Helping Your Athletes Manage the Key Mental Elements of Competitive Sports Part 1: Motivation

Helping Your Athletes Manage the Key Mental Elements of Competitive Sports Part 1: Motivation

As parents, sometimes it’s easy to know what you need to do even if it’s not easy to actually get it done.  Try to get your kid to eat vegetables, make sure they do their homework, teach them to respond with compassion when someone is hurt, etc., etc.  And then, there are so many times where you don’t to even know what should be done. 

Knowing how to help your competitive kid manage the mental aspects of the game they love can be tricky.  Sometimes kids are overly confident (i.e. downright cocky). Or, they’re too hard on themselves and remove themselves mentally from a game.  Other times they blame other people rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.  Sometimes they take on the weight of the world when they had almost nothing to do with the outcome.  (Sometimes we struggle with those same things as adults, but that’s a different story.)  As parents, what is important to convey to our kids about managing themselves on and off the field?

A Winning Mindset

When I started researching the mental aspects of sports, the theme of “a winning mindset” kept coming up over and over again.  I admit that I started looking into this with a little bit of mixed emotion.  There are so many concepts about generosity, spirituality, and other important ideals where I’ve fallen well short of the parenting example that I want to project.  I wondered if spending time to teach them about “winning” should be high on the list of things to tackle.  Although I want my kids to be able to manage themselves well in sports, it’s much more important to me that they become great people.  However, as I started reading, I became more convinced these articles were on the right track and that having the right mindset for sports success is actually the same as what’s required for living our best lives. 

Most of us want our kids to be happy, healthy, and kind.  We want them to grow into thriving adults.  Four concepts that occur repeatedly in the mindset required for competitive sports are Motivation, Confidence, Ability to Manage Pressure, and Self-Discipline.  The list obviously isn’t fully inclusive of the ideals I’d want my kids to take into adulthood, but most would definitely be on the descriptor list for people I would describe as “thriving adults”.  So, how do we get there?  Let’s start with motivation and dive into this concept a little more.


Psychology today defines motivation as “the ability to initiate and persist at a task”.  My 14-year old recently attended a soccer club Zoom meeting where Christian Fuchs, a pro player from Leister City, was speaking.  I love what he told the boys.  He said that at a certain level every player on the field has enough skill to make it to the next level.  The differentiator between those that make it and those that don’t is the willingness to give it all they’ve got.  Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, sums up why that same concept is so important to all of us, “Getting anywhere in life, doing anything worth doing, it just takes so much effort”.  Any of us that have persevered through difficult projects, toddler years, or even remodeling projects know that nothing comes easy.  As a mother, I was relieved when Duckworth goes on to say that she believes that grit can be taught.  In an interview with Time Magazine, she summarizes the key elements:

Inherent fascination

Funny enough, we just aren’t as likely to stick to things we aren’t interested in.  While we can wish that our kids were fascinated by the same things that we are, we do have to accept it if the interest just isn’t there.  What we can do is to expose our kids to a wide range of activities and ideas.  When something ‘sticks’, we need to be willing to dive in with them.  If you really want them to be a soccer player but your kid would much rather practice the guitar, giving them the support structure to become the best guitarist they can be is likely better for their personal development and your relationship.  While we can all learn to push through and do things that we don’t want to do, true drive at the highest level happens with something that resonates with us. 

View frustration as a necessary part of the process.

This is an area we can help our kids.  I once read an article about a dad that asked his kids every night “what did you fail at today?”  The message was clear.  If they weren’t working hard enough to actually fail, then they weren’t really trying.  Michael Jordan’s famous quotes drive home the point: 

“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something.  But I can’t accept not trying.”

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeeded.”

 Duckworth advises that we can re-frame the way we view mistakes.  If we are able to see them as learnings, then we open ourselves to give our full effort.  Something to consider as we’re yelling at our kids during or after the game for their lapses…

Look for ways to make the work meaningful.  

We can all get lost in the grind of one day (or one practice) after another.  Borrowing a page from Simon Sinek, talking about WHY we’re putting in the work can motivate us all - including ideals like leadership and comradery, big picture goals like playing for their desired college team, and small goals like being the one chosen to take a penalty shot.  Sometimes, we just need a reminder. 

Growth mindset.

I think of growth mindset as the old adage and T-shirt slogan – “Hard work beats talent unless talent works hard”.  Having a growth mindset means that a person understands that they are on a journey that really doesn’t end.  Duckworth describes it by saying, “If you have a growth-mindset theory, that means that, deep down, you fundamentally think human beings are designed to change and grow”.

 The US Olympic Development program has a paper by Carol Dwek posted to their website titled “Mindset:  Developing Talent Through a Growth Mindset”.  She summarizes her findings as two rules:

  • “In a fixed mindset the cardinal rule is: Look talented at all costs. In a growth mindset, the cardinal rule is: Learn, learn, learn!”
  • In a fixed mindset, the second rule is: Don’t work too hard or practice too much. In a growth mindset, the rule is: Work with passion and dedication—effort is the key

The bottom line to a growth mindset is that we need to foster the belief in our children that this is a journey.  We aren’t ‘stuck’ where we’re at.  We can work hard and break through to the next level of performance.  However, we can’t lose the connection to the idea of allowing failure.  “Learn, learn, learn” doesn’t actually happen if the penalty kick is always successful.  We have to cultivate an environment where we encourage full effort AND celebrate the failures.