Building confidence in youth athletes seems like it should be simple…but most people (including athletes themselves) have no clue how to do it right.
And here’s the basic problem: if you don’t understand the youth athlete mindset, no amount of praise, compliments, or “pep talks” will boost this athlete’s confidence.
Years also when I was on the National team, I stumbled across a teammate sobbing in the hallway.
The coaches had just announced the team’s “taxi squad,” and my teammate was on it. The taxi squad is five players who attend games but do not play. They only play in case of injury or poor performance.
“I’m never trying out for this team again,” she said, her jaw set.
I knew she was disappointed…but the idea of giving up at the tender age of 18 made no sense to me. Most athletes hit their prime between 25-28, some later. The average age on our National Team was 26.
I told her this. Between sobs, she said, “But Shelley made it.”
Shelley was 16, a phenom who became a star right out of the gate.
At 18, my teammate wasn’t quite as good as Shelley (yet). So she made the fatal error of concluding: “I’m not good enough.”
A lot of athletes make this mistake.
The mistake of seeing themselves as “fixed” entities. In their mind, their skills are frozen in time.
They don’t see themselves as a work in progress.
We are all so conditioned for instant success these days that when we don’t get overnight success, we gradually start stepping back from the Dream.
There’s instant coffee and instant tea, so we want instant success too. As a result, we don’t invest long enough or hard enough. Maybe we don’t do quality training, or maybe we don’t do mental toughness training.
“What’s the point?” we think in the back of our mind. “I’m not good enough to be the best.”
This brings me to the 3 easy steps for building confidence in youth athletes.
1. There Is No Failure
An easy first step to building confidence is cultivating PATIENCE.
Virtually every young athlete lacks patience. When the athlete’s reality does not conform to the mental pictures she has in her mind, she is devastated.
Yet patience is very easy to cultivate when you realize there is no failure, only divine redirection.
In the words of author Chin-ning Chu: “Each failure is a progression forward within the grand framework of our inevitable, complete success.
Every disappointment, every failure, is guiding you in silence to your intended destiny. ‘Child, you are going the wrong way. This is not the path to your destiny,’ or ‘You should do it differently; your execution does not fit your talent. Polish your skills.'”
Superstar athletes have learned that there is no failure. There is only another opportunity to attain a higher degree of personal excellence.
Their supreme patience makes them the toughest, most confident competitors out there.
To cultivate PATIENCE, you start by realizing that most champions are made, not born. They create success by taking the long view. Sometimes, it’s a VERY long view.
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Take Olympic Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjostrom, for example.
After dominating the 100-meter butterfly for seven years without earning an Olympic medal, Sjostrom emphatically ended her drought in world-record fashion at the Rio Olympics.
Sjostrom went wire-to-wire for the win, finishing in a new world record time of 55.48 seconds to become the first Swedish woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.
Sjostrom now has six of the top seven times in the history of the event, an impressive feat considering her top four times have come outside of the now-banned supersuit era.
The Swede was favored to win gold in London but failed to reach the podium altogether, finishing in fourth place in the final.
According to the Sporting News.com, Sjostrom, who burst on the Olympic scene as a 14-year-old in the 2008 Beijing Games, said: “It’s hard to believe I finally took a medal in the Olympic Games. I have been working very hard and I had a lot of ups and downs the past four years. I’m so happy I made it here.”*
Canada’s Olympic curling champ, Kevin Martin, is another textbook example that champions are made – not born.
After losing the Salt Lake Olympic final in 2002 and only winning one out of four World Championships, Martin toiled for eight years to finally be declared the best.
He was deliberate and determined.
In 2007 he put together his special Olympic rink, telling everyone that his only goal was to get in as many finals as possible so they were 100% prepared for their “do-over” at the Olympics.
“It took a long time. But the hard work was worth it,” he said after winning gold.
2. BELIEVE in Yourself
A second easy step in building confidence is believing in yourself.
Most youth athletes struggle to believe in themselves, which is why they lack confidence in the first place. And the reason athletes do not believe in themselves is this:
Athletes (unknowingly) creating self-doubt every day.
The harsh truth is that most athletes create self-doubt inside themselves on a regular basis. As the great psychologist Abraham Maslow said, the story of the human race is the story of people selling themselves short.
The Cycle of Self-Doubt
There is a simple cycle that causes athletes to unknowingly create doubt in themselves. Here is how it works:
1. You experience a failure, mistake, setback, hurt, trauma, or loss.
Maybe you come across a particularly good opponent who overwhelms you with speed and strength. Maybe you have a bad day, make mistakes, and lose. Or, maybe a coach does not give you the playing time you want. Or perhaps your Dad yells at you all the way home from your event.
2. In response to this event, you start to have doubting, negative thoughts about yourself.
You will start to have negative thoughts about yourself. They look like this:
“I can’t score.”
“If Coach doesn’t think I can do it, maybe she’s right.”
“Maybe my opponent really is better than me.”
“Look at the Chinese athletes. There’s no way I’m in their league.”
3. Your doubtful thoughts create pain in you. You will feel ashamed, anxious, angry, frustrated, and disappointed.
4. You embrace your doubting thoughts.
If you are like most human beings, you do not like pain. So, you will search for a way to avoid it. The quickest and easiest way most athletes use is to accept the worst outcome so that they cannot be disappointed, hurt, or crushed again.
We think, “What if I believe and then fail again?” or “What if try and I get rejected again?”
It actually feels safer to give up hope. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Of course, we still want to believe in ourselves and succeed. But it feels safer to buy into these negative thoughts. We naively think we can out-smart the hurt of failure.
The technical name for this mindset is pessimism, or the tendency to think the worst will happen.
The problem with pessimism is that the moment you accept a belief such as, “My golf swing sucks,” you start embracing evidence that your swing DOES suck and dismissing evidence that it does not.
If you have a bad round, you automatically blame your swing, even if you just had a great round with many excellent drives.
Of course, you are completely unaware that you are doing this. All you know is that you’ve lost confidence and belief in your swing.
A great way to break the cycle of self-doubt is to argue with your pessimism. Take the most damaging belief you’ve identified about yourself today, such as, “I can’t score goals consistently,” “My backhand sucks,” “I’m too old,” etc.
What evidence is there that this belief is FALSE?
For example, if you are a curler and you doubt that you can find draw weight in curling, you could write down the last five times that you were able to throw draw weight in a big competition.
3. Commit to Achieving Greatness
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reveals why some people achieve greatness.
One undeniable factor is the 10,000 hour rule. Whether it’s Mozart, the Beatles, or Bill Gates, all extraordinary achievers put in a minimum of 10,000 hours developing their skills.
And there are no exceptions.
This doesn’t mean that talent isn’t a factor.
You must have some innate talent. Assuming a minimum base of talent, though, what takes you from good to great is how hard you work.
Gladwell says, “The people at the top don’t just work harder or much harder. They work much, much harder.”
To succeed in sport, you don’t focus on making yourself rich or famous. You don’t even focus on winning most of the time. You focus on becoming world class – an outlier – at your sport.
When I was 18, I wanted to become the best player in the world at my sport.
I put together an elaborate binder that included:
– A 21 page essay on how I could improve my skills
– Monthly, weekly and daily fitness regimens
– Goals for shooting sessions and practices
– Mental toughness training strategies for each week
The binder was my ‘Bible’ until I was named captain of Team Canada ten years later.
Notice the dates?
By 18, I had already been practicing for ten years.
By 28, when I reached my goal, I had another ten years under my belt.
I had definitely reached the 10,000 hour mark (it often takes about ten years, but it took me twenty).
Committing to greatness is the final step to building confidence. It’s so obvious that many young athletes overlook this point.
The more greatness you attain, the more confident you become. It’s that simple.
If you are ready to make yourself a champion, I strongly recommend you do some mental toughness training for sport. It will allow you to stay the course through the obstacles and setbacks you must forge through in order to become a true superstar, winning, champion athlete.
You can get started today simply by signing for my free Never Choke Again Mental Toughness Handbook. This Handbook reveals a 3-step strategy for overcoming nerves and performing your best so you can win under pressure.
Download it for free here:
Light it up out there,
Lisa Brown is the founder of the Courage to Win and is considered the world's leading expert on deep mental toughness for success in career, love, and sport. She has personally coached over 7,200 achievers to new heights and conducted over 1,300 live seminars on mental toughness across North America. She has been featured by major media including the New York Times and Entrepreneur Magazine, who called the Courage to Win “a straight-forward guide to success, highly recommended.”