How To Prepare Athletes Mentally Before a Game

Step 1: Begin Mental Training Long Before Game Day

You can’t just jump in on game day and start preparing athletes mentally. More than anything, that will harm them.

Tossing a lot of information at sports kids just before a game confuses them. It also makes it hard for them to play intuitively, relying on their instincts and trusting in what they learned.

So, start early. Actually, start as early in the season as possible!

Start by explaining the benefits of mental game training. You’ll find that kids generally believe a lot of myths about this type of training. Be sure to discuss these myths with the kids, and de-bunk them:

“I’m already mentally tough.”

Some young athletes may feel that they are already mentally tough. Mental training is designed to help athletes stay mentally tough. And they can always take advantage of a tune up — or learn new strategies.

“I’ll look weak if I tell Coach or teammates I do mental training”

It’s critical that your kids don’t feel embarrassed about mental training. They need to understand that it helps them in sports — and other areas of their lives. It’s not about being weak; it’s about learning skills they can use throughout their lives!

“My coach doesn’t use sports psychology. Why should I?”

Many coaches are volunteers who don’t have time to do research about the benefits of sports psychology. Kids don’t need coaches’ approval to learn strategies for boosting their confidence and performance! They don’t ask their teachers’ permission to take enrichment classes outside of school. Why should they feel as if coach needs to approve something that will boost their game? Help your kids understand the benefits of mental training, including improved focus, more stable confidence, and the ability to bounce back after errors. Also, remind kids that they can share their experiences with the coach and team–once they’ve enjoyed the benefits of mental game training!

“I’m afraid a new form of training will hurt the positive momentum I’ve got going now”

Assure your kids that if they’re playing well now, mental training will help them continue to play well!

Kids can become more aware of the feelings and thoughts associated with playing well. Mental training helps them understand what they are doing well. This will help athletes keep their momentum and even improve.

“Performing well is all about working hard, not about the mental game”

Hard work and dedication are important, but performance does not always go as planned. Athletes will likely have to deal with distractions or strong adversity. Mental training will help athletes cope with these.

“I’m not going to sit on a couch and talk to a shrink about sports”

Mental game training does not involve sitting on a couch and talking to a shrink. Kids can boost their mental game by working with a mental trainer in person — most likely on the field or in the gym — or by studying resources like the ones you find on Kids’ Sports Psychology. Kids aren’t broken if they try mental training; they’re open to improving themselves, which is a great thing and will benefit them in all aspects of their lives!

Finally, give kids a few examples about how mental game training translates to other areas of their lives. For example, kids learn how to banish distractions in mental training. They can use this skill to help them focus while they’re taking exams, learning a new instrument, or listening to a lecture!

Once you’ve helped kids understand the benefits of mental training, talk to them about their mental game challenges. Before the season starts, try to identify their challenges. Here are a few common challenges:

  1. High expectations that cause kids to become frustrated.
  2. Negative self-talk that distracts kids and makes it hard for them to focus on the positives.
  3. Parents who are loud on the sidelines.
  4. Fear of failure and a tendency to feel the need to be perfect.
  5. Worries about what others think of their performance.
  6. Distractions that hurt kids’ focus.

Step 2: What to Say to a Young Athlete Before A Game

Let’s face it, as parents, we sometimes get nervous and excited for our kids before their games.

And when that happens, we often goof up and say the wrong things.

For example, we give them too many details about how they should play — details like “Be sure to position your body directly in front of the soccer ball before you stop it.”

Or we undermine the coach, by saying things like, “Your coach should have played you the whole game last time.” In addition, we might harp on our young athletes’ mistakes, identifying each and every one they made during their last game. We might say, “You had a bunch of turnovers and seemed freaked out when you lost the ball.”

Instead of pointing out mistakes, filling their minds with detailed instructions, or undermining the coach, parents need to be as positive as possible.

Your young athletes play best when they feel confident and prepared. Confident players go into a game reminding themselves of their positive traits and their best moments. They believe in their coaches.

They shouldn’t be reminded of scary competitors, their goof-ups or bad moments.

As parents, you can help kids by ensuring they have the proper clothing and equipment. It’s nerve-rattling for kids to have to search for important gear a few minutes before a game.

In addition, try to avoid talking too much about the game just before it. And be sure to avoid negative commentary. Don’t start conversations like, “I’ll bet that huge guard with the big muscles will be playing opposite you again.” Don’t compare your kids to other players.

Instead, let your kids lead. If they want to talk about the game, discuss it with them in positive terms. Remind them of their finest moments, and assure them you’ll love them no matter how they perform. Encourage them to take risks and have fun. If they start sharing negative self-talk like “I never do well in games,” try to reassure them. Remind them that such talk hurts their confidence. Ask them to replace such negative statements, in their minds, with positive statements such as “I’m a great team player and people appreciate me for that.”

In short, your job, just before a game, is to be positive and to encourage your young athletes to have fun. Watch what you say just before your child jumps out of the car or says Good-Bye. Less is better. Avoid saying things like, “Don’t forget to stop the ball with your foot before you pass it,” or “I hope you make mincemeat of that muscle bound guy who scored every point last game.”

Instead, try this: “Have fun out there!”


Step 3: How Sports Kids Can Cope with Pre-Game Distractions

When sports kids are distracted before a game, it’s easy for them to feel their confidence sink.

Distractions pull their heads away from what they need to do and undermine their performance.

Sports parents, it’s possible you contribute to your young athlete’s pre-game distractions. You might do this by coaching them before a game — a big no-no. You don’t want to fill their heads with lots of technical instructions about how to play. In fact, just before a game, less is better. And you really don’t want to remind them about the mistakes they made in the last game.

In addition to being distracted by parents, kids may also lose focus over worries and anxiety about their homework, their friends, or their school. They could also be distracted by excitement — over a school dance or a music performance, for example.

When young athletes are distracted like this, they need to use mental game strategies to focus on the game ahead of them.

They need to understand that athletes who are mentally prepared feel more confident in their skills, focus on getting the job done, understand how to cope with adversity, and know how to leave their daily hassles behind.

To overcome distractions, they can take advantage of the 3 Rs for refocusing. They need to first Recognize the distraction. It’s a good idea for kids to know, long before a game, what things distract them so they can quickly identify them before a game.

Second, they need to Regroup — or stop thinking about whatever is distracting them.

Next, they need to Refocus on the task at hand.

In order to refocus well, they need to know the answer to the question, “What do I need to focus on to make a play, hit a good shot, or stay in the process?”

In addition to using the 3 Rs for refocusing, young athletes can implement pre-game routines to help them focus. These help them stay in the here-and-now, and help them avoid getting distracted.

For example, a pre-race routine for swimmers could include these steps:

  • Let go of the last race
  • Adjust goggles/cap
  • Loosen up arms
  • Stretch
  • Reaffirm your objective for the start
  • Rehearse a part of the swing
  • Create a plan for the race

When kids establish a routine, they should also identify the things they should NOT be thinking about during their pre-game routine. These are distractions.

For swimmers, distractions might be:

  • Thinking about what they don’t want to do
  • Thinking about not making mistakes
  • Thinking about a past event or meet
  • Focusing on the lane next to them
  • Focusing on a time they think they need to achieve
  • Thinking about that term paper
  • Worrying about competitors

With the 3 Rs for refocusing and a pre-game routine in their tool kit, kids have important mental game tools. These will help them overcome distractions, boost their confidence, and perform well during games. And keep in mind: It’s your job to ensure you’re not distracting them by focusing on past mistakes or over-coaching them. Let them focus on what they feel they need to do to prepare.


Step 4: Avoid Over-Coaching

In order to prepare young athletes mentally before competition, sports parents need to curb their temptation to over-coach kids before a game.

Over-coaching sounds and looks like this: Your young athlete is eating her breakfast two hours before her soccer game. You say, “Now don’t forget to stop the ball before you kick it. And remember to talk to your teammates, and ask them to pass to you. And oh, you shouldn’t make the mistake you made last game — shooting the ball when you were too far from the goal.”

Even worse, you might interrupt your daughter’s breakfast and drag her outside for a little practice-and-coaching session — a session she doesn’t want.

How does over-coaching undermine sports kids’ mental game?

First of all, you’re filling kids’ heads with information they don’t need before a game. They’ve already learned much of this during practice, and hopefully, feel confident in the skills they’ve learned.

Ideally, sports kids trust in what they’ve learned, and can perform freely and intuitively — without filling their heads with distracting coaching instructions.

If kids feel confident and play intuitively, trusting in what they’ve learned, they’re more likely to take risks. That’s what helps them learn and grow. And, playing intuitively means they’re more likely to “get in the zone,” that desirable state of being super-focused and “on.”

But there’s more.

When you over-coach your kids before a game, you’re telling them you don’t trust in what they’ve learned. That can sink your kids’ confidence. They can feel that you don’t think they’ll do well without your coaching.

What’s more, you’re making it hard for them to be in charge of their own game. Ideally, you want your kids to take responsibility for their own game.

And, over-coaching may feel like pressure to sports kids. When kids feel pressured by you, it’s hard for them to focus on playing freely and intuitively. It’s hard for them to take risks. They shouldn’t be thinking about how they need to please you.

Again, just before a game, don’t fill your kids’ heads with instructions and pressure — unless they ask for your advice.

In that case, go ahead and advise them, but try to avoid getting too technical. Keep it as simple as possible.

Generally, the best thing to say to young athletes before a game is: “Be sure to have fun out there!”


Step 5: “Go For It”

“Go for it.”

Those are the three words we have as advice for teaching kids how to trust in their skills before a game. They need to give themselves permission to let go and “play ugly.”

Kids need to understand they’ve worked hard and attended practices. They should focus on making the best of what they’ve learned so far. They need to trust in what they’ve learned. It’s not a good idea to continue to work on a skill during a game.

Before a game, kids should think of all they’ve learned, and appreciate how far they’ve come. But they should not think about how to continue to improve during the game. They should reserve those thoughts for practice.

An important goal for kids, just before a game, is to accept that they can’t be perfect when they play the game. They’re human and will make mistakes. They need to let go of mistakes quickly. They need to tell themselves that it’s okay to “play ugly” and just focus on getting the job done.

When kids “play ugly,” they may make mistakes or feel imperfect, trip over their own feet, or fall down. They need to know that’s okay! They should give themselves a few “get out of jail” cards, which means feeling okay about goofing up.

Just before a game, kids need to enter what’s called the “functional mindset.” They don’t worry about how they’re playing. They don’t try to be perfect. And they don’t worry about the score. They do whatever it takes to get the job done: Complete the play, shot or pass without analyzing what they’re doing. Use whatever is working–even though it may not be graceful looking or, in the athlete’s mind, “perfect.”

In other words, they need to just “go for it.”

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