Everyone Wins or Winner Takes All?: Optimal Spaces for Training Athletes to Thrive in Adverse Circumstances

THE GIST: Supportive relationships and environments are seldom glamorized on the professional sport stage, but they are necessary for kids to grow the physical and motivational capacities that we revere in elite athletes. Just as we guide kids through the technical fundamentals of our sport, coaches need to give them practice in how to interpret and respond to adversity. Spaces in which developing athletes feel psychological safe most optimally support their willingness to be uncomfortable and work through adversity.


Competitive readiness refers to a young person’s capacity to meet the demands of participation and learn values, information, and skills.[1] Whether developing athletes can grow through competition depends on their needs within the sport context. Last week’s post I overviewed key developmental changes that kids experience between 7 to 12 years of age. These have implications for how youth understand competition. Along with developmental factors, individual (e.g., personality) and contextual (e.g., coach or parental support/pressure) variables also influence the competitive readiness process. These factors and their interactions not only lead to fluctuations in a player’s competitive readiness during these ages, but also before and after this age range. These ideas raise practical questions:

If our ultimate goal as coaches is to help youth athletes thrive, what kind of context should we create? Do we expose our players to “dangerous spaces” provided they appear “ready” from developmental perspective?

Competition can be valuable and youth should learn how to compete. Before coaches expose kids to these harsh realities, we must realize that youth athletes need to develop psychological skills (motivational capacity) just as they acquire physical skills (physical capacity) to actually engage in their sport. Early on, some kids may show a stronger natural desire to compete, approach challenges, and overcome after setbacks. More often, though, these motivational responses are learned.[2] Players are more likely to develop resilience and persistence when contexts (and significant others) reinforce such behaviors. As coaches, we need to create a space that afford our athletes the best opportunity to build these skills.

We need to be intentional orchestrators of adversity and challenge.

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More than dangerous spaces, environments in which youth feel psychologically safe can most effectively help them build this motivational capacity. To be clear: psychologically safe spaces are not those in which coaches coddle youth or award everyone a participation trophy, or protect young people from failure. These contexts are made as safe as necessary—not as safe as possible.[3] Psychologically safe spaces give athletes room to fail and practice dealing with disappointment and uncertainty through “dangerous”, challenging tasks. In doing so, youth players grow their motivational capacity: they develop psychological skills needs to take on adversity in sport and life. To internalize these behaviors takes more than a “mental skills pill”. Regardless of whether athletes may be more (or less) inclined toward these responses, consistent messaging over time impacts whether players adopt and maintain these actions. These messages can come in the form of coach (and peer) interactions and feedback and adult leaders in other achievement contexts (e.g., parents and teachers). Here are a 3 suggestions for coaches to help athletes hone the skills necessary to thrive in competition and other “dangerous spaces”.

  1. Show your athletes you care.

As the teaching maxim goes, “kids don’t care what you know until they know you care”.  When athletes know that coaches support their goals and growth—and value who they are as players AND people—they are more likely to buy into your coaching vision and instruction. This trust is crucial to inspire athletes to take risks and test their limits —especially when they doubt their abilities or are met with unfamiliar challenges. Trust-building will look different for every coach-athlete relationship, but consider some potential starting points:

  • Regularly check in with athletes; give them space to voice their goals/ambitions as players; and engage in conversations with youth about who they are as people off the field.
  1. Create opportunities for players to build peer relatedness.

In addition to individual coach-athlete relations, coaches can create supportive climates by offering players opportunities for inclusive peer interactions. Peer support is especially important for those in early adolescence. Contexts in which athletes feel supported are ones in which players are less afraid to fail because they know that teammates (and coaches) see them as more than their mistakes. These athletes are not only more willing to persist after failure, but learn from their mistakes. For example:

  • Consider structuring activities for players to give each other honest, positive reinforcement. Have players pair up before practice and provide genuine positive reinforcement to one another during training. Shift responsibility to partnered players to select their goals.
  1. Encourage players to believe in their ability to improve with instructive strategies.

gmind

Carol Dweck (1999, 2006) has done extensive research on how an individual’s view about ability impacts their thoughts and behaviors. Individuals can hold two types of beliefs: incremental and entity beliefs. Those who possess incremental beliefs view ability as changeable through effort (commonly referred to as “growth mindset”), whereas individuals who hold entity beliefs consider ability as fixed. Individuals with stronger entity beliefs are less likely to persist in the face of setbacks and view failure and criticism as necessary to improve relative to individuals with stronger incremental beliefs. Though a young person may tend to favor one belief type over the another, praise and criticism from significant others largely shape the ability beliefs that kids develop. Before difficult tasks or after setbacks, here are some ideas for coaches to reinforce realistic, incremental beliefs in athletes:

  • Communicate that mistakes are learning opportunities using failure as necessary communication. For example, “It’s courageous of you to try that new move! Attempting new skills helps you be more dynamic!” Avoid restricting positive reinforcement to successes: “Stick to the moves you can execute.  We don’t want to lose the ball.”
  • Give realistic information on the degree and rate of personal improvement through strategic effort. Communicate expectations relative to a player’s current capacity: “It’s challenging to find your open teammate when you are under so much pressure, but let’s first develop this awareness when the play is slower in practice!” Avoid using a generic communication about expectations: “It’s tough to find your open teammate when the competitive play is fast—keep working and you’ll get it!”

The GIST

Youth have physical AND behavioral developmental needs. Just as we guide kids through the technical fundamentals of our sport, coaches need to give them practice in how to interpret and respond to stress, uncertainty, and failure. Spaces in which developing athletes feel psychological safe most optimally support their willingness to be uncomfortable and work through adversity. In my experience with athletes, creating such a space allows me to craft critical incidences of challenge: moments when I can push my players harder and give them challenges that they might not think they can handle—but I know they can. And, these tipping points incline athletes to take on “dangerous” circumstances/tasks in their future. Supportive relationships and environments are seldom glamorized on the professional sport stage, but they are necessary for kids to grow the physical and motivational capacities that we revere in elite athletes. These spaces set kids up to thrive in—not just survive—competition in sport and life.


[1] Aicinena, 1992; Daniels, 2007; Harris, 2000
[2] Guicciardi et al. 2009
[3] Brussoni, 2017

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