As a Trainee Sport Psychologist, I have been offered many opportunities to work with young athletes at various stages of their personal development and progression within their chosen sport. When these roles were first offered, it was challenging to understand the needs of each age group that I was working with and the best way to develop Sport Psychology sessions in a way that was fun and engaging for children. The following sections of this article will overview how I have developed as a practitioner to help young athletes understand the role that Sport Psychology can play in their development.
One common question: what is sport psychology?
As with adult and elite athletes this question is just as (if not more) prevalent when working with youth athletes. During my early training I found it difficult to find a definition that helped this age group without using terms that have negative connotations for some e.g. ‘mental’ side of the game. These first impressions were key and I often came away thinking that I could paint Sport Psychology in a more positive light.
Now I have progressed this to simply explain it as a ‘piece of the puzzle’ for their overall performance. During training camps, they may have sessions focusing on tactics, technique, performance analysis, physio (performance recovery, injury recovery), nutrition and strength and conditioning. The psychology sessions are simply another piece being added to the puzzle that can help athletes process this information and understand how they are performing and why they are performing that way.
How early can we introduce Sport Psychology to athletes?
At first I was sceptical of introducing Sport Psychology to athletes between 6-11 years of age (mid-childhood). Shouldn’t we be working with the parents and coaches instead of the children? Yes, we should, but can we build up contact time with the athletes. Then I read Mental training with youth sport teams: Developmental considerations and best-practice recommendations (Visek, Harris & Blom, 2013). Delivering Sport Psychology to these athletes is just as important, the sessions may not be named and delivered with Sport Psychology titles but they can provide useful developmental tools for young athletes if delivered in the right way (Evans and Slater, 2014). If we gain the impact and buy in at these earlier ages will these athletes be better placed to ‘work with’ the pressure and expectations that are placed on them in performance environments? Will this then improve their overall well-being during their next stages of development.
Sport Specialisation: The drawbacks and the positives
During the initial stages of my training I was a big believer that children should compete in a variety of sports and test their skills in different environments. I still very much see the benefits of this philosophy and understand that this is a key for many parents to feel their child has a choice of activities/sports to choose from. This is supported by the belief that youth athletes who do focus on one sport can suffer from withdrawal and burnout (Coakley, 2009; Gould, 2010). Youth athletes that specialise can also be affected by high levels of stress that comes from the expectations that are on them (Wiersma, 2000). However, specialisation will always occur in a competitive, performance environment such as the world of sport. So, my philosophy and approach to supporting young athletes has developed to ensure that if I am in these environments I can be the neutral avenue of support to recognise and understand if things are getting too much and these signs of burnout get noticed and resolved. Talented young athletes will often decide to specialise in the sport they are best at so we should have a focus on utilising the knowledge of Sport Psychologists to support them.
It is clear from this brief reflection that my perspective and opinions on Sport Psychology in youth sport have developed over the last 5 years. This has come through the opportunity to work in a variety of youth sports. There are clear divisions in the opinions of Sport Psychology and its role with young athletes and each athlete, parent and sport organisation will have a different view. But, I leave you with this question that I now ask myself:
‘Should there be a Sport Psychology piece to every young athlete’s puzzle?’