Working with youth athletes is one of my favorite aspects in my role as a Sport Psychology Consultant. They are viscerally full of energy, extremely creative, and passionate about the simple aspects of sport. I see these traits as motivational and this engagement is an opportunity to translate their ambition into both training and competition.
Youth are exposed to a psychologically demanding environment unique to sport (Rowland, 1997) and each sport requires a different level of preparation and training (Watson, Blanksby, & Bloomfield, 1986). Despite the challenges youth face, Weiss and Gould (1984) proposed that youth should be prepared to cope with the demands of competitive sport. Within our roles as coaches, sport psychology consultants and parents, we recognize that we are influential to an athlete’s growth and development, training and can help them prepare to perform and if necessary, make modifications when implementing mental training within a group that may have varying stages of development. (Visek, Harris, & Blom, 2009).
Competition is considered to be “highly valued” (Waldron & Krane, 2005, p. 315) and its influence exerts a substantial impact on performance (Lazarus, 2000). So how do we take this knowledge and make it applicable for youth and assist in methods to cope with these challenges? Interestingly enough, one of the most useful tools I have provided athletes outside of the basic aspects of mental training (self-awareness, communication, goal setting, confidence, coping, relaxation, and imagery training and performance routines) has been in the creation of COMPETITION PLANS. Youth like routines - heck I like routines! They provide purpose, give direction, and offer a source of navigation for their performance. Preparation is a primary source of confidence for athletes (Vealey et al., 1998) and competition plans are the place where the preparation and planning go INTO ACTION!
I start by sitting down with an athlete and have a brainstorming session regarding the specific details pertaining to their competition. We make a plan, identify challenges, and prepare for potential distractions. For youth, this is a thought provoking opportunity to work on self-awareness, pinpoint their individual stressors, acknowledge their routines, and approach conversation regarding their performance needs. In turn, this opens up dialogue for collaboration and relationships (coach, teammates, and parents) while creating positive habits for future training. This exercise reveals capabilities and possibilities of training and performance. Each athlete is different and requires diverse timelines, modes of support and ample space for both physical and mental activation prior to performance.
Swimming Example: Below is an excerpt from one athlete’s competition plan which includes 4 components of the 12 point competition plan
Go to Bed On Time!/ Review Tomorrow’s Scheduled Races, Pack My Bag!
Early Wake Up/ Imagery Script For AM Races (100 BR, 50 Fly), Ample Activation Time / Listen to Music to Relax
On the Blocks (Pre-Race):
Moving My Arms/ Deep Breathing
Focus on Pre-Race Routine
Encourage the athletes to follow their competition plan and journal throughout the experience noting what felt good, what they liked or what didn’t feel right. Pay close attention to timing as some athletes need more time to prepare physically and mentally.
Review competition plan after event, discuss strengths, limitations, and opportunities for learning and change. Plan to implement these changes at a later competition and continue to reflect and review!
Once an athlete sees how much preparation goes into the performance they can’t help but feel ready and confident, especially when they have created this plan for themselves! Take time to remind your athlete that the hours of preparation in regards to any type of training translates into competition and if they “trust their training” and the plan they made – chopping down the tree isn’t too hard because of all the preparation they have put in.
Lazarus, R. S. (2000). How emotions influence performance in competitive sports. Sport Psychologist, 14(3), 229-252.
Rowland, T. (1997). Counseling the young athlete: Where do we draw the line?. Pediatric Exercise Science, 9(3), 197-201.
Vealey, R. S., Hayashi, S. W., Garner-Holman, M., & Giacobbi, P. (1998). Sources of sport confidence: Conceptualization and instrument development. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 20(1), 54-80.
Visek, A.J., Harris, B.S., & Blom, L.C. (2009). Doing sport psychology: A youth sport consulting model for practitioners. Sport Psychologist, 23(2), 271-291.
Waldron, J. J., & Krane, V. (2005). Whatever it takes: Health compromising behaviors in female athletes. Quest (00336297), 57(3), 315-329. doi:10.1080/00336297.2005.10491860
Watson, G.G., Blanksby, B.A., & Bloomfield, J. (1986). Childhood socialisation and competitive swimming. Parkside, Australia: The Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation.
Weiss, M.R., & Gould, D. (1984). In M.R Weiss, & D. Gould (Eds.), Sport for children and youths. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.