A long-time running friend of mine recently asked: "What specific phrases would you use to focus on strategies for a youth athlete (less than 10 yrs old) who is innately competitive?"
That is an important question, because what we say helps shape the emotional landscape of our kids. First let's look at what's going on developmentally in this phase of life. Early adolescence is a time when children are constructing meaning from the world around them and growing wisdom. They are modeling actions from how they interpret the messages around them (parents, coaches, peers and media). Beliefs are developed from that input, which lead to the formation of an identity.
When the predominant message from the immediate circle is to compete, win, dominate, children can begin to lose touch with their natural sense of wonder and curiosity, and become emotionally fixed and inflexible. I can see how this has developed in our society, since the norm these days is to begin children in structured sports-activities as young as 5 years old.
How we language information to children in order to be appropriate and empowering is actually quite subtle and specific. Our communication shapes thinking, and can provide children with the beginnings of a map for their own healthy inner voice. In order for children to be resilient and emotionally flexible, it's important to help them develop what Stanford psychology researcher Carol Dweck calls a Growth Mindset. Dweck states that children are natural wonderers. Through specific and healthy communication you can stimulate that aspect, and model to them a focus on actions and intentions rather than judging their innate identity.
In a study conducted by Dweck with a diverse population of young Chicago students, participants were given a moderately difficult set of problems to complete. Those children that were then praised for being smart, were less inclined to fill out a more challenging worksheet, in the event they then appeared not smart. Those who were praised for strategies like hard work or pacing themselves, were eager to raise the bar, and agreed to take on more challenging problems. Dweck concluded that praising students for their ability taught them a fixed mindset and created vulnerability, but praising them for their effort or the strategy they used taught them a growth mindset and fostered resilience.
Eight time grand slam winner and Olympic gold medalist, Andre Agassi, is a perfect example of being brought along in his physical development while his inner voice was misguided. Agassi admitted in his autobiography that he hated tennis because of his overbearing father, who pushed him to train and compete from an early age. It wasn't fun, and he eventually developed a drug problem to deal with his resentment.
As someone who sprinted rapidly up the ranks of youth running, I can't state strongly enough how important it is to have fun. As a matter of fact, the number one goal for youth athletes is to have fun. It's also the number 2 and the number 3 goal. When kids get stuck in roles like, "I'm the one who has to win," they limit their options and flexibility when they don't win. There are also times when being competitive is inappropriate or even destructive. These experiences can effect the child's health as well as social relationships, and thus negatively impact self-worth.
When I work with young athletes in mental performance, I always take the lead from them by asking questions like: what do you love about your sport, what makes it fun, what bothers you about it. I talk with them about their hobbies and interests and engage them in co-creating a balanced, meaningful, and happy experience. For example, I work with a young go kart racer who runs as part of his training, which he doesn't like. When I asked him what he loves to do, his face lit up as he told me about these collectibles he calls Magic Cards. I encouraged him to come up with a game that incorporates running and Magic Cards, and he did. Once empowered and on-board with the idea of playing with his program, we also came up with fun ways for him to do push ups and sit ups using blueberries as rewards for each rep. He then quickly named them Fruit Ups. He was on fire with ideas, and lit up for the first time that session. It looked like a weight had been lifted from his 10-year-old shoulders. And he had been the one to lift it!
When speaking with young athletes, I recommend you use phrases and questions such as:
Looks like you worked really hard at this.
Mistakes help us grow.
What do you think we learned today?
What worked well and what didn't?
Is there anything you want to add, and anything you want to get rid of?
Make sure the language is specific and leaves opening for discovery and possibility. Take the lead from the child, and empower them to be a co-creator in their sports experience as they develop a healthy inner voice.