The environment determines the behaviour.
That's why if we're a coach or a parent wanting young people to be more resilient and mentally strong, we need to try and make those environments as enriching and facilitative (for growth) as possible.
Here are the 5 key ingredients that create an optimal environment for growing athletes that thrive under pressure.
1. High Challenge and High Support
This means encouraging youngsters to choose to take on scary and challenging things.
Tasks that might make them a bit uncomfortable!
Reframe tough and difficult tasks into exciting challenges where the mind and/or body will be tested.
Make these challenges part of everyday life. Keep checklists. Keep track of all the hard things that have been attempted!
Make the attempts and commitment to the task the success. Rather than any of the outcomes.
Ask things like: How many hard things did you do today? and What challenges did you take on?
But we also need to be supportive. Really supportive.
Support is enabling them to develop their own personal qualities and helping them learn through the experiences they have. By being unconditionally supportive.
Listen to understand. Be there for them. Ensure they feel like they belong.
Don't do the hard stuff for them but let them know you're with them on the journey every step of the way.
2. Praise personal qualities on show, minimise praise for results.
Praise personal qualities more than the personal achievements.
This includes the good stuff like the effort they put in and the courage they have shown.
Try not to only reinforce results achieved. If love and praise is learned to be conditional only on results, then we get hard wired beliefs such as:
"when I win, mum/dad/coach is happy, when I lose they are upset with me."
This is heaping more pressure on. We want to be loved for who we are, not how well we do.
Side note: I know from working with hundreds of young athletes. A big part of their fear of failure is actually related to letting down their family and coaches.
Because the don't want to let down the people who have invested the most in their development as an athlete/person.
3. Grow Awareness of Emotions
Help kids identify and name emotions.
Building awareness around how we feel and why we are feeling certain things is a critical skill. Then when can become better and examining and understand what influences how we feel.
Naming and identifying how we feel can also help us create space to choose the best responses.
It will help kids (and everyone) be able to cope with emotion better. As Dan Siegal says: "Name it to tame it."
Parents/Coaches can help grow this by reflecting emotions back to a child when they notice strong emotion. E.g. “I can see that you're upset right now, is that right?"
And get them to explain what they are feeling!
4. Minimise Comparisons
Avoid comparing them with other athletes. As the saying goes: compare them to the person they were yesterday. The most important thing for kids is that they learn to dedicate themselves to a craft, something that they can commit to, learn from and grow through.
We don't want people who are only motivated by being better at something than other people.
Comparison happens in sport. It is inevitable.
But...take away some of that focus when you can.
Competition is great and so is winning, but try make the personal commitment to the process more important. Commit to 100% effort, not to 100% success.
5. The personal qualities that want to show.
Before competitions, talk about the qualities they want to show today.
Rather than results they want to get.
Pure, unobstructed performance comes from a place of willingness to show up as ourselves and express who we are through our sport (or anything). It is letting go and letting it all come out.
If a child says "I am going to never give up today and I am going to show how determined I am"
Awesome. That is 100% controllable.
"I am going to win today" is just kinda obvious.
Make the personal, controllable qualities the priority.
That will lead to more victories anyway.