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How To Avoid Common Mistakes To Parents Make With Young Athletes

Renowned author and coach with a unique blend of experience as a former D1 softball player, Certified Mental Performance Consultant, and a distinguished 15+ years honing the mental toughness and resilience of Soldiers through expert teaching and training. Passionate about empowering today's youth.

Executive Contributor Valerie Alston

The journey of nurturing a young athlete's mental toughness is filled with learning curves, not only for the athletes themselves but also for the parents and coaches who guide them. While the intent to support and develop resilient, confident competitors is clear, certain pitfalls can inadvertently hinder this process. Recognizing and avoiding these common mistakes is crucial in creating an environment that truly cultivates mental toughness in young athletes.

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Adding unnecessary pressure

One of the most common mistakes is the inadvertent addition of pressure by parents and coaches. In the competitive world of sports, the line between motivation and pressure can sometimes blur. While it's natural to want young athletes to succeed, excessive focus on outcomes, such as winning or achieving specific results, can increase stress and anxiety. This not only detracts from their enjoyment of the sport but can also impede the development of mental toughness. Encouraging athletes to focus on effort, improvement, and enjoying the process rather than just the end result can foster a healthier, more supportive environment​.

Three actionable tips for parents to follow

  1. Celebrate Effort and Progress: Make a habit of recognizing and praising your child's hard work and incremental improvements, regardless of the final outcome. This reinforces the idea that their value is not tied to winning but to their dedication and growth.

  2. Set Realistic Goals: Help your child set personal goals that are challenging yet achievable. These should focus on their development and enjoyment of the sport rather than external benchmarks like trophies or rankings.

  3. Create a Positive Dialogue: Engage in conversations that emphasize what your child enjoys about their sport and what they feel proud of in their performance. Avoid critiquing their results immediately after a game and instead ask open-ended questions that encourage them to reflect on their experiences and feelings.

Overemphasizing results over effort

Closely related to the issue of pressure is the mistake of valuing results over effort. Celebrating wins and achievements is important, but when praise is solely contingent on success, it sends the message that effort is not as valuable. This can lead to fear of failure, where young athletes are reluctant to take risks or push themselves for fear of disappointing their supporters. Acknowledging and praising effort, perseverance, and improvement, regardless of the outcome, reinforces the importance of hard work and resilience, which are key components of mental toughness​​.

Three actionable tips for parents to follow

  1. Praise the Process: Make it a point to commend your child's dedication, practice habits, and willingness to learn new skills. This helps them understand that their effort and attitude are what matter most, not just the final results.

  2. Encourage Risk-Taking: Support your child in stepping out of their comfort zone by trying new techniques or strategies, even if it means making mistakes. Reinforce the idea that failure is a part of growth and learning, and commend their bravery in taking risks.

  3. Reflect on Efforts Together: After practices or competitions, have a discussion with your child about what they felt they did well in terms of effort and what they learned from the experience. This shifts the focus from the outcome to the learning and improvement process, helping them build a resilient mindset.

Neglecting the importance of fun and enjoyment

For young athletes, sports should be a source of fun, growth, and personal development. However, when the focus shifts too heavily towards competitiveness and achievement, the fundamental enjoyment of the sport can be lost. This not only diminishes their passion but can also lead to burnout and a withdrawal from sports activities. Ensuring that training and competition include elements of fun and enjoyment helps maintain a positive association with sports, encouraging continued participation and a love for the game​​.

Three actionable tips for parents to follow

  1. Incorporate Playful Activities: Encourage coaches to include games and playful drills during practice that emphasize fun and creativity. This can help break the monotony of routine training and keep the experience enjoyable for young athletes.

  2. Celebrate Personal Joys: Regularly ask your child what they enjoyed most about their practice or game. Celebrate these moments of joy and encourage them to share what makes the sport fun for them, reinforcing a positive and enjoyable perspective on their athletic involvement.

  3. Balance Competition with Fun: Arrange for occasional informal games or activities with friends and family where the emphasis is purely on fun rather than competition. This helps maintain a healthy balance and reminds young athletes of the joy and camaraderie that sports bring.

Underestimating the power of role modeling

Parents and coaches play a significant role as models of behavior and attitude in sports and beyond. Young athletes closely observe and emulate the actions, reactions, and attitudes of the adults around them. Exhibiting negative behavior, such as poor sportsmanship, excessive competitiveness, or visible frustration, can negatively influence young athletes. Demonstrating positive behaviors, including resilience in the face of setbacks, respect for others, and a balanced perspective on winning and losing, teaches young athletes valuable lessons in mental toughness and character​​.

Three actionable tips for parents to follow

  1. Model Resilience: When faced with setbacks or losses, show a calm and positive response. Talk about what can be learned from the experience and how to improve moving forward, demonstrating that setbacks are opportunities for growth.

  2. Practice Good Sportsmanship: Always show respect for coaches, referees, opponents, and other parents, both in victory and defeat. Your behavior sets a standard for your child, teaching them the importance of respect and humility.

  3. Maintain Perspective: Keep a balanced outlook on the importance of sports in the larger context of life. Emphasize the value of effort, learning, and enjoyment over winning. Share stories of athletes who exhibit strong character and resilience, highlighting these traits as the true marks of success.

Avoiding these common mistakes requires mindfulness, patience, and a commitment to fostering not just a physically skilled athlete but a mentally strong individual. By emphasizing effort over outcomes, ensuring sports remain enjoyable, modeling positive behaviors, and reducing unnecessary pressure, parents can significantly contribute to the development of mental toughness in young athletes.

The journey is as much about building character as it is about nurturing athletic prowess, with the ultimate goal of guiding young athletes towards becoming resilient, confident, and mentally tough individuals, both in sports and in life.

For more tips, read Confident, Calm & Clutch or go to Tips For Parents

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Read more from Valerie Alston


Valerie Alston, Mental Performance and Resilience Coach

Drawing from a rich background as a former D1 softball player and a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, she boasts over 15 years of experience dedicated to teaching and training Soldiers in the intricate art of mental toughness and resilience. As a distinguished author and coach, she brings a unique perspective to the realm of performance enhancement. Currently, her passion lies in empowering today's youth, leveraging her expertise to build and foster resilience through sports and mental toughness training, ensuring the next generation thrives in both their athletic pursuits and broader life challenges. With a comprehensive approach to athlete development, she extends her expertise to parents and coaches. Committed to enhancing understanding, she collaborates with them to impart valuable insights on building the mental toughness of young athletes, fostering an environment that nurtures resilience and unleashes their full potential.



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