To Help Young Athletes, Focus On Process, Not Performance, Says Sports Psychologist | New


The mother of an 8-year-old is convinced that her daughter is not “playing to her full potential” in football. A child who fears that stopping playing volleyball will mean he will have nothing more to say to his father. Parents who say they have invested too much money to let their daughter stop playing tennis.

These are all real-life examples of unhealthy outcomes that can occur when youth sport prioritizes performance over personal growth, according to clinical and athletic psychologist Steve Smith, who recently gave a Zoom presentation aimed at young people. local parents on ‘The Twisties’, organized by the Parent Education Series.

Smith’s remarks on September 15 came just over a month after women’s gymnastics superstar Simone Biles retired from several Tokyo Olympics finals to focus on her safety and sanity after experiencing what the gymnastics community calls “twisties”, a mental block that occurs when an athlete loses spatial awareness during an intense routine. Biles is joined by well-known athletes Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka to lead a growing public discourse on athletes and mental health.

Smith is a Santa Barbara-based therapist, consultant and counselor who specializes in working in person and remotely with athletes and those involved in sport, among other clients. He lived in Mountain View from 2014 to 2016 while he was a professor at the University of Palo Alto.

“When our identity is tied to our performance, poor performance means we are failures and the competition is a direct threat to who we are,” he said.

As children develop, he said, they move from defining their identity to very concrete definitions, how they look like or differ from others, only to see themselves through a internal system based on experiences and goals in late adolescence.

For many young athletes, being an athlete is an integral part of their identity, and when something threatens that it can be a struggle if they don’t have other well-developed parts of their identity to lean on, Smith said.

On the one hand, he said, there is a large body of research highlighting the overall positive health effects of sports participation for young people.

“Sport is great for kids at close range almost all the time,” he told attendees. “The best research seems to suggest that sport is good for children in the long run.”

Most of the available research indicates a correlation between youth participation in sports and a number of healthy habits such as decreased anxiety and depression, healthier eating habits and a lower likelihood of consuming drugs. drugs or having alcohol problems, he said.

However, he added, over the past two decades or so, sports for young people have become increasingly professionalized, and parts of this culture can have negative consequences for children.

As an example, he described a sixth grader who plays the same sport year round, is on travel teams, and has private and personal trainers. This kid faces tremendous pressure most of the time to perform well in front of people who can advance his athletic career.

According to research, he said, children shouldn’t specialize in a sport until they are 13 or 14 years old.

Young people who specialize too early in a sport involving repetitive and deliberate skill-building exercises which, objectively, are not very fun, he points out, face a “considerably higher risk” of overtraining or over-training. injury, he said.

Some of the problems that can accompany early sports specialization include the possibility of a shrunken social circle, underdeveloped social interaction skills, or increased family conflicts or stresses from excessive hours, he said.

There is even recent research indicating that children who specialize early are less likely to be physically active as adults, he said.

“The first specialists tend not to be the best athletes… in the long run,” he said.

For young people who embrace a single sport early on, the type of activities they engage in in the sport can also make a difference, Smith said.

He recommended that these children pursue activities that prioritize “deliberate play” or those that simulate competition or play, perhaps with modified rules, rather than “deliberate training” activities like throwing, catch, line up or run for a developing baseball athlete. Deliberate play will hold children’s interest longer than deliberate practice and always strengthen their skills, he said.

He reminded participants that the reason people love sport and the reasons they love their children to participate in sport are different.

The main reason kids love sports, he said, is because they are fun, while adults generally love sports because they “love to see highly skilled people at the top of the game. their physical form do difficult things ”.

Meanwhile, adults love to see children playing sports as they teach valuable life lessons about teamwork, health, nature, perseverance, commitment and dealing with adversity, a- he declared.

“We like to watch sports a lot because of the performance; we like for kids to play sports because of the process, and those are different things,” he said. “Children suffer when they can’t tell the difference, and especially when parents, coaches and social media can’t tell the difference.”

Teaching children to focus less on performance and more on the process tends not only to improve performance, but can also improve emotional well-being and reduce anxiety, he added.

The Parent Education Series is sponsored by Woodside High School PTSA, Sequoia Union High School District, Sequoia Healthcare District, Peninsula Health Care District and The Parent Venture, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that provides education for parents, students, educators and community members. .

Visit to learn more about upcoming Parent Education Series events.

Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]

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