For most American families, August marks the waning of summer... a last chance at backyard BBQs, road trips and beach days before kids go back to school. Yet, for those who have boys or girls in competitive football, August means TRAINING -- a physically and mentally challenging schedule of conditioning workouts and practice intended to prepare them for the sport's rigors.
With training typically four-to-five days per week, the stress begins straight out of the gate, as new and returning players volley for key positions, often pushing the limits of training to earn a coach's trust and a spot on the starting roster. At every age level, there are different challenges during this process.
According to the Long-Term Athlete Development model*, the primary concerns and pressures for young athletes (ages: 6-9) are hopefully shouldered by the coaches, so that they may develop the basic physical and mental fundamentals of sport. The key emphasis during this period is for the kids to have FUN (hopefully fun is a life-long mission, too).
During the ages of 10 to 12, the focus is to teach athletes how to actually train. The primary concerns for coaches during these two stages would range from "Am I creating an environment that promotes fundamental movements for sport, enthusiasm for learning and fun?" -- to -- "How well can I teach the kids to love the challenge of finding out how good they can become, today?" For young athletes, the primary goal is best served to create an environment that stimulates enjoyment while blending movement and skill development.
As athletes move into a train-to-train phase (ages: 12-16), players often begin focusing on specific technical and tactical skill development and can begin to encounter increased levels of competitive intensity, and -- if we're not thoughtful with our coaching -- mistakes can turn into fear of failure and shame over a missed catch, bad throw, botched tackle, not enough speed, fear of taking a hit. The list goes on. It's not the error that is so bad, as mistake-making is part of the game and part of the learning process. We want to teach "going for it" rather than "trying to be perfect" or "needing approval from others." It's the over-value of what someone else might be thinking about the mistake that becomes the center of pressure for most young athletes.
You can usually tell the rookies from the veterans, at any levels of the sport, based on how well they do the little things when others are watching. Learning something new, for many, can be really challenging in a pressure-filled environment. If a person is overly aware of what others might be thinking of them, the learning process becomes compromised because our minds can bounce back and forth between learning that skill -- like catching a ball -- and making an impression on our teammates, coaches, fans, media or loved ones. There's no room, in skill acquisition or high performing environments, to manage what others "may" think of you.
Though young athletes handle pressure differently, parents of youth football players often experience their own anxiety not knowing how to help their children navigate a stressful experience. Nearly every parent that I've worked with wants the best for their child, but sometimes the well-intended can get actually add more pressure. The fatal flaw occurs when athletes become more concerned with a parent's approval or fear of disapproval after the match. You know something's not working when the walk to the car and the ride home becomes far more daunting than the actual competition.
Most athletes, prior to competition, are working to guide their minds to their unique "ideal competitive mindset" and guide their emotions to a sense of "calm-intensity." Parents can assist in this process by reminding them that they are not defined by the outcome of the upcoming competition, and that the real competition is to be the athlete who has the most fun by doing what he/she has trained to do.
Another strategy is to help your athlete better regulate his/her intensity. Breathing training is a powerful process to help quiet one's mind from distracting thoughts (those that bring anxiousness or worry). Additionally, breathing training helps to trigger a sense of calm. On the other hand, trying to get an anxious player pumped for "the big game," for example, may add pressure to the situation.
If you've ever heard a high-profile athlete say "we just wanna' play OUR game," or "this is JUST another game to us," you've witnessed a mental strategy used to dissolve pressure, allowing the athlete to enter into an ideal mindset, feeling in control, and having fun while playing the game. Over time, we tend to believe what we say... to others, and to ourselves. The key note here is that the way we interpret our environment -- both the sensations inside our bodies and information that comes from the world around us -- is what makes the difference.
So what can parents do to help navigate the natural pressures on their children in competitive sports like football? Consider the following seven tips:
1. Learn to ask the right questions. Instead of stating your opinion about his/her performance, ask your child more questions, and -- this is important -- listen! Here are some examples of open-ended, strength-based, improvement-focused questions:
- What was practice like for you today?
- What was the most exciting part? The most fun? The hardest part?
- What types of things did you learn today?
- What can I do to help with your training?
- Where and when should we talk (and not talk) about football (e.g., car rides are off-limits; dinner table is OK)?
2. Help them create a plan, with purpose. Your child's mission might be to earn a starting quarterback role on a Pop Warner team but, before that, he should be aware that he'll need to be able to throw the ball well, read a defensive line, memorize lots of offensive options and gain some experience making decisions and executing plays in that position. Spend just a few minutes writing down some of the skills that your athlete can work on that will lead them to their goal. Help them focus on working the plan, rather than becoming consumed with the achievement of the goal.
3. Model optimism. Try to reframe negative experiences as more positive ones. For example, not getting the starting quarterback job for the first few games might be an opportunity to play some other positions. After all, if you want to be a good quarterback, you would want to have the perspective of everyone else on the field like what a running back sees, how a safety reads a play, and what a defensive lineman has to do to shut down a QB.
4. Show true support. Athletes, especially those in a position to be highly influenced by other people (read: teammates, coaches, parents), tend to do better in situations if they feel supported, encouraged and challenged. If they don't fear letting someone down after a mistake, for example, they can become freed from worry, which allows brain, body and mind to settle down and just play the game. If a child feels constantly evaluated and judged by everyone around him/her, they are more likely to make errors under pressure.
5. Be here, right now with them. Represent your best self at practices and games. Would you let your son or daughter bring their iPhones out on the field with them to text and check emails during practices? No. So, don't allow yourself to do it either. Use their practices to practice your own present moment awareness. Use their games as a way to compete within yourself to be the best supporter you can be for them.
6. Look out for warning signs. It is pretty simple, really. If, on more days than not, an athlete doesn't want to practice, something isn't right. If this were to persist too long, a young athlete could actually be heading toward burnout (e.g., loss of enjoyment in the activity, lethargic behavior, irritability), anxiety (e.g., sleep disturbances, muscle tension, overwhelming nervousness), and low confidence (e.g., persistent negative narrative, like "I can't do this"; unwillingness to ask for help or connect with teammates/coaches).
7. Know when to say "when." At any sign of pain, pay attention and change the plan by getting expert advice. Pain and Injury are the indicators from the body to change the approach (discomfort is different). It's time to approach training with a different emphasis, by reducing workload or adding more recovery modalities (sleep, proper thinking, nutrition, hydration, massage, dynamic warm-ups, ice, etc.). Imagine if you were in pain yourself... would you be at your best? Would you be able to fend off the opposition in a high-contact sport if your ankle was in pain? Could you focus through it, make good decisions, keep your body nimble and strong? Learning how to push through pain requires years of training. Let's save that for the adult phase of life when the body and brain are more mature and developed, and less sensitive to trauma.
* Balyi, I., & Hamilton, A. (2004). Long-Term Athlete Development: Trainability in children and adolescents. Windows of opportunity. Optimal trainability. Victoria, BC: National Coaching Institute British Columbia & Advanced Training and Performance Ltd.