How to Teach Young Athletes to Find Their Pace
As you try to instill grit and perseverance in young athletes, you will likely be met with some resistance. Whether it’s a sport that your athlete doesn’t instantly excel at, a team where he or she doesn’t quite fit in, or teammates who are finding more success, there are countless situations in sport that will test your athlete’s dedication and determination.
Here are four ways to encourage an athlete to push through the tough times and find his or her pace when working toward their sport goals on a team.
Help Them Reset or Rethink Their Goals
Sometimes an athlete feels frustrated because he or she isn’t meeting the goals set at the beginning of the season. Don’t ignore a struggling athlete or brush them aside with a casual ‘things will turn around soon.’
A coach’s role in this case is to help the athlete reassess what’s working and what isn’t working in the athlete’s training. Studies have shown that for young athletes, a coach’s role is the assignment of more (or less) specific training. Does the athlete need extra skills practice, or more time working on sprints?
When you see your athlete getting frustrated at their slow progress toward their goals, help them re-evaluate, get more specific, and redefine their goal within new parameters to create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Sensitive) goals for themselves.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset
Remind athletes that it’s okay to not instantly be successful at a new sport. A fixed mindset, according to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is one where a person believes that he or she has a set amount of talent. For a young athlete, that might mean thinking, ‘I am good at baseball,’ only after they score a home run, or ‘I am bad at volleyball’ after missing a serve. In a fixed mindset, Dweck writes, “Effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.”
Someone with a growth mindset, on the other hand, would look at a home run and think ‘I’m glad I’ve been working so hard at practice,’ while someone who missed a serve would think, ‘I need to spend more time working on my serve.’ That’s why Team USA focuses on a growth mindset even for their Olympic-level athletes. Dweck adds that a growth mindset sees effort as “what makes you smart or talented.”
Cultivating this in young athletes means focusing on progress and hard work, rather than suggesting that a child is ‘gifted’ or ‘talented.’ Make your praise focus on effort, not genetics.
Beware of Teammate Comparisons
Young athletes physically mature at different rates. Because of this, it can be challenging for a coach to help all athletes progress at the same pace. One student on the basketball team could grow six inches in a season, while another is still waiting for puberty to hit. It can be easy for the students who aren’t seeing progress to feel inferior to the ones who are naturally finding success in the sport. They need to understand that even with similar efforts, they may not have the same performance improvements – but that’s not a reason to quit.
Teaching your athletes to focus on their own progression, instead of comparing themselves to their teammates, is important for both the athletes who are struggling and the ones who are succeeding. The athletes who are doing well without much effort may actually miss out on developing grit or perseverance, because even with little effort, they can outperform their teammates.
Make sure each athlete has their own specific performance goals and is focusing on them, rather than competing with teammates during practice.
Urge Them to Stick It Out
Unless a child truly hates the sport, urge them to stick with it for at least one full season – even if they aren’t finding success. This helps an athlete develop grit, and often, the first few practices are the hardest when it comes to fitting in and learning how the systems work.
New research from the University of Montreal also showed that children who start playing organized sports around the age of six have less risk of emotional difficulties by age 12, and while part of that is due to better physical health in general, it was also determined to be helpful on a socio-emotional level.
In addition to the friendships that form after a season of practicing and playing together regularly, the discipline and perseverance learned over the course of a semester can also help in dealing with the stressors of school course loads.
For a young athlete, setting goals can be the easy part, while achieving them may seem like an impossible feat at times – especially when they watch their teammates reach their goals before they do. Work with athletes to help them recognize that it isn’t a race to see who reaches their goals first. It’s about persevering and appreciating the lessons learned, progress made, and growth achieved.