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How To Build Mental Toughness In Young Athletes By Creating A Supportive Environment

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 a young athlete is filled with challenges and opportunities, both on and off the field. While the development of physical skills is often the focus of sports training, the cultivation of mental toughness is equally crucial for long-term success and well-being. However, mental toughness doesn't flourish in a vacuum; it requires a supportive environment that nurtures growth, resilience, and an optimistic mindset. This is where the role of parents becomes pivotal, creating an atmosphere that fosters mental toughness through encouragement, support, and understanding.

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The importance of fun of young athletes in training

At the heart of a supportive environment is the concept of fun. It's easy to get caught up in the competitiveness of sports, focusing solely on performance, outcomes, and achievements. Yet, it's essential to remember that young athletes are first and foremost children and teenagers who need to enjoy what they're doing. Training sessions that prioritize fun, alongside hard work, not only enhance the sporting experience but also encourage athletes to stay engaged, reduce the risk of burnout, and foster a lifelong love for sports. Integrating games, playful competitions, and enjoyable activities into training can make a significant difference in how young athletes perceive their sports journey.

If you are your child’s sports coach, make sure you build fun into practice plans regardless of age group. One of my all-time favorite coaches was Scott Raftery (Raf), my high school softball coach. This man was so joyful and playful! He helped bring the joy back into a game for me. At that point in my softball journey, I was playing travel softball. While I loved the game, I was pursuing it aggressively with travel, workouts, individual coaching and working hard to build my skills to the point of it being "a job".

But Raf ended every practice with some sort of silly game or friendly competition. He made us play “phantom” before games. After taking our warm up infield/outfield grounders and fly balls, we used a phantom (imaginary) ball and performed our best ESPN top 10 play. It could be solo or a group play of some kind. It helped keep us loose and enjoy competing. in my four years of high school softball, we made the playoffs every year, going to the quarterfinals, championship game twice (winning once) and semifinals of state, so while we had a ton of fun we were also very good. 

Make an effort to ensure practices are fun and engaging, make sure athletes are not standing around bored. Make sure that the kids are growing and developing. Believe it or not, winning and losing is not the driving factor for keeping kids in sport but being able to see success and realizing they are getting better is.

If you are not your child’s coach, make time to engage in your child’s sport or activity in fun ways with them. Play hoops in the driveway, go out and play catch, have a family mini-golf battle royal on vacation (Mom kicked our butts in match play in Cancun). Even if you are bad at their sport/activity, play with them. Let yourself be the butt of the joke or let them coach and teach you. 

The goal is to make sure that they can still enjoy the sport/activity with you, without the pressure of “getting better” every moment of every day. Keep these times free from instruction or coaching, just be together having fun. 

Encouraging multi-sport participation

Another key element of creating a supportive environment is encouraging young athletes to explore and participate in multiple sports. Early specialization in a single sport can lead to increased risks of burnout, overuse injuries, and a loss of interest in sports altogether. In contrast, multi-sport participation allows athletes to develop a broad range of physical skills, discover new passions, and enjoy a more balanced and enriching sports experience.

Parents and coaches can support this by fostering an open-minded approach to sports, celebrating the exploration of diverse athletic pursuits, and recognizing the value of varied experiences in building a well-rounded athlete​​. Let your child keep participating in as many things as possible as long as your budget and time allow for it. 

For more on this read Chapter 7: How to exercise your way to mental toughness in my book Confident, Calm & Clutch.

The role of individualized attention

Individualized attention is critical in a supportive environment. Every young athlete is unique, with their own set of strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and aspirations. Recognizing and addressing these individual needs is essential for their development and mental toughness. This means taking the time to understand each child's personal goals, providing tailored feedback and encouragement, and creating customized training plans that cater to their specific requirements.

This becomes critical as a parent when you have multiple children. Each child will not have the same temperament, drive, talent, learning capacity, etc. By showing that their individual journey is valued and supported, parents and coaches can greatly enhance their child's confidence, motivation, and mental resilience​​.

Love them regardless of results

In the high-pressure world of youth sports, the role of parents extends far beyond simply attending games and practices. One of the most crucial aspects of parental involvement is providing unwavering love, affection, and support regardless of how well their child performs. When parents tie their expressions of love and approval to their child’s athletic success, it can create a conditional relationship that undermines the child’s sense of self-worth and mental resilience. Instead of fostering a healthy competitive spirit, this approach often leads to increased anxiety, fear of failure, and burnout. It's essential for parents to understand that their child's value is not measured by wins or losses but by their effort, dedication, character and personal growth.

A supportive and consistent environment helps young athletes develop a stable foundation of self-confidence and mental toughness. When children know that their parents' love is unconditional, they feel more secure and are better equipped to handle the ups and downs of their sports journey. This sense of security encourages them to take risks, learn from their mistakes, and persist through challenges without the fear of disappointing their most important supporters. By separating your child's performance from your parental affection, you can promote a growth mindset, where the focus is on effort and improvement rather than just outcomes. This approach not only enhances the child's athletic performance but also contributes to their overall emotional well-being and long-term success in sports and life.

Moreover, demonstrating unconditional support teaches young athletes valuable life lessons about resilience and self-acceptance. It shows them that their worth is intrinsic and not dependent on external achievements. This perspective is critical in helping them develop a balanced and healthy relationship with competition, where they can strive for excellence without compromising their mental health. Ultimately, the most impactful contribution parents can make is to be a consistent source of encouragement and love, fostering an environment where young athletes can thrive both on and off the field.

3 actionable tips for parents to follow

1. Focus on effort and process, not just results

When discussing games or practices, highlight your child’s effort, dedication, and improvements rather than just the outcome. For example, say, "I noticed how hard you were working on your dribbling skills today," instead of focusing on whether they won or lost.

2. Offer consistent emotional support

Be present and supportive, regardless of how your child performs. After a tough game, listen to their feelings and validate their experiences without immediately offering solutions or criticisms. Simply saying, "I’m proud of you for giving it your all," can be very powerful..

3. Encourage self-reflection and learning

After games or practices, ask open-ended questions that promote self-reflection, such as, "What did you learn from today’s game?" or "What part of your performance are you most proud of?" Avoid questions that focus solely on winning or losing.

For more specific tips on Self-Reflection read “How to Empower Your Young Athlete to Build Mental Toughness”.

Creating a supportive environment is fundamental to fostering mental toughness in young athletes. Such an environment is characterized by an emphasis on fun, encouragement of multi-sport participation, the provision of individualized attention and unconditional support. By prioritizing these elements, parents can help young athletes develop not just as competitors, but as confident, resilient individuals ready to tackle the challenges of sports and life. Remember, the goal is to nurture athletes who are not only strong in body but also in mind and spirit.


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


You can also check out my final article in the Winning Starts at Home series called “How to Avoid Common Mistakes to Parents Make with Young Athletes” (insert link to article) for tips on making sure you don’t get in the way of your child developing mental toughness.

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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