The Psychological Edge

The tools you need to help athletes succeed in sports


Recent research indicates that the number of athletes in high school sports has in 2017, reached an all-time high of 7,868,900. This represents an increase of 61,853 from the previous year. This means that a large percentage of American youth play sports. This also means that a large portion of families are focused on youth sports. Ninety percent of parents with children on a team attend at least one of their kid’s games a week. 68 percent say they talk at least every other day about games and practices. Many young athletes are on more than one league or a traveling team.


The trend in youth athletics is toward specialization and higher levels of skill and proficiency. This requires an intensified focus on excellence in one sport and year-round participation. Parents and coaches are increasingly focused on playing to win. Winning for parents and athletes might mean recognition that could lead to lucrative opportunities such as high school championships then college scholarships and perhaps a shot at the pros.


With an estimated 30 million youth participating in sports through high school, experts in sports medicine and youth athletics say they are increasingly concerned about the pressures put on athletes to excel. Not only are they at risk for emotional burnout, they may also develop injuries that plague them for a lifetime. Some will turn to steroids or other performance-enhancing substances to try to gain an edge. And some may give up on sports and exercise altogether.


This type of pressure can simply be too much for some athletes. Similarly, the goals of sports for young kids can differ dramatically from those of their parents and coaches. Pressure can also detract from the enjoyment and the necessary developmental learning that sports can offer.


Studies of why so many athletes quit sports consistently suggest that they find that sports are no longer fun. Many young athletes are initially drawn to sports to have a good time, make friends and learn something new. When sports become focused on excellence, skill, competition, hard-core training, and the final score, many chose to opt out. Research indicates that, for many college athletes, “enjoyment” is not a motivating factor for participation and performance.


There’s ample evidence that sports participation has important benefits for kids, including improved physical health and emotional well-being. Sports similarly teach life lessons in teamwork, discipline, leadership, time management, self-advocacy, socialization, and negotiation. However, athletes can’t profit from these benefits if they’re quitting sports early on.


Experts suggest that parents are instrumentally involved in promoting either a healthy or competition-crazed environment in youth sports.

“Parents tend to think everyone’s going to the Olympics,” says Patrick Mediate, a physical education teacher and coordinator of the strength and conditioning program at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, CT.


Many parents are a positive force, supporting their children and making sports participation possible by taking the time to drive kids to and from practice and games. Parents can also attempt to live vicariously through their children and can unintentionally undermine their child’s success. If parents are pushing their kids to do something they don’t want or pressuring them to succeed, they may be setting their children up to fail.


Parents and coaches who push too hard too young, particularly when they emphasize winning above all else, can easily wipe out a child’s motivation to play, says Dr. Henry Goitz, chief of sports medicine at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo.


Coaches and parents are critical factors in determining the success of young athletes. Coaches and parents can strongly influence the nature and quality of young athletes’ sport experiences. The priorities they set, the attitudes and values they transmit, and the nature of their interactions can markedly influence the effects of sport participation on children. Coaches play an especially influential role in the development and maintenance of performance anxiety, for they provide athletes with extensive evaluative feedback regarding their ability, performance, and potential in the form of response-contingent approval and disapproval. Critical or punitive feedback from coaches can evoke high levels of negative emotion in children who fear failure and disapproval, thereby contributing to a threatening athletic environment. In contrast with children who have negative interactions with their coaches, children who perceive their coaches as being supportive experience higher levels of sport enjoyment. Parents can have comparable influences on all of the above outcomes of sport participation, for they constitute an important element of the coach-parent-athlete social system known as the “athletic triangle”.


Successful athletes have not progressed to elite levels alone. The development of sustainable individual performance more often rests on a much larger systemic context. Athletic success is the result of collective commitment and concerted action on the part of athletes, parents and coaches. Individual achievements are strongly supported and achieved within a context and environment that supports champions.


The basic premises in working with athletes is the understanding that humans are inherently relational beings and exist in constant communication and constant interaction and influence. Systems are groups of people that exist in mutual interdependence. The functioning of any one individual in the system is subject to, and affected by, the system as a whole, and the system as a whole is equivalently subject to, and affected by, the functioning of every individual.


Therefore, maximizing success in athletics requires intervention at the level of the athlete, the coaching and the parents. The goal is to develop and maintain a context that collaboratively functions to support success. No one component is more or less important in overall outcome. The mindset and attitude of the athlete, the effectiveness of the coaching and the ability of parents to support and influence their child successfully are all interconnected.


For the context and environment to support athletic success, there must be: 1) a clarity of hierarchy or the appropriate delineation of power, 2) the cohesion of and effectiveness of each subsystem including parents, administration, coaches, athletes, and their associated boundaries between those subsystems and, 3) the adaptability or flexibility of the system as a whole to changes in context, structure, and input from the environment.


Strategic Solutions can help to influence in these areas at all levels. We are able to consult with individual athletes, athletes and their families, coaches, and entire teams all for the purpose of performance enhancement.