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Working with Child Athletes: Commentary by Sport Psychologists

Sporting Bounce member Dr Paul McCarthy outlines a commentary on issues for sport psychologists to consider when working with child athletes across any sport, based on his PhD work. 

When working with child athletes in the sampling years (6-12), sport psychologists should recognize the child’s cognitive, social and emotional development and communicate to parents and coaches the importance of placing the well-being of the child first at all times. Youth sport becomes increasingly competitive during the sampling years and children often lack the resources to deal effectively with issues such as negative feedback and reinforcement, injuries and low emotional support. By involving parents and coaches in psychological interventions, the greatest gains in psychological well-being and performance should be realized (Harwood & Biddle, 2002).  

The youth athletes surveyed in this PhD had a general understanding of basic psychological skills; however, the number of completed responses remained low overall. It is unclear whether students avoided filling in their responses through a lack of motivation or if they were unaware of the meaning of the terms presented. Through education from sport psychologists, an understanding of, and value of psychological skills can be provided to youth athletes. Second, the relatively low use of basic psychological skills among these athletes in the sampling and specialising (13-16) years suggests that psychological skills do not form part of their coaching or physical education practice. The primary and high school years provide a captive audience for educating children on the potential value of psychological skills for sport and life in general though adherence to PST is challenging. For example, Heishman and Bunker (1989) reported that although 81% of elite athletes from various countries rated mental preparation as very important, only 44% made regular use of these strategies and techniques. Furthermore, research has indicated that athletes use mental training techniques more in competition than in practice (Frey, Laguna, & Ravizza, 2003). Altogether, it appears that although athletes may value mental training, most do not use it systematically as part of their physical training regimes (Vealey, 2007). Furthermore, personal characteristics such as self-motivation (Bull, 1991) and type of motivation (Harwood et al., 2004) influence the use of mental training by athletes. Harwood et al. (2004) explained that high task/moderate ego oriented athletes used more imagery, goal-setting, and positive self-talk compared to low task/high ego- and moderate task/low ego-oriented athletes. These findings imply that athletes who define success through mastering skills and improving use mental skills more than athletes who focus on comparison with others.

Achievement is a strong source of enjoyment among youth and elite athletes and PE students. Specifically, one’s perceived competence is enhanced through achieving one’s goals. Indeed, qualitative studies examining the PE class environment through the student’s perspective has indicated that perceived competence differentiated according to age, and constituted a determinant of students’ effort in PE classes (Lee, Carter, & Xiang, 1995; Veal & Compagnone, 1995). Two further valuable findings related to increased enjoyment in PE. First, when personal improvement is emphasised in the class, students reported greater enjoyment, regardless of their perceived competence or performance accomplishments (Dyson, 1995; Portman, 1995). Second, students reported more enjoyable participation in PE classes when they had choices and were involved in decisions making in class (Carlson, 1995; Dyson, 1995; Hassandra, Goudas & Chroni, 2003; Hopple & Graham, 1995; Nugent & Fucette, 1995).

The results from the PhD also indicate that goal-setting provides a dual purpose for youth sport participants in the sampling and specialising stages of sport participation. First, goal-setting provides specific focus for deliberate play and/or practice to help individuals improve performance and second, goal-setting can make the practice experience more enjoyable. Perhaps the long-term challenge for sport psychologists in youth sport therefore, is to provide practical guidelines to help children achieve positive outcomes from their sporting experience by developing self-regulated learners. To this end, the application of Psychological Skills Training (PST) for young athletes is an encouraging development (Smith & Smoll, 2002) and the results underlines that positive psychological benefits are available to youth sport performers through goal-setting. Also, Jones (2003) outlined several valuable cognitive strategies (e.g., self-statement modification, self-analysis) that may be used by sport performers to enhance emotional control. 

In regards to imagery the research found at least two practical implications. First, the participants reported their ability to image both visually and kinaesthetically improved following an imagery intervention. This finding provides further support for the use of imagery to enhance emotional control and performance among youth athletes in sport. Not surprisingly, the greatest gains in positive affect for youth performers would be realised by those experiencing low positive affect. Second, although one may report variable positive and negative affect scores following a training session, perhaps such scores should only cause alarm when these scores are consistently low (or high), and are coupled with low perceived competence.

If you are looking for a sport psychologist or sport psychology professional to work with child, or youth athletes, then you can find them on our directory.