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Developing Mental Toughness in Young Athletes

One of the greatest compliments an athlete can get is the label “mentally tough.” Mental toughness isn’t a quality people are born with. Rather, mental toughness is a skill. Just like any other skill it can be learned.

Coaches and parents are in an ideal position to help young athletes develop a healthy philosophy about success and an ability to handle setbacks when they occur. By teaching mental toughness lessons to kids, adults can give them a priceless gift that will benefit them in many areas of everyday life.

Here are some specific attitudes that can be communicated to young athletes.

  1. Creating Interest and Keeping It – I use a simple metaphor to build interest. I tell athletes to see sports participation like putting pennies in a piggy bank. Every time they show up to practice, that investment pays off with wins and success in the future. After students see their time as valuable, it is harder for them for them to quit or to give less than 100%. Your athlete will feel like they have invested so much, they will go the extra mile when the time comes to dig deep.
  2. Model/Encourage Consistency – Show your athlete what it means to have a confident attitude by continuing to do what you say you are going to do. Your athletes will see you as a consistent force in their life. They will want to honor that commitment by upholding their end of the bargain. Your athlete will have the tools to avoid the pitfalls of modern life, as they model your ‘show up’ consistency. Your athlete will see you as a model to follow, a consistent hero.   
  3. Proper Goal Setting – Develop the Why – Setting goals with your athlete allows you to define where they want them to go. Without a clear destination, nobody gets where they want to go. Setting goals allows athletes to judge progress and arrive at a specific destination.  Learning goal setting is a tool that carries them far beyond sports. What it would be like to congratulate your athlete for reaching their goals this season?     
  4. Expect and Prepare for and Dealing with Adversity – Learning to handle adversity is one of the key skills a human needs to learn. To become a high-achiever, athletes must learn to use tools for handling adversity. To be honest, achievement equates to adversity. True mental toughness comes from the ability to stay positive and on task at the worst of times. Teaching this to your athletes will be a part of your legacy as a parent or coach.
  5. Process oriented not ends oriented – Accomplishing goals is about achieving tiny things over time. Athletes learn that it’s not all about winning. It’s more important to show up and over time you will win through the application of the process. Focusing on the process rather than focusing on results fosters maturity. Establish a system to deliver small victories on a regular basis. These steps lead to guaranteed achievement.
  6. Having and keeping the right attitude – The athlete with the best approach to his attitude will win every game, even if he gets outscored. Attitude is the foundation of every aspect of sports from training to game-day. Teaching attitude comes before you teach a kid how to score. If your kid has a bad attitude, you don’t have a player, you have a problem. We do not win by accident. Attitude gives birth to victory. It is in those moments where we have to dig into some untapped well of strength that we cross the line between student and champion.

Mental toughness is a skill, and any skill can be learned.  Ultimately, mental toughness is built through habits, just like any other skill.  The habits of consistency and positive attitudes produces mental toughness.  Habit is built through the choices we make daily.  Mental toughness is a choice.  You have to consciously choose to persist until the choice to persist becomes a habit.