This article was originally written for and published on the quintessential resource website for soccer parents, SoccerParenting.com.
No doubt many of us watched the Olympics, jaws dropped, as records were broken and medal after medal was earned by extraordinary athletes. We also may have looked at our child on the sofa next to us and wondered, “Maybe my kid…” The athletes who achieve elite status certainly set themselves apart physically and technically, but they also possess psychological advantages. Their mental fitness and mental conditioning play a huge role in attaining the highest heights for which they strive and persevere. Does your child have what it takes to reach elite status? Sure, he may have extraordinary talent. Talent alone may not be enough. What is talent anyway?
Talent should be viewed as a multidimensional concept.
A number of factors contribute to an athlete realizing her potential. We are well aware of physical and technical conditioning required to excel. Is the athlete strong enough or fast enough, and does she have the proper technique to ensure success? But what about the mental conditioning? Researchers have long recognized that there is some aspect of “mental toughness” required to excel at an elite level. It has been suggested more recently that the same characteristics which contribute to success are absolutely vital for athletes at lower levels who are developing into elite level players. These psychological characteristics of developing excellence (PCDEs) play a pivotal role in the development of potential. (Abbott & Collins, 2004)
PCDEs can mean the difference between reaching for the stars and actually capturing one.
Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence (PCDEs)
PCDEs enable the athlete to get the most out of every practice, to stay focused and to stay invested and committed to their ultimate goals, no matter the obstacles or distractions life may present.
For example, injuries, extended turns on the bench, plateaus and new skill acquisition can challenge the resolve of even the most physically gifted and talented athlete. Applying tools such as positive self-talk, goal setting, focused breathing and imagery allows the athlete to proactively take control of his own recovery, performance or development, rather than letting the situation control him.
Being able to handle setbacks, learn from mistakes and “keep your eyes on the prize” is vital to growth in sport, and in life.
How can we, as parents, ensure our children develop PCDEs?
Due diligence is key when deciding in what program to enroll your child. Ask lots of questions of the league—What is their mission? Do they stress development or winning? Do they encourage psychological/mental conditioning as well as physical and technical, and not just as a byproduct of participation but as an integral part of a multi-dimensional talent development program? What is the coach’s philosophy? How does he or she encourage psychological development?
Encourage Development at Home
Your child should be ultimately responsible for his own equipment, keeping it in good condition and remembering to bring everything to practices and games. Help your child develop a system to help her organize everything (i.e., shin guards, water bottle, uniform, cleats). A checklist is helpful.
Encourage your child to set goals for herself for practices, games and the season. Be sure the goals are specific and measurable. They should be challenging but attainable.
Help your child learn to manage his time. Young athletes often find it difficult to prioritize and properly balance sports, school, time with friends, family time and rest.
Learn and encourage mindfulness, relaxation and breathing skills to quiet an anxious mind and body.
Encourage self-awareness in your child. Help him to recognize any emotions (anxiety, nerves, excitement, anger, joy) and understand how these emotions can affect his performance, for better or worse. Positive self-talk is a useful tool to help the athlete focus and center herself (“I’ve got this”).
Remind her that achieving success in sports is a process, by teaching her the three E’s:
Evaluate: Remind your child that coach feedback is important and will ultimately help her to improve. It is meant to encourage a growth mindset, meaning a mindset where the athlete is aware that she can always learn, always improve, always grow in the sport.
Educate: Emphasize the importance of learning and asking questions to promote understanding. It is OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them. Athletes should be comfortable about asking questions of the coach and teammates if there is anything that confuses them or that they would like to do better. “What did I do wrong?” “How can I do that better next time?”
Execute: Realistic performance evaluation combined with asking questions ensures continual growth and talent development, and better prepares the athlete to execute the skills effectively.
PCDE’s do not develop overnight but must be nurtured, and there are differences between and among children of all ages. It may be necessary to adapt to your child’s ability to fully understand and grasp the concepts. A very young child may not understand what it means to set goals or to be committed to his sport, but you can be sure if you ask him the most common goal-oriented question children are always asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he will have an answer. This is goal setting. You can take the lead, but be sure to involve your child and his aspirations. As he matures, he will be able to take more responsibility for his development.
Many of the listed PCDE’s have already begun to develop without you or your child even being aware of it. Imagery, the practice of seeing something in your head such as a soccer skill and practicing it there, is simply taking a child’s natural imagination and focusing it on something in particular. In order for your child to learn to walk, talk, kick a soccer ball, she has had to evaluate, educate and finally execute tasks.
The more you reinforce and point out the characteristics as you see them displayed, the more ingrained they will become in your child. When your child gathers his equipment for practice and is ready to leave on time, say something positive about how they have demonstrated responsibility and commitment.
The best time to learn and practice mental skills is before issues arise.
In my practice I often work with young athletes who have recently experienced a setback or faced an obstacle that has stopped them in their tracks mentally; they have lost motivation or confidence, or seem to be suddenly moving backward in their skill development. Setbacks are inevitable but manageable. Practicing mental skills such as imagery or emotion control, before setbacks occur, enables athletes to better cope on their own and perhaps even see obstacles as opportunities.
We want the best for our young athletes. You cannot go wrong when you equip them with the mental tools to excel, to handle setbacks and ultimately, to thrive.
Abbott, A., Collins, D., 2004. Eliminating the dichotomy between theory and practice in talent identification and development: Considering the role of psychology. J. Sports Sci. 22, 395-408.
Collins, D., Button, A., Richards, H. (Eds). Performance Psychology: A Practitioner’s Guide. London: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2011.