Developing resilience and mental toughness in kids

I’ve wanted to write about developing resilience and mental toughness in kids for a while but everything else has got in the way. Trying to coach at schools and clubs, run a football team, submit documentation and programmes for my British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 2 Diploma, organise the London League Junior Series for 2020, help establish London’s first (to my knowledge) open water aquathlon race and training for a marathon has been taking some time up. Oh, I forgot being a full time taxi for my kids and trying not to ignore my wife…

Why this topic? I see many able (not talented, that word is for another day…) kids across a number of different sports and age ranges but I know this is only one component that will help them succeed in the future. They (will) need grit, determination, toughness, discipline, motivation and resilience as well. Ability might get you through the door, but those other attributes will help you stay in the room. 

Taking part in any sport at a young age should all be about having fun, keeping them involved in some form of physical activity and not be results focussed. However, how you approach taking part in some of these sessions/training and the process involved should be given careful consideration. If you can install good habits and ethics at an early age then it is much more likely to benefit you through childhood (when it becomes more results focused, either on the field or in the classroom) and into adulthood (on the career ladder or personal life). So, my advice to any kids out there…

  1. Be prepared to fail – try, learn, try, learn, repeat. That famous Michael Jordan quote: 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 succeed. Sure, get annoyed and have a cry/sulk if you lose or not get what you’ve aimed for but use that as fuel to succeed. Use failure as a learning experience, to know where to improve and try again. 
  1. Stop making excuses; be honest with yourself and own your mistakes. Assess why you’ve failed. Ask coaches/teachers why you’ve not been selected, what went wrong and what you can do to improve. Don’t think that asking questions is a sign of weakness and be prepared to take constructive comments with how it is intended – to help you improve. You might not agree with it all but you now know what they are looking for and what it is expected.
  1. Know your stress triggers and develop a mantra. This is a complex area with people far more qualified than me to advise on it, especially with kids. However, please be open to having conversations with parents and/or coaches to develop a strategy when you are feeling in pain or negative stress (distress) situations. Don’t think of pain as a weakness, learn to embrace it and devise ways to deal with it – whether that is through controlled breathing, visualisation or reminding yourself why you’re doing something, ie. your underlying motivation. Good stress (eustress) shouldn’t be dismissed, whether that is being a favourite in a race, expected to do well, being captain or living up to expectation. Again, identify the triggers and brainstorm solutions to help get through them. Try different ones and find something that works for you.
  1. Don’t quit at the first opportunity. A lot of sessions don’t go to plan or you feel terrible before and during the session. Don’t quit if it’s a bit rainy, windy, cold or hot (of course there are limits but rarely in the UK), tough it out and thrive knowing that a lot of your competitors won’t be turning out. Your event(s) might be in similar conditions so you need to be prepared for every eventuality and you will be keeping up with that consistency. Listen to your body if it is illness or injury related though.
  1. Be consistent. If you’re attending your sessions, working hard and doing any extra ‘homework’ required you will be rewarded. It might be not be next week or even next month when you will see any progress and you might have to wait until next year(s) but it will pay off at some stage and you will be rewarded. Success doesn’t happen overnight, stick to the plan and the process and the improvements will come.
  1. Sleep. And then sleep more. I know it’s cool for a lot you to show off about going to bed late but it will have a detrimental effect, both in terms of physical performance and also your mental health. You will get ill, injured and break down if you’re not getting enough rest and sleep. You won’t then have the energy, willpower and desire to get through those hard sessions, get up early to train or find something from somewhere at critical point in a particular event. Good sleep also means a clearer mind which enables better decisions to be made during times of stress.

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