Millions of young children participate in sports across the world, from joining a football team or training camp, finding a love for running or a natural ability to stand and move on a surface other than normal walking ground. At a grassroots level the focus is on the “FUNdamentals of learning” (Sports Coach UK, 2015), where balance, agility and coordination skills are learned with emphasis on the fun, enjoyment and social aspect of the sport. This starting point provides the basic skills for talented youngsters to progress with more focused training and a view to start competing. As the physiological aspects are being developed and the technical skills honed, psychology for such young athletes can be overlooked.
There is a huge dropout of youth participants in sport which cover many difference reasons but contributing factors which are frequently mentioned are; stress, anxiety, increased emphasis on winning rather than participation and lack of intrinsic motivation and the desire to fulfill their goals (Cox, 2002). As sport builds healthy habits and attitudes, which also benefits life outside of a sporting arena, positive experiences at an early age will only serve to build up children and maintain their interest for a longer period of time.
The mental development of a young child under the tutelage of a sports coach will be a priority but the parents, who also have a very important but often underrated role to play in this area, can also aid it. They help mold a young athlete; combining home, school, sports and leisure time can be difficult and they help focus young minds and provide the correct balance between activities.
To develop a positive, confident and motivated young athlete, parents can be mindful of the following:
- Children need to know that they make their parents proud regardless of outcomes. This should not correlate with any competitive positions, which can increase stress and anxiety before an event has taken place.
- Help the young athlete enjoy the training process. Much satisfaction can be derived from skill acquisition and refinement of technique thus increasing intrinsic motivation and a willingness to continue participation.
- Emphasis needs to be on the participation in an event and not the final result (Gould et al. 2006). Healthy competition is good for young athletes -experience of both winning and losing helps shape a person – but self esteem and confidence needs to be developed during training and not specifically linked to competitive placing.
- Behaviour around a young athlete in a sporting environment needs to be calm and composed – particularly if at a competition or event. Parents are role models and negative or violent reactions can produce a similar response in the child. Positivity and praise will only build self-esteem whilst lifting perceived pressure, which in turn can effect performance (Arthur-Banning et al. 2009)
- If a young athlete does compete, realise that anxiety is a natural component of this. A child can utilize these feelings, develop coping mechanisms and improve their performance, but increasing their anxiety can be detrimental.
- Try not to coach your athlete as it undermines what the coach is teaching, parents may get it wrong and again, it can apply too much pressure.
- Working alongside the coach and support staff to provide the youth with a positive experience will build and maintain a healthy attitude towards sport which can serve them well when they are adults (Weinburg & Gould, 2015).
Many children will continue to be involved in sports every year and some will have the ability to succeed to higher-level competitions and more intense training regimes. The points above are a great start in building esteem and confidence for any standard of performance, as laying strong foundations for the psychological aspect of sports will help the athlete cope with increasing physical and technical demands that come with progression and attainment.
Arthur-Banning, Skye; Wells, Mary Sara; Baker, Birgitta L; Hegreness, Ryan. Parents Behaving Badly? The relationship between the sportsmanship behaviours of adults and athletes in youth basketball games. Journal of Sport Behavior. V 32.1 (Mar 2009): 3-18.
Cox, R. H. (2002) Sports Psychology: Concepts and Applications. (5th Ed) McGraw Hill: USA
Gould, D; Lauer, L; Rolo, C; Jannes, C & Pennisi, N. (2006). Understanding the role parents play in tennis success; a national survey of junior tennis coaches. Br J Sports Med. V40: 632-636
Weinberg, R. S & Gould, D. (2015) Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (6th Ed) Human Kinetics: New York
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About Dannielle Starkie
FdSc Sports Science graduate, ex-British champion & international figure skater.