A girl wearing a swim cap and goggles treads water in a swimming pool. She has a big smile on her face.

Mental training for athletes: Helping youth in sports excel and find joy

Sports are largely a mental game involving focus, determination, and performance under pressure. Physical strength and technical skills can take an athlete only so far. But while professional athletes are no strangers to sports psychology, kids can benefit from mental training too! It can help them continue to love their sport, succeed in athletics and academics, and shape how they approach future obstacles in all aspects of their lives. 

The value of mental training

About the author

Isabel McQuilkin is a retired competitive figure skater. She is also a psychology student studying at McGill University.

Mental training is a sports psychology approach that develops one’s ability to manage emotions, control anxious feelings, and improve confidence to advance both sports- and non-sports-related performances. Kids have more to gain from participating in sports than what shows up on the scorecard. In addition, mental training can keep sports fun! When sports become solely about performance and success and less about the joy of playing, kids are more likely to want to drop out of sports and activities. Providing kids with the tools to manage mental obstacles can help keep them focused on the more fulfilling parts of sports. 

So how can you introduce mental training to youth in sports?

Just like physical training, mental training takes practice and patience and must be fun for kids. While some teams and sports programs now offer formal mental training, there are many ways to support young athletes. A good place to start is with strategies that help them build confidence, set a strong mindset, and manage emotions.

Build confidence 

Confident kids recognize their ability to complete a task successfully and understand the value of their effort. Developing confidence allows kids to act with purpose, execute according to plan, and remain positive when things don’t go well. Coaches and parents have the ability to build and develop kids’ confidence with their words and actions. 

Graphic shows the confidence formula, which is: A child's (know how + purposeful repetitions) x awareness of improvement = confidence.
  • Support positive self-talk: The inner critic that lives in everyone’s mind has a time and a place. That little negative voice telling us we can be better is important in fuelling drive and dedication towards a goal. But that voice becomes harmful when it dominates and is not counterbalanced with positive messaging. That little voice in young athletes’ minds is largely authored by their coaches and parents and it has the ability to shape how kids talk to, and think about, themselves. Compliment sandwiches are a useful way to deliver feedback in a way that maintains and builds confidence. Think of an Oreo: offer a constructive critique (the icing) sandwiched between two positive comments (the chocolate cookies). This can promote positive self-talk while still addressing areas for improvement. 
  • Normalize mistakes: Confidence can take a hit when kids make mistakes. It’s important to remind kids that a failed attempt or a less-than-ideal performance does not reflect their self-worth or the effort they put in. Remind young athletes that mistakes are inevitable and they’re a welcomed opportunity for learning and growth.

Set a strong mindset 

An athlete’s mindset controls their actions, from how they perform under pressure to how they train day to day. Learning to maintain a focused and steady mindset is crucial for achieving successful training sessions and performances, and for building resilience through the ups and downs of wins and losses. 

  • Help young athletes train like they compete: When competition day feels like an unrecognizable world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and ill-prepared. But athletes are simply putting their skills from training onto the big stage, and they should never expect to do something in competition they haven’t practiced. Thinking of game day as an average day of training can be useful in creating a sense of calm and stability.  But it’s also important to train with the fire and expectations of competition so they’re prepared for the intensity of competition. “Fire in the belly, and calm in the mind” is a great saying to reiterate both in competition and in practice. Try keeping as many variables the same in training as in competition to make the competition experience feel familiar and natural. 
  • Keep the focus on what they can control: It can be easy to get caught up in the action and moving parts of competition. It’s important for kids to recognize what they can control and what they cannot. Elements such as equipment, nutrition, preparation, and arrival time are within an athlete’s control. Their teammates’ behaviour, the actions of their competitors, and changes in the environment are not. It’s best to keep it simple and remind young athletes to focus only on what is in their control. 

Manage emotions 

  • Acknowledge and address nerves: Nerves and anxiety have the power to turn a competent and content competitor into an unrecognizable ball of nerves. Learning to manage nerves and negative thoughts is a huge part of building mental strength and improving performance under pressure. Teach young athletes to control nerves rather than shy away from them. Breathing techniques and meditation practices can help kids keep their cool. Try introducing them to this fun and calming breathing cube technique, which can be included into their pre-competition rituals, or before a stressful school presentation:
    • Tell your athletes to expand their ribs like a balloon while breathing in through their nose for four seconds. Then, hold that breath for four seconds, followed by a four-second controlled exhale through their mouth, and lastly, a four-second hold at the bottom, with deflated balloons in their ribs.
  • As a competitive figure skater with serious pre-competition jitters, my sports psychologists suggested guided meditation. Headspace is a great website and app that offers easy and short meditation on the go to help focus the breathing and return to a cooler calm. Nerves are not intrinsically bad; they indicate that we care about the outcomes of our actions. They’re inevitable. When nervous thoughts begin to invade, teach kids to acknowledge them and control them with some of these tricks. 
  • Remind young athletes to trust their training: They’ve practiced and prepared and they’re equipped with the skills they need to succeed.  

By practicing mental training to build confidence, create a positive mindset, and manage emotions, young athletes will develop their mental strength, feel more capable, and be less afraid of taking risks and making mistakes.

When things don’t go as planned, as they often do in sports, mental strength will help kids bounce back. With dedicated focus on the mental game, young athletes can perform better and enjoy their sport more. From improved confidence at school and in their social lives to their resilience and ability to problem solve, mental training can prepare them for all challenges ahead.

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