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How To Empower Your Young Athlete To Build Mental Toughness

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

In the world of youth sports, mental toughness stands as a cornerstone of athletic achievement and personal growth. It's the silent force that propels young athletes forward, enabling them to navigate the highs and lows of their sporting journey with grace, resilience, and unwavering determination. But the question arises: where does this mental fortitude originate, and how can it be nurtured? The answer lies not just within the athletes themselves but also within a crucial support system—their parents.

Essential role of preant menta toughness

Mental toughness is more than just the ability to push through a physically demanding practice or bounce back from a disappointing loss or mistake. It encompasses a set of psychological attributes that empower young athletes to face challenges head-on, remain focused under pressure, and persist in the face of adversity. These attributes include an optimistic mindset, emotional regulation, goal setting, and focus. But developing such a complex suite of skills doesn't happen in isolation. It requires a nurturing environment, one where parents play a pivotal role.

Enter the "Discover, Build, Apply" method, a comprehensive approach that underscores the importance of parental involvement in developing mental toughness. This method is not just a strategy but a journey that parents embark upon alongside their young athletes, guiding them through discovery, support, and application of mental toughness in both sports and life.

Discover the issue

The first step involves recognizing the signs of stress or lack of confidence in young athletes. This phase is crucial, as it sets the stage for targeted interventions and support. Parents, through careful observation and open communication, can identify the triggers or events that challenge their child's mental fortitude. It could be performance anxiety, fear of failure, fatigue, lack of skill or external pressures. Understanding these triggers is the first step towards empowering young athletes to overcome them.

Teach them to treat everything as a learning opportunity. To learn from the past and not judge it. Reflecting on the past is valuable in any context, like school or sports.

The important step in the reflection process is to reflect without adding judgments. Discard the notion of right or wrong, good or bad. Instead, focus on what happened, what worked, and what needs adapting, tweaking, or change in your approach.

To use the Discovery process, it is important to recognize that while you probably know your kid very well, you don’t always know what's going on for them internally. The best way to engage in this process is by:

  1. Ask reflection questions after practice, games, tests, big moments like auditions, tryouts, etc

  2. How did it go today?

  3. How'd you feel out there today?

  4. What are your thoughts on how today went?

  5. What did you learn?

  6. Based on how they answer you want to direct their focus to "Controllables" aspects of performance.

It’s also important to know that the Discover process is not just for moments of struggle. Building mental toughness also requires us to build on success. We can help our kids focus on what is going right and how to build on or repeat success. Helping young people realize that they have strengths, talents and skills that have enabled their success is a powerful way to build confidence and trust in themselves to be able to handle future challenges. 

For more tips on facilitating the discover process consider buying my book, “How to Teach Mental Skills to Athletes: Confident, Calm, and Clutch Coaching Companion - The Ultimate Guide to Coaching Mental Toughness or sign up for access to a free webinar replay I had with fellow parents discussing this same topic. 

Build mental skills 

With a clear understanding of the challenges at hand, parents can then support their children in building the necessary skills to tackle them. This includes fostering an optimistic mindset, encouraging resilience through adversity, and teaching the value of focus and concentration. By promoting positive self-talk, embracing setbacks as learning opportunities, and emphasizing the importance of effort over outcomes, parents can help their young athletes strengthen their mental toughness. 

You can also help them build “winning streaks” by naming the process, skill or effort that led to a successful outcome so they can repeat that success. Showing them the recipe for success helps them transfer those processes, skills or efforts to areas of struggle.

You can help build mental tools by guiding the conversation towards self-discovery, even if you don't have expertise in mental skills. As a person with more life experience than your child, you can offer suggestions. You can ask questions that guide your child to cross-talk and share tools they are already using. Asking about what worked, how to repeat it, and how to adjust if it didn't builds their skills. 

For more tips on specific mental skills consider buying my book, “Confident, Calm and Clutch” 

Help them apply the lessons learned

The final piece of the puzzle is about applying these strategies in real-world scenarios. Parents can create environments that encourage their children to put their mental toughness to the test, be it during practice, in competition, or in everyday challenges. Through consistent application, young athletes learn to navigate the pressures of sports and life with confidence, resilience, and a growth mindset.

Which often means that parents have to give kids the opportunity and space to fail. No one likes to see their child fail or be disappointed. Often this leads parents to step in and “fix” the situation so that their child no longer has to feel those painful emotions. But experiencing these things is what helps children grow and develop their mental fortitude. 

3 actionable tips for parents to follow

Encourage problem-solving

When your child faces a challenge, resist the urge to step in immediately. Instead, ask guiding questions that help them think through the problem and come up with their own solutions. This builds their confidence and problem-solving skills.

Normalize failure

Talk openly about failures and setbacks as natural parts of learning and growth. Share your own experiences with failure and how you overcame them, demonstrating that setbacks are opportunities for development.

Provide supportive presence

Be there for your child emotionally without taking over the situation. Offer empathy and understanding, acknowledging their feelings while encouraging them to persevere and try again. This shows them that it's okay to feel disappointed and that they have the strength to move past it.

Mental strength develops much like physical strength. If you don’t test your muscles with weights that are heavier than what you are used to, you will never get stronger. Children need to experience hard things (appropriate to their age and developmental level) in order to get better at dealing with hard things. If parents can develop the courage to endure their child’s emotional pain, disappointment or frustration without rescuing them from it, they can help their child learn how to deal with it more effectively.

At the heart of this journey is the unique role of parents. Your involvement is not just beneficial but essential. By adopting the "Discover, Build, Apply" method, you can provide the support system your young athlete needs to develop the mental toughness essential for success on and off the field.

In my article titled, "How to Build Mental Toughness in Young Athletes by Creating a Supportive Environment" (insert link once published) we will dive deeper into this topic. I’ll share how you can effectively recognize the needs, support the development, and encourage the application of mental toughness in your young athlete's life.

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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