Mental Skills Training for Youth Sports Coaches, Athletes, and Parents – Part 2

In the first installment of this two-part article, sports psychologist and co-creator of the Champion’s Mind app Dr. Jim Afremow shared how young athletes can make time in their busy schedules for mental skills development, why kids are never too young to start this kind of training, and what parents can do to work on their mindset. In this second part, Jim shares how mental skills can help young athletes improve their game without increasing the load on their bodies, and provides some quick-start tips for coaches to help players get over a tough loss.

How can a youth sports coach incorporate mental skills work into a team setting?

It can build variety into any coach’s program, which keeps athletes interested and engaged. This is particularly useful with young players. You could hook your phone up to a Bluetooth speaker and at the start of practice say, “We’re going to listen to a short audio segment about confidence and then talk about it.” Then you’d follow up by asking, “What did you learn?” or “What are you going to do differently to act more confidently?” In this way, the Champion’s Mind app can act as a conversation starter and lead off a team building exercise.

Another plus of switching things up like this is that it provides another voice. If players have to always listen to the coach – particularly when they’re highly vocal – they can start to tune them out. So having a different voice to guide them through a short mental skills exercise once or twice a week can be beneficial. For example, after a tough loss, instead of scrutinizing every little mistake, you might take your young athletes through an exercise about letting go. It’s centered on the analogy of carrying a brick around with you. It’s a funny image for kids to imagine lugging around this heavy object in their hands or their school backpack. Then you tell them how much better they’d feel without that extra weight. Maybe you even bring an actual brick with you to make it more tangible. It’s a simple but effective illustration about the need to let go and move on.

Coaches can also add in a little mindset work at the end of practice to reinforce certain teaching moments they’d introduced that day. Players might be too worn out to do anything else physical, but they can still benefit from focusing on a psychological trait for a few minutes.

The third way that coaches are using the Champion’s Mind app is to keep their players interested when the weather turns nasty. Here in Arizona we’re fortunate to have sunny, warm weather for most of the year, but other places might have days or even weeks when practicing outside isn’t an option. While training indoors might be possible, it can get stale pretty quickly, especially for young athletes. So being able to gather everyone and work on body language, focus, or mental rehearsal adds a new twist to keep things fresh until outdoor practice resumes again.

Young athletes seem to have more practices and games than ever before. How can mental skills training help them manage this increased load?

There’s only a certain amount of physical training a young athlete can handle before they either break down, burn out, or both. Of course, you have to do the hard work, but past a certain point, more volume is counterproductive. Just because hitting a few balls on the driving range or shooting some extra free throws at the end of practice is beneficial, doesn’t mean you should be doing it all weekend. There are only two ways to train: below the neck or between the ears. We can get kids so focused on physical elements that they leave the psychological aspect to chance or circumstance – that’s why I joke that I’m the last person parents call when their child is struggling, because the mental side of performance is all too often an afterthought. But this is a terrible game plan that isn’t sustainable.

Putting a bit more emphasis on learning mental skills can allow young athletes to work on their game without adding any extra physical load. I’ve worked with pole vaulters who average just six attempts per practice because it takes such a toll on the body. With mindset training, they could get another 60 vaults in between their ears, without their muscles and joints taking a pounding. And by including a nightly relaxation exercise, a young athlete can also recover more quickly and fully, so the next day they’re primed and ready to give their best again.

Want to dive deeper into the mental skills you’ve just read about? Then download the Champion’s Mind app today!

Phil White

Phil White

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