Mental Skills Training for Young Athletes: Butterflies and Spaghetti Toes

Mental skills training has gained increased traction in sports as a way to give athletes a competitive edge. While the importance of an athlete’s “mental game” is more commonly talked about in our pre- or post-game conversations, we — sport coaches, athletes, parents, and fans — often define “the mental game” in vague, abstract terms. Growing interest in mental skills training, especially at elite levels, has helped clarify some of that mystery as pro athletes have spoken about thoughts, attitudes, and tactics they use to perform their best. Some of these strategies include visualization, goal setting, mindfulness, pre-performance routines, and positive self-talk. These skills, however, are not just potentially beneficial (or better suited) for adult elite athletes. Mental training can be effective for young athletes. Kids can not only benefit from developing mental skills, but may actually be better apt to do so relative to adults in several respects:

  1. Kids PLAY. They are regularly present and absorbed in the moment, not worrying about past failures or future uncertainties.
  1. Kids have yet to internalize maladaptive habits (thought and actions) that may undermine their ability to perform.

Skeptics might argue that the abstract complexities of an athlete’s “mental game” are beyond young athletes’ developmental capacity. While “children aren’t miniature adults”, I’d invite those in this school of thought to turn their critical gaze inward. Rather than making assumptions about/focusing on what young athletes can’t do, can as coaches and parents can be responsive to their needs and leverage their strengths (e.g., imagination and energy). Dr. Terry Orlick has made significant work within the youth sport context tailoring instruction to young athletes on a variety of skills such as relaxation, imagery, refocusing, positive thinking, and goal setting. I strongly recommend his book, Free to Feel Great: Teaching Children to Excel at Living, for practical guidance and concrete strategies about how to modify mental training to be simple, concrete, individualized, and fun for kids (though that sounds like a good recipe for athletes of all ages). Let’s look at two examples: relaxation and goal setting.

How might a coach or parent teach young athletes (ages 6 to 12) to identify when/where they feel tense and how to relax their muscles?

While progressive muscle relaxation techniques are often used to train adult athletes, a coach or parent might consider introducing the concept to young athletes by using real-life examples of objects that kids know to visualize and personify. Objects could include uncooked spaghetti noodles, earthworms, or a jump rope. Present objects that young athletes can see and touch in order to help kids transfer the concept to how their bodies should look and feel.

How might adult leaders teach young athletes goal setting?

 Coaches (and parents) can invite kids to identify why they play sport by asking what makes them happy or excited about playing. We can actively listen and help them tell their story to co-develop meaningful goals. Adult leaders do not need to get into short-term, long-term, outcome, and process goals. While we may add depth and complexity over time, for the typical 6-12-year-old we want to select and emphasize one process goal (e.g., work hard and improve skills)— especially if they set an outcome goal (e.g., win the match). We can then help our kids evaluate their progress by having them (when appropriate) check off specific concrete measures of improvement and discussing their progress periodically. A crucial part of goal setting is the last step: resetting. Adult leaders can encourage kids to re-examine why they play, what makes them happy, and how their goals, do or do not, enhance their sport experience.

As an additional introduction to mental skills training for young athletes (ages 6-12 years old), below is an example session that I co-facilitated (with the help of a graduate student colleague—thanks, Justin!) with a group of young archers.

INTRODUCTION MENTAL SKILLS SESSION WITH YOUNG ARCHERS

(8 to 12 years old)

archer youth

Going into this workshop, I knew I’d be working with youth athletes, but was not sure of the age range. I had planned for a group in early adolescence, but they ended up being younger than anticipated (8 to 12 years old). The session was a great learning experience and only further reaffirmed my belief in the potential that young athletes have to develop mental skills. At the start of the session, I saw the kids all gazing up at us. I felt the immediate disconnect. I quickly realized that we needed to get on their level—literally and figuratively. I squatted down and positioned myself in the circle at their eye level.

To define what mental skills are and why they matter, we explained to the group that hitting the target in the range does not just take physical skills, but also mental skills. In the same way that you have to exercise your body, practicing to get stronger and better, you also need to exercise your brain. We shoot our best when we have body and brain “power”—when our body and brain are working together.

Next, we asked the group to describe what they think about or do to get ready to shoot. Many aspects of their preparation that group members mentioned were physical—such as stretching and fixing their bow—but they also mentioned some mental aspects (e.g., “I look on the target”).

From these responses, we then asked the group to describe what they think and feel when they have a good performance. Kids mentioned that they felt happy and excited and had thoughts such as, “I got this” or “I remember what my Dad tells me, ‘relax and have fun!’”. I asked them if they ever felt nervous and if so, where they felt nervous in their body. One young archer talked about butterflies in her stomach. I asked her whether those butterflies (nerves) were harmful or hurtful to her shooting. There was a long pause as she thought about the question and responded, “I don’t think they help me.”

I asked the group if they had ever been to a surprise party or on an amusement park ride before. More kids nodded over the amusement park ride option so I went with that example. I asked the kids if they ever felt those butterflies when we are waiting in line for the ride. They nodded yes. I asked them if they had fun riding the ride, and several athletes exclaimed, “yes!”. I explained that we might also feel those butterflies beforehand, but that they are a sign that we are excited and ready to have fun. Just like before a game, those butterflies might be fluttering and instead of thinking that we are going to do poorly or miss the shot, they might be flying around our tummy because they (and we) are energized and excited. I reassured them that it is normal to be nervous. Even the best archers in the world get butterflies. Instead of thinking about them as bad, when we feel butterflies we might think about using their energy to help us shoot our best.

After this brief discussion, we moved into a hands-on activity to give the young athletes specific ideas about what to use their “butterflies” of energy to focus on and help them shoot their best. We taped a big square on the wall and asked the kids to think of all the things that affect their performance. We wrote each of their contributions on separate sticky notes and posted them inside the square. After we had a bunch of notes listed, we selected each note and asked the group whether they could control that aspect of their performance. We mentioned that these might be the things they pay attention to even when they feel the butterflies. We emphasized that so many of the sticky notes listed (e.g., having a good day at school) are largely out of our control. Like the butterflies, we might have a good day at school or we might not. Notes that were largely outside of their control we stuck to the outside of the square. We kept the notes with aspects of our performance over which they had more control on the inside. [1] 

We called these our controllables.

These included whether we worked hard, had a positive attitude, or focused on warming up properly, the next shot, or target in front of us. Our effort, attitude, and focus were the things that help us hit the target whether we are having a good or bad day—or felt those butterflies in our stomach or not. We wrapped up on this final take-home message: when we do feel those butterflies, we might think about them giving us energy to help (rather than hurts) our effort, attitude, and focus.

Conclusion

Young athletes are not only apt to learn mental skills, but can benefit from doing so. Adult leaders can be cautious not to doubt their ability to develop these competencies because we believe young athletes to be less able to grasp abstract concepts. The responsibility should be on us to (1) meet young athletes where they are and draw on their strengths, (2) listen to their perspectives and use their input, and (3) teach skills that meet their needs and youth-friendly methods to do so.


[1] Kids ages of 8 and 9 are typically just beginning to differentiate effort from ability. They understand that effort and ability are not the same (i.e., differentiated perspective). In other words, working harder does not always mean they will perform better (such as when the opponent has a higher ability). For kids that can make this distinction, we can reinforce effort (one “controllable”) by explaining specific ways to show effort that are effective, such as using correct technique, to communicate the value of effort. Younger kids (under age 8), however, hold an undifferentiated perspective: they equate effort with ability (e.g., “if I work harder I will win”). Given this developmental tendency, some kids might presume that they can completely control their ability because effort equals ability. Thus, we can encourage effort using a similar approach to help them understand that players may have different ability levels, but that specific effortful attempts may be more beneficial than others.

 

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