I get asked this question more than you can imagine by parents of young athletes. They seem to think there is a universal mindset that all professional athletes have, cultivated from a young age that leads to athletic success. And conventional thinking believes if they can become aware of it, then it can be tap into it, then they can offer their progeny an advantage that will result in success.
While nothing could be farther from the truth, what I can do it talk about the mindset that it takes to persevere through all the setbacks, injuries and changes that an athlete will encounter along the way.
As a young athlete it is so easy to be discouraged by a coach or parent that just happens to having a bad day or a rotten life. I remember having coaches that took out their own aggression and shortcomings on the athletes. I remember one basketball coach I had in junior high school would make us run for a missed shot because he had a bad day at work. Young athletes, and all children really, live in the moment. They are only concerned with the events of that day and don’t have the pressures of life that us adults have. Therefore, when a coach has a bad day and takes it out on the athletes it might not have anything to do with the kids. But how do you explain that to your young athlete?
Knowing this, it is easy to get discouraged and not put the time and effort in to be successful at a young age.
Many young athletes get injured and the fear of getting hurt permeates their mindset and hinder their return. They never learn to play with the same reckless abandon that might have made them successful in the first place. Learning to cope with the injury and make a full recovery is the parent’s job. Whether it be taking them to rehab or encouraging them, injuries are one the hardest things to recover from.
Another big factor is a change in the levels of competition. I played high school football with a 20 kids that had won a Pop Warner National Championship in 8th grade. When they moved up to high school and everyone was bigger since the 130-pound weight requirement no longer applied, they weren’t much of a factor. Many got discouraged and ended up quitting, as the thought of riding the bench after such great success was too much to bear. For many of these athletes with great athletic success at a young age, they simply didn’t grow past junior high school and were undersized.
Making the jump from one level to the next is the one of the biggest stumbling stones I have seen knock athletes from continuing to play sports. Many times self-doubt ends their career after seeing the size and strength of the older athletes
All of these factors can be avoided with one simple approach – take care of the things you can control.
A young athlete has a few things under her/his control – their ability to execute the skills and tasks in front of her/him. The skills are honed and learned through relentless practice and perfection of the sport. The age old “practice makes perfect” is antiquated and has been replaced with “perfect practice makes perfect.”
An athlete needs to develop their craft at the highest level by not doing pointless movements in a gym under the eye of a coach claiming to teach sport specific training. They need to hone their skills by practicing and perfecting their sport.
They need to enter into a simple and well-designed strength program designed to teach basic movement and strength our young athlete. At no time should the athlete get injured in the weight room. I have little patience for a program that hurts an athlete because a coach doesn’t know proper movement or allows the athlete to not execute each movement with perfection.
An athlete has little control over what their opponent will do and the only thing they can control is the mastery of their craft; they also need to be strong and durable enough to survive the sport and avoid injury. If the athlete does get injured it is up to the parent to take full charge and make sure the athlete is back on the field when they are 100% healthy. Getting pressured to get back on the field by a coach who is more consumed with wins and loses than the health of your child, it unacceptable.
Lastly, from the time I was young, I was taught to never quit. I was not allowed to quit anything as quitting and giving up can become a habit that has to be avoided.
Everyone loves to play when it is easy and the wins are numerous. Where things become difficult is when wins are few and the pressure to produce is at its highest. By teaching a young athlete regardless of the outcome perseverance and never quitting are what are highly coveted. This starts at the earliest level and should always be reinforced by the parents. Every child will question itself and want to quit at some, it is natural. Danger presents itself when parents let them or tell them, “it will be alright” – this is how it begins. Just know each time you quite it becomes easier and easier. It is best to take a hardline approach for the day one and remind your young athletes that quitting is not option.
My mother never cared whether our teams won or lost. All that matter was did my brothers and I play hard and earned respect. She reminded us that we wore our family name on the back of our jerseys and who represented. That name needed respect, and quitting and not playing hard was a sign of disrespect.
It takes genetics, geography, and a lot of hard work mixed with a bit of luck to play professional sports. Start with the things you can control - your attention to detail and mastery of your skill. Use the weight room as a place to strengthen your body and prepare it for the rigors of sport on the field. Don’t waste time as you only have a limited amount of time each day to eat, sleep, learn, practice and train. And never quit. The first time is the hardest with each time after being easier and easier. If you never quit, you will never know defeat regardless of what the scoreboard says at the end of the game.