How Parents Can Help Their Kids Build Mental Strength for Sport and Life

by Dr. Mara Smith

Most athletes, particularly teen athletes, are mentally under-trained.  While they acknowledge that the mind is very important to their sport, they don’t have a plan to integrate mental skills into their physical training. Just as with individual physical skills, there are some mental skills that athletes have, and some that they need to learn.

One of the most important aspects of sport is that it gives participants opportunities to learn things that they don’t learn elsewhere—not in their families, school, work or places of worship.  We are all familiar with the important lessons gained through participation in sports, such as teamwork, goal-setting, perseverance, responsibility, and dedication.  And these lessons involve skills that make up mental strength.  

Mental strength is important component of both physical training and competition, but rarely is it successfully integrated into these two areas.  Sport can help kids in developing mental strength, and parents should play a vital role in setting the scaffolding so kids can build these skills and utilize them in not only in sport, but life overall.  Here are some ways parents can help their kids understand and build their mental strength.

 

1.  Let your kids fail in sport.  

There is tremendous benefit and importance in knowing how to learn through failure, and sports is a great training ground for this— after all, losing is often construed as failure (losing is experiencing failure).  Failure is not only a huge part of understanding the values of achievement and ambition; it is the way kids learn to deal with adversity.  Shielding or preventing kids from failure because we don’t want them to be disappointed or hurt is a disservice because it taking away the crucial impact a parent can have helping and guiding a child through a difficult circumstance.  Author Ashley Merrymen says it well. “When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed.”  (From: Losing is Good For You, New York Times, 9/24/13)

 

2.  Bring focus to process, not just outcome

We have all dealt on some level with the “win-at-all-cost” mentality: a glaring example of focus on outcome. It can blind us all.  Not recognizing the process means losing a lot more than just a game.  Learn ways to help your child understand the importance of setting goals that they are actually in control of—keeping their feet moving, staying in the moment, not using negative self talk, etc.  These are called “process goals” and they allow a connection between expectations, hopes, dreams and the steps to get there.

 

3.  Let the experience belong to your child! 

When conversations and actions revolve around ownership and responsibility, there is much to be learned.  For example, if you have told your child to check their bag to make sure they have all of the equipment and your child reports that items are missing, don’t go get them.  If you have your child retrieve the missing equipment, they will remember the importance of checking to make sure they have everything.  If you save them because you “feel badly” or “the team is depending on them” there is a good chance it will happen again.  It is very important for parents to be willing to “reality check” themselves: Ask yourself is this more important to me or my child?   The most impactful and meaningful learning happens when the athlete owns the sport experience.

 

Working with a broad spectrum of athletes, Dr. Mara Smith's focus is on building mental skills which benefits athletes in a variety of sports at all levels. Dr. Smith helps athletes develop a repertoire of mental skills enabling them to handle whatever comes their way - MENTAL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING. Dr. Smith consults with individual athletes and teams, including parents, coaches and administrators - with a wide range of ages and abilities, developing mental skills. Her work also includes consulting with various national governing bodies including USA Hockey, USA Gymnastics, US Figure Skating, USA Bobsled and USA Luge.

Dr. Mara Smith is the Founder of AthleteMinder, a tech start-up which aims to bring mental strength and conditioning to all athletes. AthleteMinder is an innovative tool to manage your athlete’s mental skills and strengthen weak spots.  You can purchase the AthleteMinder app by going to the iTunes app store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/athleteminder-mental-fitness/id840957893...

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