Q: How can I help my 12U player begin developing mental toughness as an athlete?
A: To excel in sports, athletes need more than just physical skills. They also need mental skills that will help them grow and succeed. And similarly to how they develop physical skills, their development of mental skills happens through consistent, deliberate practice.
Becoming a mentally tough athlete involves development of a whole package of mental skills, but essential among them, especially among top performers, is the ability to critically self-evaluate performance without a negative emotional attachment. Mentally tough performers can gauge their performance on a particular task and then use that evaluation to make self-improvement happen.
For the youth parent or coach, here's a simple exercise to begin developing this skill: regularly ask a player to evaluate his or her performance on a specific drill or task. Have the player rate their execution on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the best. Don’t ask the player to tell you that number. Have them keep it to themselves. Then ask the player to think about what they can do to make their own rating one point better. Then have them repeat the task. This technique gets player to focus on the process of self-improvement (and to realize that it's a process). A poor execution is just an opportunity to become better. This type of exercise only takes seconds, but it helps athletes start developing the growth mindset that is an essential foundation of a mentally tough athlete.
The author, Ken Martel, is a longtime coach, having guided numerous USA Hockey tournament entries and a pair of NCAA Division I teams. He played collegiately at Lake Superior State, winning a national championship in 1988.