How to Develop Toughness in Youth Players
As the sage philosopher Rocky Balboa once said, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.” Toughness has traditionally been thought of as being able to take pain and shrug it off. While doing so certainly shows a certain type of toughness, the resilience most of us would like to see in our kids has more to do with the ability to deal with life’s problems. Youth sports offers a great way to introduce struggle in a safe and controlled environment to teach young players life lessons.
There is no shortage of available methods when it comes to instilling toughness in youth athletes. It is important to remember that there is no set-in-stone solution, and each kid will respond differently based on his or her temperament and experience.
Helping Youth Athletes Rise to the Challenge
One of the most overlooked aspects of toughness is perspective. We tend to focus on the reaction to a difficult situation, rather than how a difficult situation is perceived in the first place. This is especially true for youth athletes, who can have wildly differing attitudes towards the game and towards competition as a whole. Here is some advice to extend to your players:
It’s okay to be scared, do it anyways! Many youth athletes will respond to competition with fear. Rather than telling kids not to be afraid, let them know that fear is a part of life. What is important is to work through that fear and still get out there, play, and have some fun.
View athletic competition as an opportunity to do well, rather than a potential failure. Along those lines, the framing of athletic competition can be important when developing toughness. Resilient individuals thrive on challenge and struggle, viewing it as an opportunity to prove themselves.
If it’s worth doing, it won’t be easy. Remind players that struggle is a part of any great endeavor. Michael Jordan didn’t dunk from the free throw line in high school, nor did Mike Trout start hitting 450 foot home runs. They practiced hard, they worked on their game, then they became successful due to that hard work and effort.
Overcoming Failures as a Means of Developing Toughness
When two teams take the field - one of those teams will walk away with a loss (or tie). Hall of Fame hitters only get a hit 30 percent of the time. Even Steph Curry makes less than half of the threes he attempts. Sports are an onslaught of failures.
This can be frustrating, particularly for youth athletes who likely will not have the maturity to effectively cope with underperforming. In order to cultivate toughness, youth coaches and parents must not shy away from discussing these “failures” with players. “Failing” to achieve a result in sports is not a failure at all - it is simply part of the game.
Toughness is when a youth athlete recognizes a disappointing results and jumps right back on the horse. Working with players to identify where they are struggling is often the first step. Then you can develop a plan to practice and be more successful in the future. After all, toughness isn’t about ignoring difficulties, it is about overcoming them. Coaches and parents should reinforce the concept that succeeding at most things in life takes many “failures” along the way.
Keeping Baseball Training Fun for Youth Athletes
It’s just a game. All the superlatives, metaphors, and life lessons in the world will not change that. This goes back to the idea of working with youth baseball players to gain some perspective when playing the sport. Striking out is not the end of the world. Hitting a home run is not the greatest of human accomplishments. Gaining perspective through experience is one of the best ways to build mental toughness in young people, and youth sports offers a perfect opportunity to gain such experience.
Baseball coaches can keep practices and games fun, yet productive by doing the following:
Preaching improvement over ability. Another way of looking at this is valuing hard work rather than results.
Selecting drills and practice activities which are both engaging for players and beneficial to the team.
Acknowledge mistakes, but never dwell on them. Building toughness involves taking a real look at the world around us. Pretending everything is hunky dory all the time does not do young athletes any good. Take mistakes or low efforts plays as a teaching opportunity rather than something to be ignored.
Challenge players to succeed without negative reinforcement. As Psychology Today puts it: “Help young athletes to see competitive situations as exciting self-challenges rather than as threats.”
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