Three Key Concepts of Youth Sports Psychology
Advanced research for the past several years have shown that physical preparation such as the development of strength, speed and athletic skills are not enough to make champion athletes. Athletic abilities also depend a lot on mental attitude and psychological factors. Youth sports psychology is the scientific study of young people’s behavior in the context of sports and the practical application of psychological research and findings for the purpose of maximizing athletic skills and reaching athletic goals on a consistent and sustainable basis. Sports psychologists help children understand how their state of mind or psychology can affect their performance and how their participation in a sport affects their health, well-being and psychological development. In many ways, sports psychology has a lot to do with managing emotions and minimizing the negative psychological effects of poor performance and injury.
Setting a concrete goal is a very important and powerful act that is often neglected. It is obvious that everyone wants to win or to succeed and this desire is something that goes without saying, but sitting down and enumerating specific and ultimate goals has an invisible power and force that makes the unconscious mind alert (even if you are not consciously aware) of what priorities should be set, what choices to make in both crucial and petty situations, and what distractions to avoid to get to those goals and turn the vision into reality. Goal setting allows one to gain clarity on where efforts must be concentrated s and what things can be let go or should let go of to achieve goals. Setting proper goals in youth sports can be motivating and challenging especially when little goals are achieved, bit by bit every time. Top-level athletes, successful businesspeople, as well as achievers from various fields use goal setting techniques for short-term and long-term motivation. With the goal in mind, they focus their efforts and acquisition of knowledge and skills, organizing their time and using their resources efficiently until they reach their ultimate vision.
Setting goals is also a great way to measure one’s progress in terms of what has been attained and finished. As goals are met, one will gain more and more self-confidence, surprising one’s self of hidden capabilities, and thus giving more meaning to hard work and long-term efforts.
Children have a more vivid and malleable imagination because they tend to make newer neural connections than adults. Part of the reason that humans take so long to reach maturity from the time they are born (as compared to animals) is that they have more nerve cells in the brain where connections are yet to be made (because the brain is very organized at infancy). The process of growing up and maturing is also the process of organizing the nerves, and therefore the mind, into useful pathways. Improving sporting reflexes and skills in youth sports is also the strengthening and modification of nerve pathways in the brains as it is in the body. Physical training develops the nerve pathways located in the body and the spine but many of the pathways remain in the brain. Visualization is a powerful way to condition the mind for executing challenging physical activities. In this technique, imagination plays a vital role. Also called imagery, this technique helps prepare and practice the mind to face challenging and difficult situations, which are usually unexpected. It is also used for stress and distraction management. Essentially, visualization is seeing an outcome clearly in one’s mind before the actual thing even happens. For example, an athlete will visualize winning a competition or anticipate the consequences of specific movements or actions. One good example of anticipation is George Foreman, a feared boxer during his time, saying "I looked at my opponent's eyes, and I knew he was beaten even before we exchanged blows. It was there, in his eyes, the fear. The certainty he was going to get floored."
In addition to visualization, simulation is a very good technique to condition mind to focus on the game even with distractions. This technique includes simulating a live audience including journalists, hecklers, the sound of fans, big speakers, and so on.
Flow is a state of mind, the term used for being completely engrossed in what one is doing that everything else fades away, until the person or player becomes one with what he or she is doing. It involves complete focus and concentration and is considered the heart of sports psychology. Being in a state of flow is almost like being in meditation or having a Zen-like experience. In this state, distractions, moods, emotions, and all kinds of stressors do not touch your consciousness. This state is immensely satisfying to reach and is appreciated in itself. For real athletes, this is the state that one enjoys the most. It is the reason why the sport becomes more than just shooting a ball through the hoop or hitting or catching a ball. The state of flow makes the activity a meaningful experience, more rewarding even than the experience of money, fame and recognition. It is in the state of flow that the player transcends the ego and the self, focusing attention on the activity being performed and having complete control of actions and reactions. Flow gives a wonderful and powerful experience of competence.