. When young athletes have this kind of support, they are more likely to try new tactics without fear of what will happen when they fail or make a mistake.
What are the best tips for young athletes who have coaches who don’t give them feedback, either positive or negative?
To the extent the athlete is comfortable, they can simply ask the coach for some extra tips after practice. It’s a good idea to open this request with a goal statement first: “I really think I could improve my corner kicks. Can you watch me kick a couple and give me some feedback?”
Other strategies might include leaning on your peers or parents. For example, ask them to video record you during practice and then watch it together to identify what went well and what could be improved.
What are the best tips for parents in how to support their young athlete?
We always ask parents to love their child unconditionally and remember that their child’s well-being is more important than one weekend’s sport outcome. We ask that parents model the type of person they want their child to be, in sport and out of it.
Athletes watch and listen as parents process their wins and losses. If a loss means a miserable and berating lecture on the ride home, they are going to quickly become miserable in sport. But if the athlete chooses to talk about it, and the parents help them to celebrate what went well, they will view sport as a place where it is OK to experiment and make mistakes as long as they try their best.
What are the benefits of competition for young athletes?
The thing adults most often forget is that kids play sports primarily to have fun, make friends, and enjoy competition. The most commonly held belief that I confront in my own research is that sport builds character. We know that it can but often does not because the adults in charge do not include any explicit lessons or conversations about how working hard, showing up on time, projecting confidence, etc. matter for other areas of life. When coaches explicitly, purposely, and regularly share how sport is going to help them later in life, or how lessons learned in sport can be applied at school, in relationships, or at their future jobs, the young athlete is more likely to gain—and retain—those skills.