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.

Pre-school/season fitness camp

We held a brilliant 3 day pre-school/season fitness camp at the end of August to help all ages, abilities and genders get ready for a busy term of sport. No matter the sport/games being played, this mini camp was designed to cover all bases, help get the body sharp and hopefully prevent many injuries occurring in the coming weeks. Impressive attitude and work rate from all involved.

The camp ended with the kid’s first ever yoga session courtesy of  Pure Essence Yoga who was brilliant with them. Kids really bought into it and hopefully it not only helped them stretch and relax after working hard for a few days but also sowed the seed how beneficial it can be for them in the future.

 

Too much too young

I was recently contacted by the mother of a 13 year old client about training for a 15km event. I’ll be honest, I was shocked that someone so young would consider a distance that far but probably even more taken aback that a parent would seem to encourage it.

It got me thinking, perhaps the relatively recent craze of ultra distance adult races, in triathlon and in its individual components, has percolated through to junior athletes. For example, you only have to witness how young some of the kids are that regularly participate in parkrun every Saturday morning. I do worry when I see children under the age of ten having completed over 100 parkruns or seeing five or six year olds being hauled around by their parents.

 

I am going to be very clear – this is not a criticism whatsoever of parkrun, one of the greatest ever concepts in encouraging an active lifestyle. I am firmly in its biggest supporter stable having completed over a hundred of them and with my family contributing over a further two hundred appearances. We have an increasingly inactive and obese population which shows no signs of reversing so any initiative should be encouraged. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for families to spend quality time together and start the weekend off in a lovely way.

What am I saying then?

Parents and kids, there is no rush to run long distances. Running a longer distance your body is ready for (and this goes for adults as well as children) encourages bad form which only deteriorates over a longer distance. It also increases the risk of injury and quite possibly burn out in the long term. The bones and joints of the 10-17 age group are growing rapidly and repetitive strain and impact on their tendons and growth plates from 5km is not ideal.

 

Look after your body, you only have one of it and you don’t want to risk doing too much damage to it so young and affect its ability to perform in the future. Concentrate on good form, posture, stability, coordination and strength (this will vary with age). Concentrate on speed and getting quicker over shorter distances. Do a junior parkrun if you are aged between 4-14 instead of 5km every week, do a mile race, do a junior cross country event, walk/run off road on hills if you can, do sprints, skipping, lunges and use resistance bands. Aerobic capacity and endurance can wait. You’ll benefit so much more in the long term if you can nail the core fundamentals of running technique.
I’ll leave you with the below quote from Michael Jordan, the best basketball player and arguably sportsman ever…
When I was young, I had to learn the fundamentals of basketball. You can have all the physical ability in the world, but you still have to know the fundamentals. 
Michael Jordan

Coaching motivation

Make no bones about it, today’s environment is hyper-competitive. From getting into certain schools, sports teams, music academies and drama schools right through to University courses and the first graduate job, life as a post-millennial or Gen Z can be cut throat. 

Or to put it more accurately, for the parent or coach it can be. It is the duty of the parent and coach to try and reduce the effect of this on the children. The temptation is to push them – push them to work harder, do more clubs, train harder or for longer, all in the goal for perfection. 

This won’t work, perhaps not in the short term but definitely not in the long term. Motivation and the desire to succeed needs to come from them and not be forced upon them by a coach or especially a parent. It will backfire, often spectacularly, at some point in the future if it is.

It might be difficult to see in the cut and thrust of all this competition and it can be heartbreaking to see loved ones miss out on medals, teams, PBs, grades, etc but I strongly believe that mastering self motivation in something that catches their interest is more important and beneficial for their future as life as an adult when it all gets more serious.

If a kid can find and utilise motivation themselves then they are well on the right path to a fulfilling and successful life. When they leave home for College, University or for a career then those who are used to being motivated by others stand a far less chance of making it. 

How can kids garner this self-motivation and can it be ‘taught’? These are the three main bits of advice I would give parents:

  1. Encourage participation across a number of subjects, fields, sports, interests at a young age and throughout early childhood years. Don’t specialise too early, even if an early talent is prevalent and push them to explore more. Participating in a broad spectrum of activities strengthens the body and mind in a number of different areas and ways and injuries, illness and lack of interest can also stop promising careers at any point. At some point there is a strong chance that something will catch their attention and once that flash of interest is found, encourage them to pursue with all their passion.
  1. Whether you are a parent or a coach (or even both), be a role model. If you’re a parent, set an example on attitude, punctuality, effort and energy levels, work ethic and the willingness to go the extra mile. Kids copy and learn from adults so get to classes on time or early, don’t moan or quit because of the weather or the time of day, don’t be negative, always accentuate the positives and look on the bright side. Passion and energy is contagious. If they see Mum, Dad or brother/sister working hard on a project and sacrificing certain things, training hard for an event whatever the level and persevering with learning a new skill then it is highly likely they will think this is the norm, copy and bring it into later life with them.
  1. Be coachable. Listen to advice, respect authority, don’t let them think they and you know it all and always want to find ways to improve. As the saying goes, ‘Uncoachable kids become unemployable adults’

Goodbye Strava!!!

It was the listening to The Brick Session podcast that finally made me do it. I quit Strava and have not regretted doing so for one minute. It feels great not being (subconsciously) judged or people making vague assumptions or commenting on your training. Even without Strava, I had two different people look up a parkrun result of mine recently with one commenting that I had been beaten by someone else and the other asking ‘how my ego was’ after my wife recorded a quicker time at a different parkrun. What both these people didn’t know I was pacing a Y6 kid round to a 20 second PB. Kudos to that kid!

Let me start by saying that I think Strava is a great tool. The social interaction, the (sometimes) knowledge sharing, the (mild from some, heavy by others) competition element and the common interest in staying fit and healthy are all admirable traits for a social media platform. 

But I’ve realised it’s just not for me. On the face of it, it would seem an ideal place for a loner like me. Other than some excellent squad swimming sessions, I don’t belong full time to any particular club and haven’t the time or the reliability of a regular diary to commit to rigid training sessions/groups that are intended for the masses so it would it make sense for me to stay connected with likeminded athletes and triathletes. Initially, it did and it served a purpose and I enjoyed it for a while.

What changed though?

I slowly came to realise that I really didn’t care what other people thought or think of my training. I plan my training schedule around work and family commitments which come first so there might be a myriad of reasons why I did that particular session – and I wasn’t going to bore people with explaining that in the title. Still, people would either give kudos (which some religiously do) or comment on them. I would still check a few times a day when I couldn’t care less what other people thought. It was time wasting and distracting.

On top of this, I couldn’t give a monkeys nuts about how fast people go over a particular (wind assisted, peloton-led) segment or course and it depresses me that people care so much about this. And don’t get me started on having to wade through 3km cycle commutes to work as well as yoga or stretching sessions being recorded. Really, are people that addicted for approval!!!??? It was all becoming too pointless.

What I love is chewing the fat about training methods, techniques, fads, etc. I love talking about why people do these activities and what benefit it brings them. I love talking about how to get kids and adults physically active. Strava doesn’t intend to meet these demands so there was little point in getting distracted by something that was not adding any particular value. 

So, taking some downtime at the end of the summer and listening to the podcast in the Spanish sun closed the deal for me. Strava app deleted for the winter. I won’t rule out returning but time to get the head down over the winter without thinking of taking a photo and what to call my workout during the session.

Winter well and please like this post and give me kudos if you agree 😜