How Can I Help My Child Develop Mental Toughness?

Young developing athletes are particularly prone to becoming casualties of the performance roller-coaster of competitive sport. They give up because they can’t handle playing well one day and poorly the next; or training hard and then not performing well on race day; rarely performing to potential when it counts; or falling victim to self-doubt, anger and feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

As a parent, watching your child going through this, can be  frustrating and stressful, and there is often a sense of anxiety about how to protect them from being hurt in the process.

The good news is: Mental toughness is learnt not inherited!

Too many good athletes give up because they “…have the talent, but weren’t born with the competitive instinct”. It is a myth that you are either “born with it”- or not.

Mental toughness is a skill and competence, and needs to be learned and honed throughout your child’s sporting career. Just as mental toughness is not about genetic predisposition, it is also unrelated to personality style. Your child’s tendency towards introversion or extroversion, being playful or serious – has nothing to do with their success as a competitor. Rather, it is an important lesson about taking accountability, and becoming mentally tougher.

The mentally tough competitor is consistent. This requires two ingredients:

  • good technique and form,
  • and good mental skills and attitude

James E. Loehr believes that there are a constellation of mental skills, all of which are learned, that are characteristic of mentally tough competitors. They are:

  • Self-motivation and self-direction
  • Positive but realistic
  • Being in control of emotions
  • Calm and relaxed under fire
  • Highly energetic and ready for action
  • Determined
  • Mentally alert and focused
  • Self-confident
  • Fully responsible

What you as a parent say to your child before and after competition, and during their training season, is crucial in building or destroying their resilience and mental toughness. You will be very influential in forming their mindset for reacting to errors, failure and criticism, as well as winning and succeeding.

Here are some tips to help you build your child’s mental toughness:

  1. Help your child to learn something from every sports experience – regardless of whether they win or lose the race/competition. Sport is about learning to deal with challenges and obstacles. What did they learn about themselves, their attitude, their strategy? Did they show good sportsmanship? Did they give their best effort? Were they willing to take risks? Encourage mental flexibility by getting them to view the situation from various perspectives.
  2. Teach them that they need not fear failing. Most poor performance is a direct result of a pre-occupation with failing or messing up. Use failures in a positive way as a source of motivation and feedback to improve. Most successful people in and out of sport are not people with less failure under their belt. They have as many failures as everyone else on their way up – they just bounce back quicker. If your child races or plays his best, but loses, you need to help them feel like a winner. Success and failure should not be seen as equal to winning and losing. If a child performs far below their potential but wins, this is not necessarily cause for them to feel like a winner. Help your child to make the distinction between success and failure, winning and losing. Winning is about doing the very best that you can do on the day. Encourage great performances, good play, sportsmanship – and not just winning.
  3. Help your child to separate their self-worthfrom their performance. Their overall value as a person, and their self-worth should not be equated to their performance. If they’ve had a bad day and a bad race/game – they are not useless – rather their performance was lacking. Do not withdraw emotionally from your child to punish them for a poor performance or to your disappointment or frustration. Do not show disgust, degrade, embarrass or humiliate them. Do not use threats or guilt to motivate your child. Don’t make them feel as if they have to win in order to be “good enough” or please you as parents.
  4. Help them to create healthy, constructive channels to express and work through emotions such as disappointment, anger, frustration. It is important that they be given permission to feel disappointed, but not to indulge in self-pity, or behave destructively or immaturely. Show them how to keep their composure. This will enable them to respond better during stressful situations.
  5. Teach them to communicate honestly with their coaches. Do not mix your role of parent with that of coach. As a parent you can encourage and support, show empathy and understanding. The last thing your child needs when they have had a bad race or game is for you to lecture them on technique and game strategy. Leave this to their coach.
  6. Teach them that their biggest competition should be with themselves, and not with others. This will help to discourage them from getting a “mental block” about certain other competitors. If the focus is on winning or beating a certain competitor – and then they lose the race, this very frequently leads to performance paralysis. This is because fear of failure and focusing on winning, leads to muscle tightness, excessive anxiety and poor concentration. A more preferable focus is on “doing your best” and “winning the contest with yourself” (improving time, score, technique etc).
  7. Encourage them to be fully responsible for their performance – good or bad. In other words don’t let them blame other people or factors for not doing well.
  8. Make sure that your child is still enjoying their sport. Often, what started as something that they loved doing, becomes something that is fraught with stress and anxiety as the stakes get higher. Children who love what they are doing are going to perform better and more consistently, and learn faster than children with high anxiety. When the game gets too serious at too young an age, your child runs the risk of burnout and an increase in negative performance problems.
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