Sports are filled with a tremendous amount of physical duress.
From getting kicked to being knocked down, scraping knees to bruising bones, turf burn to torn ligaments. The physical side of youth sports is rigorous, and we must prepare for it with fervor. We need to do all we can to help these young athletes rise above those physical battles, be it strength and conditioning, load management, speed and agility work, etc.
But this piece is not about physical training.
Peruse social media and there's an abundance of articles discussing how to strength train and become more physically resilient.
On the other hand, there's a shortage of coverage on the mental component of youth sports.
It's sad, because if kids do not master their minds, their physical strength matters little.
Truthfully, I do not care how strong, fast, agile or skilled a youth athlete is if they cannot handle failure or face adversity with confidence.
If they cannot do those things, they will crack under pressure and stagnate in their careers.
The highest performers, to that end, are physically strong, but also mentally resilient. They can cut out distractions, they can use anxiety to fuel them, they can manage stress, they can shift negative energy into vibrant energy, and they can see the silver lining through the darkest times and failures.
So how do young athletes become mentally strong? How can they help themselves reduce stress and anxiety to rise above the noise?
Here are 5 actionable steps to take action.
1. Ask, 'What Can I Control?'
Sadly, youth sports are never smooth sailing. There will be things that happen that leave us feeling deflated and disoriented—losing games, getting injured, not starting, not making the varsity or "A" team, or being played in a different position than we envisioned.
It is totally OK to feel flat when disappointing things happen. In fact, I urge you to lean into the feelings of distraught for a bit rather than burying or attempting to completely ignore them.
But eventually, feeling sorry for yourself isn't going to solve these problems.
So instead of just saying, "this all sucks" and feeling sorry for yourself, ask yourself: "What can I control in this situation?"
Separate the actions that are in your hands from the actions out of your hands.
Then, take radical action.
If you are an injured soccer player, for example, are there other parts of your body you can train and make strong? Can you watch Lionel Messi videos and study the game while you are sidelined? Can you clean up your nutrition? Can you make time for other hobbies, like writing, playing music or creating art?
When you focus on what you can control and shift your negative energy into uplifting tasks, you take back your power. It's relieving, isn't it?
2. Less Social Media, Please
This much I know: Athletes who consistently perform at a high level have an insatiable desire to avoid distractions. They have mastered the art of cutting out the noise, the drama and the external doubt.
One tip I like to give my youth athletes is to get off social media, especially around match time. There is nothing worse than seeing something on Instagram that irks you, or a nasty comment someone left on a photo right before a game.
Ask yourself, "what improves me mentally and physically as an athlete?" or "what activities can I focus on today to make me better?"
Odds are, social media isn't the answer. Neither is playing video games, sending selfies or gossiping with friends.
These things are great to help you unwind and blow off some steam, but if they're coming at the detriment to your athletic and/or academic performance, you need to make a choice.
Remember, your sports career is your journey. You can write it any way you choose. Your work ethic is your choice, your nutrition is your choice, your recovery is your choice, your intrinsic motivation to take feedback and improve is your choice.
Obstacles will inevitably pop up, and no one knows exactly where their story will take them, but I promise you, avoiding distractions can help you turn your athletic story into something magical.
3. Have a Support Group
Humans need each other. And chances are, if you play a team sport, you rely on your teammates to help you on the field.
So how about leaning on others off the field, too?
In terms of mental health, anxiety and stress, the more we can speak our truth to others, the more they can relate and inspire us to heal. And sometimes, we just need a sounding board to hear us out. Letting out our feelings relieves us from the gut-wrenching agony of stress and anxiety.
So who are your biggest supporters? Your parents? Your teammates? Your best friends at school?
Not everyone is going to be a good fit for your support group. It's up to you to decide who lifts you up and who brings you down, and to tailor your group accordingly.
Then connect with them regularly and give them a shoulder to lean on, too.
4. Be Your Biggest Hype Man
Talking down on yourself is the worst thing you can do when going through adversity.
And what's sad is, the negativity bias is real: most humans focus on the worst aspects of their life, even when amazing things are happening at the same time.
With that said, be your biggest hype person.
When you cheer yourself on relentlessly, you boost your confidence, regain trust in yourself, and realize how much of a beast you are.
So how do you cheer yourself on?
Writing down affirmations daily, especially first thing in the morning, sets you up for the day with positive intention.
These affirmations could be something like:
- "I am a good teammate."
- "I am an amazing friend."
- "I am fast and strong."
- "I am a goal-scorer and help my team."
- "I am role model and leader to my team."
So what are your strengths? And can you amplify these daily by writing them down and reading them out loud?
If you put in the effort and be consistent with this, I promise the results will be nothing short of amazing.
5. Recognize How Far You've Come
I understand it is easy to focus on your failures along the way, but how about giving yourself credit where it's due?
Looking back on how far you've come in your career is a great way to regain your footing and realize you're amazing at what you do.
Take some time to make a list of all the wonderful things you've accomplished in your sports career so far. What challenges did you overcome? What big plays did you make? What goals did you work hard for and achieve?
Sports, like life, are not perfect.
The more you can accept that fact and realize the oscillating flow of the journey, the more you can allow stress, anxiety and doubt to blow away like a passing breeze.
Photo Credit: Moore Media/iStock
- 3 Exercises to Build Mental Toughness That Don't Break Down the Body
- 5 Ways Sports Parents Can Help Build Mental Toughness
- Draymond Green on the Incredible Power of Self-Confidence for Athletes