In short, the adolescent years of one’s life are naturally consumed by self-determination and questions of competence and identity. To formulate a secure identity – or strong sense of self – the predominate question is, ‘Am I good enough?’
There are two things to consider when teaching athletes to develop a secure sense of self:
- How do they gather their evidence?
- How do they assess their performance?
Before the age of 12 athletes are considered concrete thinkers – they have to actually do something in order to know that they can. So in an attempt to determine if they are good enough, there must be some sort of evidence. This evidence can come from two main targets of focus: external versus internal.
With an external focus the intention is to gather results. Wins, goals, stats, praise, comparisons, tryouts, playing time, etc. This is the primary focus of many – if not most – young athletes. However, when relying on external cues for validation, there is little control over feeling confident. Instead, they wait for proof and start to learn that outcomes – and only outcomes – are acceptable forms of evidence.
Each and every performance opportunity is being judged and categorized in an attempt to determine if ‘I am good’ or ‘I am bad.’ Unfortunately the young mind remains somewhat rigid in its cognitive capabilities, which is why such generalizations are limited to being good versus bad, right versus wrong, perfect versus failure – there seems to be no in between.
The alternative is to focus on internal measures of development. For example, I know I am doing well because I am doing more than I was capable of one year ago. Although it is more emotionally rewarding to score a goal or make a team, when the focus is on personal performance improvements feelings of confidence will be more controllable and they will endure over time.
The best way to teach athletes to focus on performance improvements is by having them identify 5-10 controllable tasks that they can measure after a practice or game. For example:
Took players on 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Communicated 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Worked hard 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Kept my head up 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
It is beneficial to remember all of the things that you did well – to gather the evidence and proof of success. However, that evidence MUST include controllable, task-focused behaviors like working hard, trying new things, and performing ones role. If we were just to focus on outcomes then the process of seeking evidence has turned into perfectionism and athletes will forever feel disappointed.