I have written in the past about the tremendous opportunity I am afforded when attending the sporting events of the young athletes that I coach. It allows me to see them in action and observe how their body moves when they are forced to react quickly and frequently to random unrehearsed situations. However, it also provides valuable information beyond their physical abilities.
Watching children perform in sports also provides a glimpse into their character and how they handle the demands (both internal and external) of competition. External demands would be things like opponents, playing surface, weather conditions and even crowd noise. Internal demands are related in large part to how they handle these external demands. As an example if an athlete thinks it’s too cold and wet they may talk themselves into an excuse for a poor performance, or the belief that an opponent “plays dirty’” may force them to play more cautiously or more aggressively (depending on the personality of the child) than they normally would. So in essence the external demands of competition can and often do create an internal demand that must be addressed in order to compete effectively.
There are many qualities that all athletic development programs likely share such as; speed and quickness, core stability, balance, strength and power. And these are the qualities that parents and coaches are seeking when their child takes part in a training program. It is my strong opinion that the mental side of sport/competition is just as relevant to their overall athletic development of children.
The importance of the mental game was highlighted during a recent tennis match I attended for one of the young men that I coach. The match was part of a team tournament at a local athletic club. I sat with his family courtside on one end of the net. On the other end of the net about 15 girls and boys that were members of the host club had gathered. The age range for this group of kids was probably 10-15 years. I admit to being a newbie when it comes to the tennis-viewing scene but apparently when the player you aren’t supporting hits a bad shot into the net it’s frowned upon to cheer at that time. Only cheer your guy when he makes a good shot. And to add further potential fuel to the fire the boys make their own calls on balls in and out of play.
Well guess what happened early and often throughout the match? When the young man I coach hit a bad shot the kids would jump up and down, yell, clap and cheer wildly. There were frequent disputed calls between the two boys that resulted in a stalemate and a resolution process that I still don’t quite understand. I won’t go in to the details but the mother of my athlete resorted in the end to calling over tournament officials who had to basically watch the rest of the match to keep everyone in line.
There are a couple of issues that I would like to touch on from this experience. First, the boy that I coach was clearly the more skilled player but he lost his composure and provided the crowd and his opponent and opportunity to exploit his emotions. It clearly changed the way he played and not for the better. Once tournament officials arrived he was able to settle down and win the match but there is no doubt that I came away from that match with a rather significant issue to address. The “fix” for his response to less than ideal external circumstances will take practice but most coaches should and do have tools to address these issues. As an athlete you have only two things that are within your control and if you relinquish them you give away your competitive edge. An athlete can control their approach to competition; in short they need a mental game plan going into the competition that is reliable and consistent. If it’s cold outside tell yourself before the game “it’s going to be cold but I have practiced and played in these conditions before and have succeeded in spite of the conditions.” That is a positive approach to a game that may be played in inclement weather.
Young athletes can also control how they respond to external demands. If a hockey player takes a shot at the net but the goalie makes an amazing save he can respond in two ways he can slam his stick to the ice and grow frustrated or he can prepare for the face off and return to his reliable approach. “The goalie made a great save, but it won’t discourage me from taking that same shot again when I get another opportunity because it was a high percentage shot on goal.” This would be a positive response to a poor result.
As coaches we need to develop the mindset in young athletes that results (statistics, wins and losses) are not within their control. The things they can control are their mental approach to the game and how they respond to external demands. The best athletes in the world are not raging infernos nor are they flickering lights. Rather the most consistent and reliable competitors give off a steady supply of light and heat.
We have all watched the Olympics this past month and marveled at the ability of the athletes to perform and maintain their exposure in high-pressure situations. It’s almost as though when the heat gets turned up on these athletes their blood pressure goes down and their nerves get calm. This is because they have learned to embrace the pressure and have acknowledged that the lights, cameras and stage are beyond their control.
World-class competitors on the field of play and in the game of life have learned the essential element of success and it runs much deeper than mere physical mastery. True champions learn the art of self-control and mastery of the mental game.
I nearly forgot to mention the second issue I gleaned from the tennis match and that is another element of athletic development that must be addressed and that is sportsmanship. To compete and give your best effort is noble indeed but to resort to jeering, trash talking, even cheating abandons the very essence of competition. If sports aren’t used as a tool to bring out the best in our kids why bother? Sports are a tremendous opportunity to instill leadership at a stage in life when kids are in need of positive guidance. I do not fault the kids at this tennis match for their behavior. Their coach saw it and told them to stop but they persisted even in his presence. This tells me the kids don’t respect the words of that coach and that leadership and the mental game of athletic development are not key attributes of that program. The best coaches will simply not tolerate that behavior, they are developing athletes in need of guidance and winning just isn’t that important in comparison.
A bonus tidbit here, the boy that I coach was waiting for someone to bail him out, someone that would make the noise and jeering go away. This really hit me when I was watching him because he looked so frustrated and helpless. He was waiting for someone or something to arrive and save the day. If tournament officials hadn’t arrived to calm things down would he have responded as positively as he did? I can’t answer that for sure. I do know however that this young mean will face the same situation several more times in the future if he aspires to higher more intense levels of competition, and he does.
This lesson arrived early enough where it can now be addressed. But as parents and coaches it can hurt to watch our children suffer through awkward moments such as this but I feel we provide them with a false sense of security if we always try to break their fall or save the day. One day they will be on their own and we won’t be there to bail them out. If that ‘s the case will they be prepared to handle the situation on their own? Remember when you or your child rode a bike for the first time? I feel and cried a little bit, ok a lot, but I picked myself back up on got back on that bike because I didn’t want to be left behind. Eventually I learned how to stay up right and avoid the pain. The process may have left me bruised and bloodied in the short-term but I survived and it made me stronger in the long run with a deeper sense of self-efficacy.
Though this article highlights the talent evaluation process for professional baseball, it provides excellent insight into what many pro scouts and college recruiters look for when evaluating young athletes (pay close attention to the Beyond the Baseball Field paragraph):
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist