Youth Sports Psychology: How to Ensure Your Athletes Stay Motivated and Have Fun | STACK Coaches and Trainers

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Youth Sports Psychology: How to Ensure Your Athletes Stay Motivated and Have Fun

November 2, 2012 | Giovanni Grassi

Youth Coach
As coaches, we are encouraged to motivate our young athletes to get better every day—and to have fun. But do coaches really know how to let young athletes have fun and take their activities seriously at the same time? Most coaches don't want to deal with the kids who want to have fun. They want athletes who will play to win.

Before they reach high school, children face pressure every day from their parents ("did you do your homework?") and from their peers. Added pressure from coaches can affect a child's psychology and development patterns.

Young children are incredibly vulnerable to things that are said to them, and they can be easily upset by negative talk. It can affect their self-confidence, which can make them shy away from playing sports. Ruining children's self-confidence can even cause them to go into depression, feeling like they can no longer succeed in sports and thinking negative thoughts about themselves, which can ultimately affect their everyday lives.

Coaches and parents should take the time to understand youth sports psychology, because understanding a child will ultimately make a difference in keeping that kid active in sports. Here are three elements to keep in mind when dealing with very young athletes.

Understanding the Young Athlete

Know the type of child you are dealing with. Some coaches want to create an intimidating impression when dealing with kids. Well, coaches, throw away those big egos—you are dealing with kids here, and kids want everything they do to be as much fun as possible.

It's okay to be a little harder on kids who can handle it, but know your athletes. A little added pressure can be a great way to challenge certain youngsters. But having all of your athletes meet the same expectation is inadvisable, because some kids do not have the same capabilities as others. It's important to have a system that accounts for different abilities. For example, if you're running a shuttle, don't force every kid to try to beat one time. Separate them into groups and give them different times based on their athleticism, while slowly encouraging them to run faster by lowering their times. This will improve both performance and self-confidence.

Learn more through STACK's Sport Psych Guide.

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

This is where you'll either win or lose most of your young athletes. Once you understand the type of kids you are dealing with, think about how you can motivate them, by positive or negative reinforcement. Most kids shut down with negative reinforcement, but there is a way to do it without making that happen. Instead of saying "that was horrible!" or yelling at a kid for doing the wrong thing, talk to him one-on-one and let him know what he did wrong and how to fix it.

Positive reinforcement gets kids feeling better about themselves and wanting to come back to you for coaching and motivation. At the end of practice, always tell your kids "great job" or "excellent work today." Never leave them with doubts or cause them to feel like they have to do more or they cannot succeed. This only adds more pressure.

Coaches, always gather your kids at the end of practice and talk about the things they did well, and then the things that need improvement. This sets a tone for positive reinforcement through negative reinforcement. Telling them, "This is an area that needs improvement" is better than saying, "You did this completely wrong." Then, just before you break, go back to positive reinforcement and tell them that they are all doing a great job.


Kids love having fun. Don't run your practices like a military camp. That will give kids a bad view of the sport they want to play and will make them quit. Have some type of demand system, but don't coach your kids like you would high school students. Make sure to explain the benefits of drills so the kids understand what they are working to achieve. Ultimately, you need to let kids be kids.

Get the help you need to become a better coach through STACK's Coaches and Trainers page.


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