Sport Psychology for Children and Teenagers – Too little too late or too fast too furious?

A few weeks ago I wrote about the benefits of teaching mental skills to younger athletes.  Some of the world’s top performers talk about how many years it takes not just to develop the appropriate levels of technical, tactical and physical skills but also the mental skills.  Michael Phelps talks about starting to use goal setting and visualisation as young as 10 or 11 years old but that it took him years to develop and refine these skills to the standard that the world witnessed at the Olympic Games in Beijing.  I thought I’d try to pick up on this area again and ask the question, when is too young for Sport Psychology?

Like many issues in Psychology, there are two main standpoints.  The first suggests that we should not be “messing with kids’ heads” when they are very young and we should instead just let them play the sport.  The other argues that playing sport to a good standard teaches these mental skills anyway so we should make sure that they are taught properly and that if they are learnt earlier, the athletes will see greater successes.  

So in the first case, let kids be kids!  Forcing detailed psychological analysis on a young athlete is usually not appropriate and is probably as bad as pushy parents, unrealistic expectations and excessive pressure.  In the best coaching environments, the focus is on mastering skills rather than beating opponents as this inculcates the most nurturing ethos for young athletes. 

On the other hand, mental skills like imagery and self-talk often help athletes to master skills so it seems foolish to not use them just because the athletes are young.  If they then go on to play the sport competitively, the mental skills will undoubtedly help them to achieve the peak of their abilities.  When used in this way, the skills can be taught at almost any age and probably wouldn’t be considered excessively invasive!

So should we be teaching infants imagery but leaving arousal control to the adults?!  I would argue that the teaching of basic mental skills can begin at almost any age as long as they are taught in an accessible and enjoyable way.  But detailed introspective or analytic approaches are probably inappropriate at a young age and practitioners and coaches should bear this in mind.  The final point is that the psychological benefits of learning to play a sport well are numerous and often hugely benefit children in the classroom and at home.  Good news for everyone!


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