When to Teach Children Mental Skills

When to Teach Children Mental Skills

A common question I get asked, is at what level of competition should a player begin  working on their mental game?

Any age! I work athletes as young as 9 years old, and we have them go through the signature R.A.C.E Formula 2.0 Program. The real way to get an athlete to truly learn is to make it “age appropriate.”

I don’t teach to a young athlete, the same as I do to a division one athlete but the lessons are based on the same concepts: Focus, Confidence, Determination & Resilience, especially under pressure. These are not merely words, but these are specific states of mind that propel the athlete towards success. That’s my personal definition of Mental Toughness.

Younger athletes absorb the lesson faster when your approach is “story based.” It also helps the message penetrate deeper into their inner mind, and become part of their operating system when you use this approach. In other words, don’t teach at them directly. You especially don’t want to do this to an athlete in grade school, give a story to illustrate the point.

Here’s a great strategy to use with younger athletes:

When the time is appropriate, ask your young athlete for his/her “opinion” on a difficult issue that “your friend” is having with their child.

For example:


Mom talking to youth athlete…Samantha, I need your help. My friend Ann has a son close to your age who is struggling. He doesn’t want to go to practice anymore because he feels like he isn’t good enough, and thinks his teammates don’t like him. Ann has know clue what to say to help him. What do you think she should do?

The key here is to creating a scenario that is SIMILAR to the issue that your child has, but not exactly. The child will often come up with solution to their own situation by offering a suggestion for another child’s problem. These mental situations will help your child to problem solve and build mental skills. This takes some delicacy and you will have to operate “under the radar” but it can be magic.

Another strategy is to tell stories about famous people who had the athlete’s problem and how they overcame it.

I have told the story many times about how Michael Jordan was cut from the High School team and how he went home and cried. This disappointment created such determination for him, that he used the situation as fuel for the rest of his life! Finally, he went on to become the best basketball player of all time.

Parents and coaches: often make the mistake that young athletes are small adults, and think like adults. The best coaches and mentors are creative and find different ways to relate the same information.

If you really want to take it to the next level of teaching mental skills to your kids, find stories about celebrities that the kids have heard of and how they overcame their adversities. The key is in the details. Don’t just tell your child that Beyonce has stage fright and still goes out there and sings. Tell the child about how Beyonce’s body completely freezes up as she gets close to a concert and how she goes into her dressing room and has a conversation with herself and actually becomes another person who is courageous…etc. and go find the actual story and tell even more specifics than that.

Of course stories work for everyone, but the key here is to make them RELATE-ABLE. Universal stories like Dragons and Princesses have that element since those characters have been used in books forever.

If nothing else, your child will benefit greatly if you give them one empowering theme that they will remember their childhood by because you repeat it often.

Parents and Coaches: You are a mental toughness (or mental weakness) trainer too!

Look for opportunities to teach without teaching. Don’t just tell your kid to go out there and have fun. Show them. Don’t just tell them to “believe in themselves,” tell them a story about an athlete who went through a process to get that. Be creative! Join the kids in their world. You can do this…

Let us know if you have any questions about the timing or the kind of questions and stories that you can tell; share your views in comments…

Lets do this,

Rich Gunn

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