One of the greatest baseball players of all time is Yogi Berra, Hall of Famer for the New York Yankees. He was an All-Star catcher 18 times and won 10 World Series titles as a player, more than anyone in history. He was also known for his frequent malapropisms and puzzling statements such as this one;
“The game of baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical.”
If you were asked about the importance of mental toughness in sports, what would be your response? Your response will probably reflect your personal experience as a player or spectator and likely be influenced by your own mental toughness as a competitor.
Most coaches consider sports to be at least 50 percent mental when competing against an opponent of equal ability, and certain sports (such as tennis, golf and figure skating) are viewed as 80 to 90 percent mental. (Weinberg and Gould, 2015) For elite athletes in professional sports or in the Olympic Games, what sets athletes apart is their mental toughness since virtually all competitors have talent, skill, training and fitness. When events are decided by tiny margins measured in hundreds of a second or centimeters, mental skills are often the deciding factor. (Psychlopaedia, 2016)
Many athletes and coaches believe that if physical skills and physical conditioning are relatively equal, then mental toughness will make the difference between two teams or individuals in competition. A majority will admit that at the highest levels of competition including professional sports an athletes’ mental toughness under the pressure to win is the deciding factor. At the same time, when quizzed about when athletes should be introduced to mental toughness skill, a majority indicate during middle school or high school when sports become more serious and athletes are more capable of learning mental skills.
But what about youth sports? Is mental toughness relevant, important or critical for young athletes? It is widely accepted that mental toughness is a learned trait or group of skills that enables athletes to perform under competitive stress and those skills are rooted in the broader science of sport psychology. We believe that sport psychology principles and fundamental skills should be introduced from the very beginning when kids start to participate in sports. That means from ages 5-6 to start and building on that those basic skills through ages 7-12.
In our schools, we teach kids to begin to read and do mathematics by that age. The secret is to introduce the concepts in a kid friendly way so that players see the benefit, grasp and understand the idea and immediately apply the concept in practice or play.
Let’s take a look at some of the sport psychology principles that can apply to youth sports.
Intrinsic motivation is the key to capitalizing on kids’ natural interests and attraction to sports so that they have fun and enjoyment every time they play. Why else would they want to play tennis? Understanding what gets kids excited about playing a sport and sustaining their interest and enthusiasm is absolutely essential to reversing the recent trend of high dropout rates from youth sports. We’ve tried to bribe kids with extrinsic motivators such as premium racquets, trendy clothing, trophies, titles, and rankings that all become ineffective in the long run. We’ve got to figure out what “fun” means to kids and then make sure that practices, training and competition are all fun for kids.
Effort and energy have to be invested by kids for them to learn, compete and develop in a sport. Trying as hard as they can is really the only worthwhile goal because it is within their control. Rewarding kids only when they win sets them up for a lifetime of disappointment since at least half of all players lose every game or match. Encouragement and rewarding kids for exerting effort should occur every time they step on a court, regardless of the outcome. Of course, this assumes that our primary goal as coaches is to keep kids playing tennis.
Competence in any skill will build a young player’s self-confidence and belief that strengthens intrinsic motivation and stimulates giving full effort to learning tennis skills, tactics and testing them in competition. Skills need to be introduced in a way that rewards effort, produces rapid learning, and creates self-satisfaction.
Positive coaching techniques help reinforce the key factors listed above. Catch players doing something well, and reward or reinforce it immediately. Resist the temptation to point out errors of execution lest that error becomes a mental block. Instead suggest or help players figure out what they could do to further improve their skills through better preparation, body balance, swing speed or adding more spin to the shot. Likewise, help young players develop faster and enjoy playing more by insisting only on positive self-talk such as “I can do better, I’ll get it next time, or smooth and easy does it.”
Communication and cooperation with friends and competitors should be expected, taught and rewarded from the start. Learning how to be a good friend, partner and even opponent is perhaps one of most enduring values of sports. Frequent changes of partners on court, team drills and activities, cooperative drills to achieve a goal and off-court activities to get to know each other outside of tennis are all worth staging and will help reinforce positive attitudes and treatment of other players.
Character, caring for others and citizenship should also be a building block to the overall development of young athletes. Tennis is somewhat unique among sports with its emphasis on good sporting behavior both within the rules and the spirit of the game. Use those lessons to illustrate the principles of respecting the traditions of the game, respect for others including players, coaches, officials and parents who collectively make the tennis experience possible.
Kudos to the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for its ambitious new program effort “Net Generation” that is designed to attract young players and keep them in the sport. The components of this program follow the best current scientific information that shows how kids can actually learn physical skills at a rapid pace, enjoy success, enhance their confidence, make friends and have fun. The coaching curriculum is filled with tips for coaches to help deliver positive coaching, reward effort, acquire new skills rapidly and respect others and make good friends. Check it out at netgeneration.usta.com.
In the end, we see our goal as introducing kids to tennis and keeping them playing for a lifetime. To achieve those results, we believe kids need to develop mentally, emotionally and socially along with learning physical skills. By laying the foundations of sound psychological skills and attitudes through positive coaching the odds are good they will have fun and enjoy tennis. And as they age and reach higher levels of skill and more intense competition, these principles will only increase in significance toward competitive mental toughness.
1. Knight, C., Harwood, C., and Gould, D. ed. 2018. Sport Psychology for Young Athletes. Routledge, London-New York
1. Psychlopaedia. Australian Psychological Society, 2016. “Why mental toughness is the secret to success at the Olympics.” Accessed; 07/24/2018 https://psychlopaedia.org/work-and-performance/mental-toughness-secret-success-olympics/
1. Weinberg, R. and Gould, D. 2015 6th ed. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Human Kinetics, Champaign, Ill. P 248-249.
About Ronald Woods
Ronald B. Woods, Ph.D. has been a USPTA member for over 40 years which includes serving as president of USPTA Middle States, member of the Executive Committee, and frequent speaker at both national and division conventions. He was honored as USPTA Coach of the Year in 1982 and as a Master Professional in 1984. Ron is the husband of Kathy Woods, who is now the director of tennis at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Tampa in exercise science and human performance.
About E. Paul Roetert, Ph.D.
E. Paul Roetert, Ph.D., most recently served as the CEO of the Society of Health and Physical Educators - SHAPE America. Prior to that, he was the managing director of USTA Player Development. Roetert has published extensively in the fields of coaching education and sport science, including five books, more than 25 book chapters, and well over 100 articles. Currently, he is an educational consultant focused on coaching education and physical literacy. He is also an adjunct professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida.