“Do Your Best & Let Go of the Rest”

Just like you and me, athletes have difficult days. Whether it’s losing the championship or underperforming during practice, competitive athletes face a new challenge (and a new opportunity for failure) every single day. How they respond to and cope with these setbacks, failures, mistakes and losses is what separates the great athletes from the good athletes.

Simply put, elite athletes understand that mental skills are as crucial to performance as physical skills; when faced with an adverse event, they are resilient.

What is resilience?

Competitive athletes, especially those in the public eye, possess perseverance. They can overcome adversity without breaking down emotionally or getting stuck in a negative mindset. They know how to manage negative thoughts, so that their performance isn’t influenced by feelings like anxiety, nervousness and stress.

This capacity to adapt and overcome after difficult experiences is often referred to as mental toughness. Athletes with this skill don’t avoid or deny negative emotions; they experience sadness and emotional pain like everyone else. However, they bounce back quickly thanks to their “mental elasticity”. For this reason, the American Psychological Association and other experts refer this skill as resilience.

Athletes high in resilience are emotionally grounded, enabling them to return to their normal state of balance (homeostasis) faster after a disappointing experience. In other words, they do their best, and let go of the rest.

Why is resilience important?

Especially for budding athletes, failure can seem catastrophic. Magnifying or distorting this fear of failure makes them vulnerable to stress and anxiety; overreacting to disappointment does too. Both can result in underperformance—exactly what they are trying to avoid!

Thankfully, resilience isn’t a genetic trait. It’s a set of thoughts, behaviors and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone, including the kindergartners in your life. In fact, developing this skill early in life is easier because there are fewer bad habits to unlearn.

As a parent or coach, helping young athletes develop resilience is just as critical as helping them perfect their serves and free throws. It will improve their athletic performance and allow them to progress faster. It’s also a skill set that will serve them off the field, for the rest of their lives. The ability to express disappointment while remaining emotionally balanced is a common characteristic among leaders, regardless of the endeavor.

How do you develop resilience?

Several factors are linked to resilience, including flexibility, empathy and self-confidence. One of the most influential factors is an athlete’s belief that they can change their circumstances. Those with resilience understand that setbacks are temporary, find opportunity in challenges and are hopeful they can influence outcomes. They believe they are in control. Those lacking resilience view negative events as fixed, permanent and unchangeable; they feel powerless to change the future.

Developing resilience is changing a negative mindset to a positive, optimistic one.

Quick steps for developing resilience in young athletes

Listen – Disappointment is normal when faced with defeat. Celebrating a win is normal too. Let your young athletes experience the situation in the moment, but don’t allow them to catastrophize it. If they’re receptive, help them acknowledge any disappointment and accept their imperfection. Don’t criticize, offer advice or blame others and use neutral, nonjudgmental questions to spark discussion.

Reframe the situation – If your young athlete gets stuck in a negative mindset, help them shift their perspective. Remind them that failure is what helps everyone become better, and that tomorrow, they will be better.

Identify positive next steps – Help your young athletes identify a tangible next step to improve their performance. Offer encouragement and help them maintain a hopeful, positive outlook.

    Breaking down and building on resilience

    Once young athletes develop mental toughness and can move past disappointment, they can begin to optimize their thinking skills in ways that will accelerate performance and allow them to thrive despite negative events.

    Remember, what they want most is your belief in their ability to actualize their goals and achieve their potential.

    Have questions about resilience? Just ask.

    Our psychology expert, Dave, has years of experience helping people keep their head in the game and perform at the highest level. If you have questions about how to improve a young athlete's resilience skills, feel free to email Dave or submit your question using the form below.

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