When To Teach Children Mental Skills

Young athlete mental skills

At what age/competition level should a youth athlete focus on building up their mental strength?

Any age! I work athletes as young as 8 years old in person and we have them even younger going through the Mental Toughness Academy along with their parents. The key is to make the learning “age appropriate.”

I don’t teach the same way to an 8-year-old as I do to a college athlete but the lessons are generally centered around the same concepts: Focus, Confidence, Determination & Resilience, especially under pressure. That’s my definition of Mental Toughness.

effective_communication_skillsYounger athletes learn faster and the messages penetrate the deeper recesses of the mind when your approach is “story-based.” In other words, don’t teach something directly to an elementary schooler, give a story to illustrate the point.

Here’s a great tactic to use with younger kids

When the time is appropriate, ask your young athlete for his/her “opinion” on a difficult issue that “your friend” is having with their child.

For example:


mom talking to youth athleteKatie, I need your help. My friend Mary has a son close to your age who is having some troubles. He doesn’t want to go to practice anymore because he feels like he isn’t good enough and thinks his teammates are making fun of him. Mary doesn’t know what to do to help him. Would you have any suggestions?

The key here is in creating a story that has an issue that is SIMILAR to the issue that your child has but not exactly. The child will often solve her own problem by offering a suggestion for another child’s problem. These mental situations help your child build mental skills. This takes some tact and operating “under the radar” but it can be magic.

michael-jordan-north-carolina-college-18Another strategy is to tell stories about famous athletes who had the child’s problem when they were younger and how they got through it.

I often tell the story about how Michael Jordan was cut from the High School Basketball team and how he fought his way back a year later and then went on to become the best basketball player of his time.

Parents and coaches: do not make the mistake that young athletes are small adults and think like adults. The best coaches and mentors are the most flexible and work with the child’s view of the world.

If you really want to take it to the next level of teaching mental skills to your kids, find stories about celebrities that the kids have heard of and how they overcame their adversities. The key is in the details. Don’t just tell your child that Beyonce has stage fright and still goes out there and sings. Tell the child about how Beyonce’s body completely freezes up as she gets close to a concert and how she goes into her dressing room and has a conversation with herself and actually becomes another person who is courageous…etc. and go find the actual story and tell even more specifics than that.

Of course stories work for everyone but the key here is to make them RELATE-ABLE. Universal stories like Dragons and Princesses have that element since those characters have been used in books forever.

If nothing else, your child will benefit greatly if you give them one empowering theme that they will remember their childhood by because you repeat it often. For example. I have said to my boys often a couple of themes:

  • 1. I know that you will be better than me; and
  • 2. Things always work out for us Sigls.

By now, my teenage boys fully believe it and that helps them to be fearless which is` my goal for you too. These are the kind of mental skills that you want your child to develop.

Parents and Coaches: you are a mental toughness (or mental weakness) trainer too!

Look for opportunities to teach without teaching. Don’t just tell your kid to go out there and have fun. Show them. Don’t just tell them to “believe in themselves,” tell them a story about an athlete who went through a process to get that. Be creative! Join the kids in their world. You can do this…

Let us know if you have any questions about the timing or the kind of questions and stories that you can tell; share your views in comments…

Craig Sigl

2 thoughts on “When To Teach Children Mental Skills

  1. Scott Davis

    Hi Craig,
    I am looking to get some help for my oldest daughter in overcoming fear. She is a very strong hockey player and wants to play at the NCAA level in the future. If you were to watch her in practice, she is the strongest player on the ice. However, when the puck drops in a game things don’t quite look the same. She seems fearful of making a mistake and does not play at the same level. Can you suggest help?
    Scott Davis

  2. Craig Sigl

    Hi Scott,

    Sorry about the delay in response. Got lost in my email notifications.

    Can’t perform in practice like competition is the most common issue I work with.

    It’s basically FEAR….of failure and sometimes success. That creates tension and tightness
    and prevents the body from performing to potential, especially in a dynamic, fluid game
    like hockey.

    I have a specific protocol for working with me that deals with this head on.
    It involves:

    1. Activate and redirect focus
    2. Reorganize central purpose for playing the sport
    3. Become fearless through mastering emotion
    4. Mechanism for letting go of mistakes and chokes
    5. Self hypnosis for reprogramming minor blocks
    6. Internal conflict resolution

    If she is self-motivated, she can get this through my mental toughness academy program.

    There just is no secret tip that will change this for athletes as it happens at the highest levels of sport.

    I have lots of ideas in the blog here for free that may help. The first step is the athlete needs to
    come to the awareness that she needs help/advice and then seek it. Often, that is a big stumbling
    block for young people.

    Here for questions.



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