Confidence and young athletes

Maintaining confidence can be an elusive thing for the very best professional athletes.  So it’s no wonder that many young athletes need support when it comes to their own development in this area.

Even highly paid professional athletes go through times when their confidence is quite fragile.  A “goal scorer” who doesn't score for a few games, a baseball player who goes a few games without a hit and suddenly, they start questioning what they’re doing, even wondering if they’ve “lost it”. And these are the best of the best, proven over many years as absolutely outstanding in their field.

So when a young person goes through similar trials and their self-confidence takes a hit, we, as adults, can hopefully appreciate how difficult it may be for some of them to maintain that inner confidence that athletes (and people in general) typically need to feel right and to be at their best.

This is where, along with parents, a truly “good” youth coach can play an invaluable role.

Coaches have many functions at the youth level: they are disciplinarians, teachers, skill instructors, motivators and role models.  That’s a big job for anyone—whether the coach is certified, a paid professional or a volunteer.

Part of a coach’s job is to be able to assess when a young player’s confidence is slipping. The ability (and willingness) of a coach to make the time to talk privately with the player and to show they care can make a difference.

Here are just a few examples of what a coach can do to help a young athlete regain that sense of confidence:

  1. Make it clear to the player that as important as outcomes and personal “results” feel, playing to the best of their ability simply because they love the sport is important.  Remind the player what drew them to the sport in the first place. Help them recapture the wonderfully positive feelings from when they were even younger and first played the sport.
  2. If the player continues to maintain a positive attitude and a superior work ethic, let them play through their difficult times. Don’t penalize them.  Chances are their performance will return to the norm—especially if something positive happens for them on the field of play.
  3. Let them know that you value them for their attitude and work ethic, not just the “results” and wins they help to produce.
  4. Make the time to talk with the player privately, away from teammates.  Find out if there are things on the young person’s mind that might be a concern. Listen closely.
  5. Put yourself in the shoes of the young person. Take a step back yourself and try to remember what it was like to be young and to struggle with your own self-confidence at times. Think back to what helped you get through those difficult times.
  6. Don’t be afraid to show your own vulnerability to that young person. It’s important for coaches to be confident and to demonstrate leadership, for sure, but part of being a good role model can also be also acknowledging you have had your own struggles, including with confidence.
  7. Remind them that athletes improve by trying things and making mistakes.  “Failure” is inevitable but real satisfaction can come from working through those difficult times.

Mostly, it’s important to let them know that you care and will support them.  Growing up is difficult. Youngsters won’t always meet the expectations set for them—or that they set for themselves.  In the youth sports world, especially as young people move into more competitive environments, the challenge for some youngsters is even greater than it is for others to maintain the confidence required to excel.

Like coaches, we parents often play a major role in helping—or unintentionally undermining—our own child’s inner confidence. As with a coach who perhaps spends too much time yelling and criticizing, a parent who falls into that trap may find their son or daughter tune them out when the parent does try to say something supportive. Too many negatives can be overwhelming, and can make the positive comments feel as though they are too late in coming, and thus the intended support can have less impact.

Much is made in this day and age of the need for young athletes to be “mentally tough” in order to succeed, and mental toughness can be important, without question.  At the same time, many youngsters need to know that a coach (or parent) understands and will support them through difficult times.

As adults, we need only look at our own life experience to recognize the value of the right kind of self-confidence. Not the confidence that proclaims, “I’m better than everyone else” but simply that positive inner sense that frees you up to feel “I love what I do, and it’s great to be able to express myself out there and show what I can do”.

The reward for helping a young person regain their confidence is known to every coach who has been there for a youngster when they were needed.