Working with younger athletes; avoiding the need to paint over the cracks?

One of the first myths that I often dispel with potential clients is that I have a bag of tricks that I can dip into to ‘fix’ their problems.  Sometimes necessity calls for a short-term strategy or technique to help an athlete through a particular event.  For example if they have suddenly had a self-confidence crisis on the day before a big competition, I might be asked to produce a short-term ‘fix’.  While there is research on this kind of practice which shows that these can be very effective, I can’t help but feel that this is like painting over the cracks.  The problem is less visible now, but it still exists under a couple of millimetres of paint.  More importantly, one strong rain shower or a metaphorical earthquake and the paint comes off…

So what can be done?  Is there a better way?  Detailed and long-term work is the obvious solution, and tremendous improvements can be achieved through working in this way.  However, what if we’re missing the bigger picture here?  Perhaps the focus should be on training young athletes how to use mental skills appropriately which will mean that the need for lengthy, detailed work as an adult becomes redundant? 

I currently do much of my consultancy with younger athletes, generally aged between 9 and 17.  Some would argue that this is too young to start throwing Psychology at them, and to some extent I agree with this, but I also feel that by starting the training at a young age we can allow mental skills training to develop alongside the technical, tactical and physical skills.  I have seen some fantastic results from making games out of learning mental skills.  Not only do they then enjoy learning the skill, they usually aren’t even aware that they are learning! 

In addition to learning the mental skills, we should also consider the non-performance benefits of sport for young people.  Sport can teach young people skills that can help them to succeed at school, at home and in life more generally.  Competitive sport requires motivation, determination, concentration, planning, inter-personal skills, confidence and responsibility to name but a few. 

In working with young athletes on these sorts of skills and qualities and developing them during one the biggest learning periods of their lives, we are not only setting ourselves up to produce better, tougher athletes, but also potentially better people and citizens.  It may also reduce the need for me to break out the emulsion!

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