The 7 Musts of Nurturing the Ambitious Athlete in an Overly Competitive Youth Sports World
John R Mishock, PT, DPT, DC

Research suggests that it may take 8-to-12 years of training (roughly 10,000 hours) for a talented athlete to reach elite level status, also known as the 10,000 hour rule (Balyi and Hamilton, 2003; Ericsson). With this large commitment, it is imperative that parents and coaches have a strategy to maintain the child’s psychological well-being to prevent burnout and keep the athlete motivated and driven through the critical years of development.

All too often the parents and coaches of these young athletes approach sports with a “Peak by Friday” mentality. There is an over-emphasis on immediate results and competitions. This mentality does not allow the child to develop fundamental physical literacy (competence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefits healthy development) and skill. Beyond this, the excess games and “Peak by Friday” mentality puts a lot of pressure on these young athlete.

Often coaches and parents expect the child to move and make plays like an adult. In many cases, these developing children do not have the movement based motor skill and strength to coordinate their body and limbs to do so. This pressure to perform at a high level may lead to an inordinate number of kids quitting sports before they even have finished developing physically. Thus, by age 15, seventy percent of kids stop playing sports all together (National Center for Health Statistics).

Most parents want their child to do well in any endeavor they try. It’s a fundamental tenant to want more opportunity for your child then you had growing up. However, it is important that we help the developing young athlete to reach their fullest potential without burning them out in the process. I will review 7 must haves in developing a psychologically healthy athlete based on the latest psychological and brain research.
1. Unconditional Love
Unconditional love is the first essential component in a child’s psychological development. Kids need to feel just as loved if they win or lose, succeed or failure. If they feel less loved when they have lost or had difficulty performing, their self-worth will become connected to their results. It is extremely difficult for children to be motivated work hard and seek self-improvement if they feel they are less worthy when they fail. To reach a high level athletic status, the journey is long and difficult with many ups and downs. Parents need to be patient and loving in the face of failure and adversity. In most activities in life, failure is an opportunity to grow and develop. Unconditional love is incredibly important for their long term well-being, self-confidence and resilience of a developing young athlete.

2. Ultimate goal is self-improvement
The parent and coach needs to convey that the goal is always to “get better” and improve. The focus should be on small incremental improvements in skill versus an end result of success. The child needs to be encouraged to apply themselves and take ownership for their self-improvement developing a desire to work hard even when the coach or parent is not present.

3. Reward effort and attitude not results
In a developing athlete effort and attitude is most important and should be rewarded, not an activities result. For example, in basketball we often praise the made shot no matter what form the player used to make the basket. In order to make consistent basketball shoots, repeatable perfect form is needed. To attain this form it takes many hours of perfect rehearsal. We want to praise and reward the good form of shooting not the end result of the made basket. Eventually the good form will lead to repeatability in making consistent basketball shots. Until then praise the learning of the good form not the inadvertent made basket.

Don’t reward kids that have a poor attitude and or effort level. Kids need to recognize and value a good attitude and effort. Rewards independent of effort and attitude reinforces bad training behavior. Long term it is effort and attitude that will lead to self-improvement and success.

4. Promoting self reflection
To learn ambitiously, kids must develop the ability or habit of reflecting on their own experiences. If kids learn how to critically reflect they can evaluate their own performance, consider how they could do better and come up with solutions to problems. You can promote self-reflection by encouraging this process in practise, and before and after competition. This will involve you asking leading questions rather than telling, and by involving kids in practise and drill design.

5. Self-reliance and ownership
As the child ages it is important that they develop self-reliance and ownership for their training and performance. The more self-reliant the child is, the greater opportunity towards learning and development. Developing the child’s ownership should be a gradual process of parents and coaches increasing both the responsibility and independence of their kids.

6. Variety and new challenges
The coach and or parent needs to approach learning and development with excitement, enthusiasm creating a variety a wide variety of tasks to reach an end goal. Planning and well thought out drill design can create new challenges and training activities to keep the child interested and ambitious in learning.

7. Energy and fun
It is important to bring lots of energy and a positive attitude when training a child. Many training activities can be made fun and enjoyable by giving off an energetic, fun attitude. One of the easiest ways to create energy and fun in training is to make the activity competitive. When athletes are competing the energy level will increase and they will have more enhance training isEveryone tries harder when they are enjoying their activity. If we are having an experience that is full of energy and fun, we are far more likely to engage in the experience. Bring a sense of fun to training and competition and be infectious in you r energy.

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