Fostering Emotional Resiliency and a Growth Mindset in Young Athletes
“Everything that occurs is not only usable and workable, but is actually the path itself.” —Pema Chodron
At Olympia Fitness + Performance, we train athletes who have ambitious goals relative to competing in high school, college and beyond. We support them in their athletic development, and also help them to develop emotional competency for the long haul. What does that mean? Often the ability to manage the disappointment, frustration, and deep sense of loss that comes with perceived failure and making mistakes.
Stop and think about this fact for a moment: The vast majority of athletes will finish their seasons and sports careers on the losing side of the contest.
And, even if they end their career on a high note, there is still the sense of loss that often comes with not advancing to the collegiate, Olympic, or professional level of their sport. As parents or coaches, we cannot protect young athletes from pain and disappointment. We can create an environment where they learn how to frame adversity as an opportunity to learn about themselves, and to grow as a person.
Whether you are a strength coach, volunteer coach, or parent of an athlete, you can help competitors develop a positive mindset by incorporating the following principles:
Foster an environment where learning is highly valued.
In a growth-focused environment, “success” is defined as learning and improving versus achieving a single result. Make sure young people know they can fail, and that they can learn from their mistakes. Speak positively about errors, and frame them as the beginning of something good:
“You are doing a great job of pushing past your comfort zone.”
“I see how hard you are working on this, and I know you will figure it out.”
“Tell me how you can do better next time.”
Help athletes to set their own process goals, and to look hard at their mistakes.
Process goals are not related to the ultimate outcome or dream achievement. They are typically small, specific steps and daily actions that are completely within the individual’s control. By simply asking athletes to articulate their own goals, and mistakes, we are building an environment where they take responsibility and acquire the analytical skills to look past immediate adversity. This is in stark contrast to an environment where young people are told exactly what to do (like robots) in order to “win.”
Emphasize commitment and consistency of effort.
Many athletes hailed as “talented” at a young age subsequently drop out of their sport when winning no longer comes easily. “Talent” is seen as a fixed trait that the young person has no control over; you either have it or you don’t, and if you stop winning, then you must be an imposter. In contrast, effort and commitment are a choice, and an athlete can decide to be a person who works hard every session, every day. As a coach, you are keeping the expectations very simple when you require commitment and consistency; the athlete does not have to be perfect, or talented, or even in the top ten. They are valuable because they show up and give their very best effort, on good days and difficult days.
By helping young people to face adversity head-on, take responsibility for their own choices, and develop a consistent work ethic, a coach is nurturing life skills that will not disappear at the end of a contest or the player’s sports career. These abilities are best honed in difficult times, and that is the real reason why the journey through athletics is valuable; not because you might end up a champion, but because the path provides plenty of opportunity for personal growth.
For further reading:
Chodron, Pema. When Things Fall Apart. Boston: Shambhala, 2002
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2016.
Orlick, Terry. In Pursuit of Excellence. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2016.
Maura J. Zimmer, NSCA-CPT, CSCS is a strength and conditioning coach at Olympia Fitness + Performance in Cranston, RI. She specializes in helping people progress from physical therapy back to fully enjoying the activities they love.