HELPING YOUNG ATHLETES DEVELOP A HEALTHY COMPETITIVE MINDSET

Chang WOGA P Bars

It’s important for children who are involved in athletics and team-based activities to learn from a loss or setback instead of letting it negatively affect their attitude and performance. Violent incidents and excessive “drama” involving athletes (and/or their parents) and referee and judges have made recent news headlines, such as the Detroit-area soccer player who was accused of punching a referee after receiving a red card in a recreational league game. Unfortunately, this act of violence was fatal.

Of course it’s necessary for all young people to know that neither rage, and/or most certainly violence is never the solution, but the adrenaline rush that accompanies sporting events can present a challenging emotional situation for child athletes and sport parents, making it necessary to address the young athlete’s disappointment or anger before emotions flare out of control.

Teams are like families, and they can choose to let their values ooze out of their conversations, decisions, policies, and practices. Meetings before and after practice, as well as quick conversations during practice can be opportunities to reinforce good sportsmanship, respect for the event, and for opponents and other participants. The gym locker room, car, and competition site are settings ideal for story, example, or testimony that says to all, “this is who we are.”

“Many young athletes need a paradigm shift in how they see competition”

The most fundamental challenge coaches and sport parents face in youth athletics is shifting the athlete’s thought process about the competitive experience.

I’m referring to a shift from:  “This loss is proof that I’m no good and therefore devastating.”  To: “What does this outcome represent to me in the way of feedback that I can use to get better?”

This more logical approach will not occur to most deeply competitive athletes immediately – as in the first 10 minutes after a poor performance or loss.  Unfortunately, it’s common for athletes to blame others for a defeat, whether they put it on the judge, equipment, teammate, coach or parents. The Detroit soccer player clearly allowed his poor sportsmanship to reach a dangerous level; he is being charged with second-degree murder for fatally punching the referee (and father of two).

In the case of young athletes, the sooner the initial “Boo-Hoo” (pity party) can be replaced with the question “What can I learn from this?” the sooner real progress can begin toward the goal of performance excellence.  This paradigm shift represents a more direct pathway to future victories than the pathway of anger, resentment, self-degradation, and self-pity – which only prolongs the immaturity of the athlete.

This is not to say that the outcome of a competition doesn’t matter, but it matters in a different way than most kids are being taught.  A poor performance is not who you are; it’s only what you did.  It is the responsibility of adults- parents, coaches, mentors- to teach young athletes this concept through leading by example and offering encouragement.

When a child is emotional following a loss, poor performance or setback of some kind, they need to feel understood, but they also must learn to handle defeats as a learning experience. This is where you- the parent, coach, friend or other adult- can help an athlete approach the issue from a positive perspective, guide them on the path to evaluating their own missteps, and not the possible fault of others, and inspire them to try again. Eventually children will begin to process these concepts on their own, allowing them to accept this day’s outcome and work toward higher levels of athletic performance for tomorrow.