Mental mistakes and setbacks are a part of any sport. Even the best player at any level experiences failure. While a 6-year-old might process disappointments differently from a 12-year-old, the principles for handling them are about the same.
Coaches are the ones who set the culture and tone for the youth sports experience, explains David Jacobson of Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating better people through sports.
“By the time a kid gets into playing organized baseball or any other sport, they’ve had some experience with setbacks, either in school or through their parents,” Jacobson said. “But when it comes to that stage of youth sports where you and your abilities are on display, mistakes and setbacks can be traumatizing. Nobody likes to look bad, and it’s really difficult for some people to distinguish between a mistake and something that strikes at their self-worth.”
If untreated, such trauma can have devastating consequences. Jacobson said it’s important for parents and coaches to spell out expectations early. Explain that the players are here to learn and grow not just as athletes, but as people. Prepare them to be placed in situations where mistakes are part of the game, especially when just starting out. If coaches consistently encourage the mind-set that mistakes are part of the growth experience, it will be much easier for the child to process.
One way players can put a setback behind them is to create a physical or mental reminder they can use to move on. At PCA, Jacobson and his staff teach a method first made popular by Dr. Ken Ravizza, a professor of applied sports psychology at Cal State-Fullerton. Ravizza, a member of PCA’s advisory board, placed a miniature toilet in the dugout for players of the 2004 Fullerton baseball squad to “flush” their mistakes and move on to the next play. The team went on to win the College World Series that season.
If you’re not in a position to literally flush a toilet, Jacobson suggests going through the physical motion of flushing while you’re in the field or on the mound. Parents and coaches are encouraged to do the same. Other gestures, such as brushing your shoulder to “brush off” an error, work as well.
Players should also learn to treat every setback as a learning experience and not look at it as a life-or-death situation. Again, it’s incumbent on parents and coaches to create that environment.
“There’s a certain level of competition at which point the stakes naturally rise and the pressure gets higher,” Jacobson explained. “But the bottom line is, even at the major league baseball level, you can’t let (mistakes) define you as a person. Baseball is what you do, not who you are.”
As a coach, take the time to know your players, not only as a collective unit, but individually. Each person is unique in their emotional makeup, Jacobson said, so it’s important for coaches to understand when and how to correct a player.
Naturally, parents are inclined to critique their children on their performance. According to Jacobson, this might be appropriate if they know the game and are willing to reinforce a coach’s techniques. Otherwise, it’s best to avoid being overly critical.
“It’s unrealistic that every parent is going to refrain from the temptation to critique a child’s play,” Jacobson said. “But where the focus should be for parents is on helping kids process the life lessons from sports. Rather than focusing on the error itself, focus on what the parent saw in the kid’s body language, and their ability to quickly rebound from mistakes. That’s something that kid’s going to need to do the rest of his life.”
From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr.