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Youth Sports Psychology by Peak Performance Sports

We’re here to help you become the Ultimate Sports Parent. Do you have a question you’d like us to answer about youth sports, mental training, or the psychology of coaching? If so, ask the experts!

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You can read some of the answers we given to parents in the past. Please click on the question to reveal the answer below:

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How to Encourage Soccer Player to Play to her Abilities?

Soccer Parent:

Our 8-year-old daughter’s normal team is very bad but includes most of her friends.   In games, not in practice, she tends to play down to their level. She doesn’t play badly but just kind of stops at key moments.  This is especially frustrating because we have seen how well she can play with better teams. The coach has told us that he understands and won’t be hurt if we switch her to a better team that will push her to go further.  I guess it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to stand out from her friends though it’s difficult for us as parents because we always try to stand out in that way.

We have probably, but unknowingly, put pressure on her by telling her how great she can be. I’m afraid she now has a fear of failure.   We have toned down our comments and have encouraged her to set her own goals other than just scoring goals.  Since she is only 8, we just want her to have a good time so she keeps on playing.

Here’s our official one question:  How can we get Jenny to play hard on her current team (with the not-so-good players)?

Dr. Cohn’s Answer:

I think the most important concept at this age is having fun. If she enjoys it, most likely she will become self-motivated to do her best (with a little help from you and her coach). This is the ideal state: She should want to master the sport for herself instead of doing it for her parents (I often struggle with this balance too with my 8-year-old in tennis).

I do not think you have to talk about “standing out” but doing her best and establishing some mini-goals (such as attempting a certain number of shots each game). Also, you should encourage her to take risks on the field and define these behaviors for her. What exactly should she try to do?

Team Needs Son Who Quit Basketball Senior Year

Basketball Parent:

Over the summer, my son told me that he didn’t want to play basketball his senior year, because he was worried about his grades. My husband and I were very supportive of his decision not to play this year, because he really doesn’t want to play college basketball or pursue a sports oriented career (like coaching). In July, our son made an appointment and went by himself (he wanted to go by himself) to tell his coach that he no longer wanted to play. Of course, the coach was shocked and disappointed, but respected his decision. He told our son that if he changed his mind, he could still play. Everything seemed fine in July.

Now, here is the problem. I teach at our high school. Every day, people ask us to make our son reconsider. His coach said he could work with him on practice time, if he needed to study. The superintendent, coaches, principal, other parents, teachers, counselors, his other team members, etc, are putting pressure on me to get our son back on the team.

Unfortunately, my husband and I are beginning to agree with these people. The team will be devastated without our son. He is the tallest person on the team. Apparently, there aren’t any younger players who can fill in our son’s position and jump center, and play down low under the basket. We are worried that a poor season will affect some of the other players’ opportunities to play college basketball.

I did not realize how much everyone was counting on our son to play this year. His team has been together since the 6th grade. They have looked forward to their senior year all their lives. They are all nice young men. They are not wild and don’t have behavior problems. They have been devastated by our son’s decision. Many are in my classes; they talk to me a lot about our son.

Here’s our question: What do we do? Should our son reconsider? How can we best help him this year? Thanks for your time and input. We are really struggling with this problem!

Dr. Cohn’s Answer:

I think you can look at this situation in two ways. You should not let the social pressure from others persuade you to convince your son to play his last year. Then he would be playing for the wrong reasons. On the other hand, you could argue he should finish his high school basketball career. He is part of the team and has a responsibility to his teammates to help the team out. So it is a tough decision.

I suggest that you talk to your son about why it’s not fun anymore. Is he burnt out on it? Is it that he has lost confidence in his game? Does he feel pressure to carry the team? Or does he want to focus more on his studies? Are there any conditions under which he would be willing to play?

After talking to your son, you and your son might talk to the coach and your son’s teammates. Perhaps they could help make basketball more enjoyable for your son and the other players. Sports should be fun. You could have the team and coach commit to making it enjoyable for all. You could arrange for him to have some extra time to focus on his studies. Have you considered that he does not like the coach?

My Daughter Exhibits Bad Behavior in Tournaments, Is She too Young?

Tennis Mom:

My daughter is very hard on herself if she doesn’t perform very well the first time she attempts anything. She recently began playing in tennis tournaments and has won more than lost, but her behavior when losing is terrible. How do we help her deal with her frustration at not being perfect and channel that energy so that it works for her? Is this a sign that she is too young to compete?

Dr. Cohn’s Answer:

No, this is not a sign that she is too young. This is a sign that you have a perfectionist daughter. This trait can be helpful because it will help her improve, practice hard, and set high goals.

However, having perfectionist tendencies in sports can also be a challenge when athletes do not perform up to their abilities (or own expectations). She likely becomes upset when she does not perform up to her own expectations. Therefore, you need to talk to her about lowering her expectations and allowing herself to commit human errors.

In addition, your daughter has to learn to let go of mistakes when she plays in tennis tournaments. Everybody makes mistakes; it is a natural part of human nature. Typically, perfectionist athletes tend to beat themselves up and dwell on their mistakes. Your daughter should let go of thoughts such as ‘I should never have made that mistake.’

How to Get My Daughter to Play up to her Abilities in Competition?

Soccer Dad:

My daughter is 14, plays soccer and basketball, and is currently in 8th grade. In soccer, she plays on a high-level premier team and on the U14 state Olympic Development Program team.  In basketball, she plays for her school and AAU.  She is a straight A student, outgoing and friendly. In sports she plays hard (and has the injuries to prove it) and is very competitive. Coaches characterize her as a very good athlete, motivated and committed. Coaches constantly preach/plead her to take a more active role in the games.  She will tell you that she is the best practice player. But at game time, she’s not consistent. She often is content with just contributing and not making a mistake and therefore does not play up to her ability. What would you suggest in this situation?

Dr. Cohn’s Answer:

This is a very common issue with athletes who are afraid of failing. Athletes with “fear of failure” are usually very hard-working and want to win badly, but are afraid to make mistakes and lose the game. It’s Ironic that athletes who want to win so badly are the most afraid of losing or making mistakes. This causes them to have an avoidance mindset instead of an aggressive mindset. They play tentatively and sometimes appear (from an observer’s perspective) as if they are not trying or are not aggressive.

They sometimes play tentative because they are afraid to make mistakes for fear of how it may look to others or for fear of losing. Your first step is to identify what the real fear is for her when she competes. For example, she may be afraid to take charge in a game for the fear of losing the game or making errors and then worry about her teammates not liking her or accepting her (which is a false assumption on her part typically). This is just one example of a fear that may be affecting her mindset. Talk with her and find out what the ultimate fear is and you may unlock her potential.

Once you find this out, you can then help her focus on what she should do instead of what she should not do. Give her specific tasks to focus on for success such as making quality passes and define what this means.

How to Get My Son to Apply what He Knows He Should do?

Tennis Parent:

My son, age 16, has played tennis for 6 years. He’s extremely talented stroke wise. He has won only one match in 10 novice tournaments with double elimination – always losing to lesser players. He is a perfectionist; ADD without hyperactivity. Starts missing shots and it snowballs from there. Have tried the “Live in the now. Each shot new opportunity. Be patient. Breathe. Relax before each stroke.” Progressive relaxation. Meditation. We don’t need that stuff. He has two coaches who try to work with his head. He knows what he needs to do (relax, stop being judgmental, avoid being results oriented) but cannot make himself do it. He tries out again for the high school tennis team in March. He’s playing enormous pressure on himself to make the team. In May he will move to the 18U.

How do I get him to be a successful competitive player when he won’t do what will ultimately help him?

The Ultimate Sports Parent:

From our experience, athletes sometimes have trouble applying mental skills even when they know they’re important to them and they understand the mental game skills. This is always our biggest challenge when working with athletes: to help them apply what they learn. For example, he might have other core issues such as self-limiting beliefs or expectations (“I always choke in tournaments”) that prevent him from applying the simple strategies you addressed in your email.

Most people think that sports psychology or mental coaching is all about relaxation and visualization. Sports psychology is much more than teaching athletes relaxation and visualization. Confidence, trust, and focus are more important concepts.

In addition, you said that he is a perfectionist. He likely needs to address several mental game issues such as high expectations, fear of failure, self-confidence, coping with frustration, lack of trust in competition, and several other issues.

Working with a trained expert in the field of mental coaching and sports psychology will help your son better understand and apply the mental game skills. Team coaches have some knowledge of the mental game (as players and students of the game). But they are often not trained experts in this area.

What Do I Say to My Son to Help Him Keep His Head Up?

Football Dad:

My son is a sophomore football player with a private catholic school in Delaware. It is a highly political school and the coaching staff has had predetermined players since his first year and things haven’t changed much. This is where the problem started. I sent an email to the JV coach (copy of email below) asking about progress. I was very careful not to complain or ask about playing time. In fact, I praised them for doing a good job just to try to elicit a response. Well, a week went by and I heard nothing so I followed up with a phone call. The JV coaches phone goes straight to email so I left a message basically reiterating what I said in the email.

Well come to find out later, the head coach instructed the JV coach not to respond. After this, the head coach pulled my son out of the lunchroom and told him that he would have to cut him from the team if that is what it would take to get me off his back. There were a lot of additional demeaning things said that I won’t go into. Well, the playoffs are here and they had to cut 10 kids. My son was right there with other kids that were labeled troublemakers and others for other reasons I suppose.

I am livid and my son is again demoralized. This will definitely affect his confidence going into basketball. What do I say to my son to get him to realize that HE did absolutely nothing wrong and the he should keep his head up in light of the fact that his self confidence is crushed.

The Ultimate Sports Parent:

We can understand your frustration with the coaches. You are on the right track though… Instead of fuming about the situation and getting upset with the coaches, you are directing your efforts at helping your son with his confidence.

The best option from my perspective is to talk about how he can use this experience to help motivated him to improve and show the coach he was wrong. This would be an acceptable means to motivate your son. Ask him how he can use this experience to become an improved football player.

It shows you that coaches often want the most coachable athletes and not always the best athletes. They have an easier job when the players fall in line and listen to everything the coach has to say and become team players.

We would help your son use this experience to become a more mentally tough person and athlete. In the future, he will be able to respond to this type of treatment better as he has lived it and can now recognize the warning signs.

As for his confidence, you need to remind his why he is a good player and ask him to think of the positive results he has obtained in the past. In addition, he should avoid doubts about his ability because he did not make the team with this coach.

How Do I Help My Daughter Gain Self-Confidence?

Sports Parent:

My 11-year-old daughter plays on a travel soccer team. During youth sports practices and fun games she is really good and puts in 110%. But when she’s in a formal game, she seems to just freeze up. She plays like she doesn’t know what she is doing. Her confidence in youth sports has come down so much in the past year. Do you have any youth sports psychology suggestions for helping her gain confidence in sports when she is playing a game?

The Ultimate Sports Parent:

You might have to start by removing the barriers to confidence. Based on your short email, it sounds as if she is afraid to fail or afraid to embarrass herself in real games. This is very typical youth sports psychology issue with young athletes.

She may be performing tentatively because she does not want to risk and make mistakes. This has likely undermined her confidence in youth sports. Or, it could be that she is just not confident when playing in a game (or has a lot of doubts).

Help her focus on what she has done well to support her confidence in games. She needs a strong base of confidence in sports. It should be based on practice and experience.

How Do I Help My Son When He Gets Down on Himself for Missing?

Football Parent:

My son is an-11-year-old young athlete and very talented (naturally at youth basketball and any other sport he plays). His father coaches him and they have had some rocky times over the last few years. It is a mental game with my son — and is very frustrating for his father, who has tried everything. We will have really good youth sports games if the competition is low. But if our son decides it is too hard or he misses his first shot he will completely shut down.  He’ll just jog up the court and get the ball to every one else. He is so hard on himself and we continue to tell him just keep trying don’t give up. We have tried several approaches, some good and some probably not so good.

My husband no longer yells as a youth coach but sits him down until he is out of the mood. My husband is also very frustrated and sad because he doesn’t understand what to do. Then we will have a great tournament, and then my son goes back to shutting down. What youth sports psychology methods can we try besides the normal everyday methods? As a sports parent, I have tried encouraging. He has the same confidence issue in school but as a team with the school we have worked through this and he has greatly improved. Now we need help with his mental game in youth sports because he is so talented.  I know we need to keep going as sports parents but in a positive way. He does love youth sports, but is just so hard on himself. Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated. We have had him coached by other coaches and it works for a while then he falls into the same mental game attitude.

The Ultimate Sports Parent:

It appears your son is protecting himself from pain by not trying when he is losing or making mistakes. There is a concept in tennis called “tanking.” Tanking is when a young athlete stops trying because he can later say that he lost because he did not try. This is easier for some young athletes to stomach when losing.

He also has very high expectations for his performance, which may be the start of it all. He should not expect to be perfect and error-free in youth sports. This is unrealistic thinking and prevents him from being confident when he does not perform up to his expectations.

I think you need to address the expectations as well as give him strategies for letting go of errors and focusing on what’s important for execution.

We cover most of many of these issues in the Ultimate Sports Parent Workbook program:

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