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Sport Psychology for the Youth Athlete

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

One of the challenges that I hear from parents (and coaches) is that they know that their child/player is struggling a bit from performance anxiety, stress, focus issues, emotional outbursts, self-doubt, motivation, or pressure, but that they don’t know what to say to them.

And, even if they do have an idea of what they’d like to say, they feel like it may have greater impact coming from someone else, and/or that it should be more ongoing. In these cases, they often don’t know where to turn. Or – with best intentions - they repeat the same things they heard when they were kids. The problem is that these suggestions are typically not rooted in sound performance psychology and may backfire. The intention was great, but it’s not getting the desired effect.

So, what they do at this point is just wait it out. Hoping that age, maturity, the right experience, a video, a book, or something else just clicks for the young athlete. The drawback with this is that each year that goes by - where the ineffective reactions don’t change - reinforces the negative or ineffective thought patterns that they’re having. Essentially the bad mental habits grow more engrained.

There is a better option. Like learning a second language it’s better to start mental skill training early. Some of the reasons include:

  • Easier to learn skills BEFORE bad habits are formed.

  • It’s preventative rather than reactive.

  • The skills are good for sport, school, and life.

  • There doesn’t need to be something wrong – this is about developing new strong skills.

  • While mental skill training ISN’T clinical therapy, the skills are great for building mental wellness (preventative).

  • The brain is a pattern-making machine. It’s better to establish healthy and effective patterns early.

  • Regardless of if they ever play in HS, College, or Professionally, these skills are applicable for LIFE!

  • Staying involved in sports is physically and mentally good for kids – having mental skills that manage emotions of stress and pressure may just be the thing that keeps them involved longer.

What we do know is that there are 4 pillars of performance:

  1. Technical

  2. Tactical

  3. Physiological

  4. Psychological

In the typical blueprint we train the first 3 pillars every season, but we rarely see on-going intentional training for the psychological within youth sports. I’m biased but I’d argue that of the 4 pillars the psychological is most important. There is no way to fully express and perform the first 3 pillars of performance if the psychological isn’t strong and in place.

Learning skills that enhance attention/focus, regulate emotion, build self-belief, and improve resiliency should surely improve sport performance, but maybe even more importantly are building the foundations for what it takes to manage all the challenging ups and downs of life.

At WellPerformance we focus our mental performance programming in a way that makes this skill development tangible and applicable. Here are some specific areas to focus your child’s attention:

1. Staying present – fear and anxiety live in the replay and pre-play. Patiently redirect them to the moment that is in front of them, or the game that is in front of them. They can’t change the past, nor predict the future, but they can positively impact THIS moment.

2. Give all their attention to what they control – All too often we can get caught focusing on the things that others control – playing time or position being played (coach), or a call (referee), or many other things that happen during a practice, game, or season that they don’t control. Instead ask them to focus on learning, effort, finding some joy in the game, being a great teammate, and growing/improving. After these focus areas there really isn’t much more that they have control of, or that will be helpful for them. Begin here.

3. Stay away from judgment statements – young athletes (and even pros) can slip into self-criticism, worrying about what others think of them, and/or comparison. Help them to monitor these things. Don’t ever compare them to other teammates, older siblings, etc. Let them be on their own journey of improvement. Specifically - at young ages - they can be on the bottom of the team one season and the best by the next season – it doesn’t move in a smooth predictable pattern. Focus only on their own progress. And, be listening for when they compare or are too consumed by what others may be thinking or saying about them.

_________________________________________________________________ Stuart Singer, M.Ed., PsyD (ABD) is the Director of WellPerformance, a Mental Performance Coaching and Consulting practice, and the creator of the DoSo app . For more information regarding this topic he can be contacted at or follow him on twitter @wellperformance, or instagram: @wellperformance

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