Building resilience and mental toughness: TIPS FOR COACHES AND PARENTS OF YOUTH & HIGH-SCHOOL ATHLETES
The fall season is coming to a close, and many of our young Ultimate players will be competing in championship events like high school state tournaments or YCC Regional Championships.
As coaches and parents of youth and high-school athletes, you have the opportunity to develop their mental toughness and resilience. While this may as well be considered a full time responsibility of coaches and parents, your impact will be particularly strong during these ‘big’ championship-type events.
Some of your influence is explicit – e.g. how you talk to your athletes about winning and losing. And some of your influence is implicit – e.g. your body language (subtle and grand) when your team scores/wins or gets scored on/loses, etc. The 4 tips below will help you make sure your explicit and implicit influence is developing mentally tough and resilient athletes.
1. Focus on the process and the experience:
Let me be clear, I am not saying winning and losing don’t mean anything. I’m saying winning and losing aren’t everything. The thing is, focusing on the outcome often moves us farther away from our desired outcome. Focusing on the process keeps us motivated, learning, growing, and enables us to move closer to our desired outcomes. While most of us likely understand this, it can be easy to get caught up in the moment. Use these strategies and examples to stay focused on the process and experience:
*Parents: These are often the conversations you have after the game or in the car ride home. To keep your kids interested, motivated, and enjoying their sport consider moving your conversations toward the process.
2. Don’t sugar coat performance – have the tough conversation:
Often as coaches and parents, we have a gut reaction to protect our kids and athletes. Making a mistake, getting scored on, or losing a game can be embarrassing, frustrating, or devastating. So when it happens, we try to make them feel better. We say things like, “it’s okay” or “you’ll get ‘em next time.” While both of those things are true, they are not complete. Mistakes/losing/failure “is okay” because it is part of the learning process, but we as coaches and parents need to help that learning occur. That, after all, is what will help them “get ‘em next time.” The thing is, ignoring or sugar coating mistakes, poor performance, and losses prevents learning, growth and development of toughness. Calling-out/acknowledging, normalizing, and processing mistakes and failure fosters growth and resilience. Being sure to separate the behavior/incident/outcome from their value as a human being (“yes you failed, but that does not make you a failure.”)
*Parents & Coaches: It will take some practice. It may not be easy, but it is critical to helping them develop the mental toughness and resilience you want them to have in and out of sport. And, wouldn’t you rather they learn these lessons from you, their loving and caring parent or coach, than someone else?
3. Provide “effective” praise (not just praise/compliments):
Sometimes we inadvertently, unintentionally, or implicitly send the message that the only thing we can learn and grow from are our failures (see above). But that is absolutely not the case - we can learn a lot from our own success and the success of others! Indeed, this can be a great way to develop young athletes as it allows you to ‘coach’ them without criticizing/critiquing their performance. The thing here is simply remembering to label the effort, strategy, or skill they used to produce the success in addition to praising.
*Something critical to keep in mind is that your athletes/kids may not know what they did that enabled their success. By labeling it for them, you’re teaching them how to be successful again. While this might take a smidge more work up front, it actually enables them to repeat their own successes and requires less coaching and correcting later on. Remember: name the effort, strategy, or skill that allowed them to be successful in the first place.
4. Model mental toughness and resilience:
I saved this for last because I want to make sure it sticks with you. At the end of the day our actions speak louder than our words. As a parent or coach you could say all the right things, but if you aren’t living those things yourself – that’s what your kids and athletes will notice and remember most. I encourage both parents and coaches to deliberately think about the values, habits, and qualities you wish to instill in your kids/athletes. Write them down and make note of what they mean to you and what it looks like to demonstrate those values daily.
*Other questions to consider: How do I want my kids/athletes to act when we win? How do I want them to act when we lose? How do I currently act when we win/lose? What words do I choose and what message does my body language send?
If you're struggling to play your best in big games or to make the team you’ve tried-out for every year or to be confident with the disc in your hands... the story you're telling yourself may very well be what's holding you back.
The stories we tell ourselves matter. They lay the foundation for our overall mindset. Our overall mindset significantly influences our thoughts. Our thoughts drive our emotions and reactions and performance.
Take a moment to re-read that last paragraph again and let it really sink in.
So...What’s your story and how is it influencing you?
Watch the clip below as an example of how we develop the stories we tell ourselves and how the stories we tell ourselves playout in everyday life. (Click on the image below to view the video, then hop back here to finish the post.)
This kid could have walked away from the field that day telling himself he was the worst hitter who ever lived. That would have been easy for him to do (and for us to understand) because the evidence pointed in that direction.
Think about how often we do this in our own lives - how often we let one ‘failure’ experience determine our mindset about that skill, activity, task or assignment. Don’t be fooled, it can be very subtle. Maybe you drop a disc that hit you in both hands and the first few thoughts that run through your mind are: “man, I suck” or “I can’t catch anything today.” No big deal, right?
It isn’t necessarily going to be a big deal, but it definitely can be a big deal. Each of those thoughts, compounding over the course of a practice or day (or a season or years), can become a bigger story you tell yourself - whether or not it has much basis in reality.
Now some of you might be thinking that he isn’t a great hitter and ignoring that fact isn’t going to help him improve. I sort of agree. But I argue that ignoring it is better than labeling it with a generalized negative attribution. If he ignores it and doesn’t draw attention to it, the next time up to bat is more likely to be a clean slate than if he had created a story that he isn’t a good batter.
Let’s translate this to Ultimate. If the disc hits you in both hands and you drop it and your thoughts tell you, “you suck” or “you can’t catch today” will that help you catch the next disc? No. And, are those thoughts actually true? Most likely not. Most Ultimate players (spare very beginners) can catch the disc, they just have momentary lapses. How long those lapses last and how big of an impact they have depends on how people interpret them.
Do you interpret those mistakes in a way that draws attention to them, makes you think about them more and starts to create a story that affects each subsequent attempt to catch the disc?
Or, do you deliberately try to interpret those moments in a way that deflects them or switches perspectives and allows you to do what you know how to do the next time the disc comes your way?
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK:
1. Identify your story (and your Ultimate story)
-If you’re not really sure what your story is, start tuning in to your top-of-mind thoughts. Is there a pattern or theme there? What thoughts come to mind when you make a mistake? What do you imagine other people are saying about you in those moments? Is your Ultimate story different than your school story or your work story?
-If you already have a sense of your story, dig in a little deeper and tease it apart. How long has that story been with you? Where does it come from? Don’t be surprised if you encounter a little resistance from yourself in this process, that’s totally normal. This is where getting out of your comfort zone starts to produce real change.
2. Reflect on how it influences you
Is your story effective? Is it helping you moment-to-moment? Is it helping you somehow over-time? Or is it doing more harm than good? How is your Ultimate story influencing your play?
3. Decide what to do with it
If your story is helping you, you’ll most likely choose to keep it and perhaps even reinforce it. Identifying or clarifying that story can make sure you’re using it to your fullest advantage.
If your story is harming you, or is just not effective, you can decide if you would like to ditch it altogether or modify it a bit.
If you decide to ditch or change your story, try these strategies:
*Be sure to write the thoughts you have and your reflection on them in your journal.*
Hi! I'm Piers. I am an Ultimate player, spouse, parent, and human performance coach. My passion and my profession is to help individuals and teams perform at their best through research-based mental skills, resilience, leadership and team dynamics training.
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