Building Youth Athlete’s Psychological Skills Part II

Part II: Building Psychological Skills

This is part 2 of my part series on the value of youth mental skills training in sports. In Part 1 I discussed some of the consequences associated with negative self-talk and the importance of helping our young athletes recognize negative self-talk. In part 2 I will continue to the conversation on the benefits of helping our youths  with developing positive self-talk in sports and touch on a recent real-life example of when mental preparation goes wrong on the elite level.

“Be Careful What You Say To Yourself, You Might Be Listening!” Lisa M. Hayes

 Lisa Hayes’ quote “be careful what you say to yourself, because you might be listening” is one of the most important quotes I when addressing negative-self talk.  In part 1, I touched on how Dr. Witherting estimates that we speak approximately 55,000 words to ourselves each day (2015). Therefore, if these inner conversations are predominantly negative and filled with self-doubt, what consequences are they having on our youth’s psyche?  So, in part 2 I will continue on with  discussing the need for parents and coaches to become vigilant in recognizing and then helping our kids disrupt the negative messages they are telling themselves .

“You Either Know It or You Don’t!” Master Clarence West, Founder of Wae Kune Do Karate, Steubenville, OH

 As I write this post, I can here Sensei (Karate Instructor) West yelling, “you either know it or you don’t” during practice and more importantly during testing.  If you just had this phrase shouted at you, you probably just “jacked” up a technique. When it came to self-defense, Master West did not play with his “craft”. It was clear, his training was not for show, and we were built for understanding the importance of responding to confrontation correctly via the art of empty hands weaponless fighting. Therefore mental preparation was a key part in our training.

More importantly, because karate was not a team sport, when you made a mistake, you had find a way to mentally bounce back quickly. Throughout training, you developed a toolbox of skills that allowed you to do this. Therefore, I impart on my athletes to treat the mental game as if they are out on an island. My training philosophy is to help them understand that their coaches and teammates can not be counted on to pick them up  (mentally) after a mistake. Marital Arts help me understand how proper preparation of the inner game allows an athlete to turn things around quickly with the skill of positive self-talk.

And at the risk of sounding cliché’, if  these skills are practiced and honed in, I can attest the athlete will gain an increase in self-confidence, self-discipline, and the ability to better handle stress and recover from setbacks more quickly. And because of the development of the attributes just listed, I am able to ramp up the training because of the increase in self-confidence and the trust between the trainer and athlete. This is what I call holistic training or integrating both physical and mental training, and it has been successful here at 3N.

You Play The Way You Practice

It is my opinion that you play the way you practice or as Vince Lombardi states, “only perfect practice makes perfect.”  I have also been confronted with the belief that some athletes are not a good practice players, but better in game time?  Whatever you personal philosophy is surrounding this issue, I would like to stress that it has been my experience, to be truly effective, the mental game has to be simulated in real time experiences during live situations to be effective.

It does not matter what activity our kids are involved in, we must remain vigilant and learn how to read things like body language. Closely watching our kids and picking up on the idiosyncrasies goes a long way in monitoring their self talk. Educating ourselves on these dynamics allows us to first catch the negative response and then reflect the behavior you witnessed back to the child. This conversation also allows for the opportunity to teach them the skill of self-awareness. Only after helping them understand what they  are demonstrating through the dynamics such as negative body language can we move to cueing or mentally directing the child to get back on task. However as expressed before, this can not be accomplished on the fly, this is a skill and the test and implementation of these skills has to be practiced in real time.

I also can not stress the importance of how these skills also transfer to other areas of accomplishment in our kid’s lives. For example, these same skills can be used in the school setting during homework and to more effectively calm theirselves during testing. And although failing to properly implement these tools at game time or in a school setting may not be a life or death like a self-defense encounter in the streets (despite how some parents and coaches react), losing  or receiving a low test score does not feel good. And since they are going to be participating anyway, why not arm them we every tool available to help compete at their highest level.

What were they saying to themselves?

I began completing this post shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 1 of the NBA finals to the Golden State Warriors. Despite what you think about the NBA’s style of play and what many consider questionable calls from the refs, my goal here is to simply is to touch on the more glaring mental errors that occurred down the stretch of game 1. Ultimately, these mental lapses caused the game to go into overtime and finally resulted in a Golden State win. George Hill, an 80+% free throw shooter was fouled, went to the line. He made the first free throw to tie the game. Hill missed the backend, or second foul shot of the 1-1. With 4.7 seconds left in regulation, J.R. Smith grabbed the rebound under the basket and in front of Kevin Durant. Instead of attempting a go ahead shot, call a timeout, or any other aggressive move to help his team score, Smith turned, headed down court away from their goal, and began to dribble out the clock.

As the game ended, Lebron questioned Smith’s action; it appeared Smith told LeBron “I thought we were up.” Both Smith and the coach of the Cavs later stated he (Smith) knew the game was tied. This mental blunder was so huge, some say it changed the “mood” of the series, others say it will no doubt make the top 10 sports blunders list of all time.

In situations such as these, I am always curious of what the athlete was saying to their self. I would love to have an honest conversation with George Hill about what was he “uttering” to himself as he approached the foul line for the first and then the second shoot. I would ask questions such as, “What is your protocol?”, “Did you train for situations such as these?”, “Has anything changed since?”.  Also, what was the video playing in JR Smith’s mind as he watched George Hill shoot the second free throw, and did he have a conversation with himself about what he would do if he got the ball like we should teach our kids to ask themselves?  These are the conversations my coaches and martial training always ask as part of holistic training. Kid’s should be cued, what are you going to do if you get the ball? Overtime this type of self-talk becomes automatic. It sets them up for success, builds confidence, and helps them avoid negative self-talk often caused by indecision.

After the Cavs blunder, it was intriguing to read the feedback from other elite players.  For example, future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant’s advice on Twitter was simply to “flush it and move on.” Just my opinion, if J.R. is not skilled in the technique of “flushing it and moving on”, this feedback is just as sound as the parent who is screaming “focus” or the coach screaming “get your head in the game” in the midst of the storm of competition simply because the adult has become frustrated with the child’s performance.  Again the key take away I want you to understand is that in this interaction between adult and the child,  the child needs to know specifically and have practiced “getting your head” in the game. Some type of reactive behavior needs to be tied to the cue for mental training to be effective.  Issues such as these must be addressed by a holistic plan beginning at practice, where implementing a mental checklist is part of the process.

*Mental training has become more popular and is no longer seen as a sign of weakness. Kobe Bryant worked with author and mental trainer George Mumford. Kobe writes “George helped me understand the art of mindfulness: to be neither distracted or focused, rigid or flexible, passive or aggressive. I learned just to be.” (2015). Through mental training, Kobe has developed the skills to “flush it and move on.”

Thanks for reading.

Please comment, like, share.

Kris J. Snyder, LMFT, MBA, FMS1, CPT


Mumford, G. (2015) The Mindful Athlete Secrets to Pure Performance Berkeley, California Parallax Press

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