The Elephant in the Room (Part 2)

Young athletes often get caught-up in a negative mindset created by the fear of failure. It can make them tentative and prevent them from making the most of their abilities. As we discussed in The Elephant in the Room Part 1, the biggest fear of young players is that they will make a mistake and be humiliated in front of their peers and their family.

One way parents and youth coaches can help alleviate this concern is to talk openly with the kids about the fear of failure. Coaches also can ease anxiety through simple confidence-building steps. One way is by getting players more involved in small, but meaningful ways.

Getting Kids “Into the Game”

There is a common misconception in sports that “getting everyone involved” is about getting everybody to score or giving all the players equal playing time.

But, “getting everyone involved” isn’t about numbers posted or minutes played.

On every team, in every sport, there are players who score more than others. And, some players get more playing time. That’s not an issue for most kids. At a fairly early age, they understand the “merit” system. They accept that better performing players will get more playing time in team sports.

However, when subs come in, they often almost “disappear” from play. They may be in the game, but they aren’t involved in any way. They are merely going through the motions because they know they’re unlikely to touch the ball.

In basketball, we often hear the expression “everyone needs their shots”. Really, it would be more accurate to say “everyone needs their touches”.

How often do we see a player who hasn’t gotten the ball in several minutes, make an unforced error when touching the ball for the first time? The player bobbles a routine pass, dribbles it off their leg, or misses a wide open layup.

It happens all the time, especially at the youth level.

Usually, these mistakes are the result of players being nervous. However, there are ways to help significantly reduce the number of these errors, especially by the less confident players who don’t a lot of playing time.

While some players will possess the ball and have more shot attempts than others, their teammates need to be part of the action. One effective way to accomplish this is through ball movement. Get each player on the floor involved. Something as simple as taking a dribble or two and then passing the ball makes players more comfortable. Just feeling the ball in their hands can help get into the flow of the game, mentally as well as physically.

It may not seem like much, but these brief possessions of the ball reduce much of the anxiety players feel coming in off the bench. It gets players immediately involved in playing, rather than thinking about playing. Knowing you have already caught a pass, or made a few successful dribbles inspires confidence and eliminates some of the fear that often is felt by young athletes. What to us may seem inconsequential is to a young athlete a small success they can build on.

This is why we recommend that basketball coaches have a play they can go to after substitutions that is specifically designed to create ball movement that gets all five players on the floor to touch the ball, even if it’s just long enough to make a pass. At younger levels, players will be more active and engaged, more willing to go after a rebound or try to get open for a pass. Even at older youth levels, getting into the flow of the game quickly, is a benefit. Players will cut harder, set better screens, attack the boards, and run back faster on defense.

Repetition Builds Confidence, Reduces Stress

Whether its handling a full court press in basketball, passing against zone coverage in football, or defending against corner kicks in soccer, there are certain scenarios that raise players’ anxiety. An effective way to overcome the fear these situations produce is to repeatedly work on those plays in practice. By recreating the situations that make kids nervous, they can learn through trial and error, without the pressures of a game setting.

There are various teaching strategies coaches can use in those situational practice sessions.

Adding extra players can be a useful tool. In basketball, a coach can have the offense try to break a press against seven defenders, then six, and then five. By the time the offense is facing the normal five defenders, the players find the task easier and less stressful. Adding restrictions that don’t exist in a normal game, such as only using part of the field, or limiting players to a finite number of dribbles, also are useful drills in helping kids understand and think about the game.

Players learn what works, and what mistakes to avoid. Once they understand how to approach these situations, repeatedly practicing how to handle that challenge will take a player from fear of failure to confidence. It’s a step-by-step process. You practice the game situation to understand it. You use repetition to gain familiarity which then brings you to confidence. You know what to do and how to do it. You’ve practiced it to the point where there are no surprises. You are now confident in your ability to handle that situation when it comes up in a game. There no longer is anything to fear. It’s a great feeling. A team can go from consistently turning the ball over against a full court press to consistently beating the press and scoring against it.

Are mistakes still going to be made? Of course they are. But if players are taught how to handle pressure situations and can raise their level of confidence through repetition, they will be more comfortable when facing adversity.

Teaching Young Athletes

The other critical component is the way youth coaches think of their position. The primary role of the coach is to teach. Coaches who view themselves more as teachers, than as tactical coaches, tend to have better results. That’s because they are dealing with kids. Youth sports is not a younger version of professional sports. It requires a different approach.

Again, the more we reduce fear, the freer kids are to relax and play with confidence. That’s why yelling at young athletes tends to be counterproductive. It doesn’t help them learn. It just brings more fear into play. Most of the time, it causes young athletes to go into shutdown mode. Kids aren’t well equipped to handle criticism in a group setting. They don’t have the social and emotional skills of older athletes.

Young athletes want to improve. They want to learn. What they don’t want is to be is belittled in front of their teammates. With young players especially, there is one thought in their minds after making a mistake — “Is the coach going to embarrass me in front of my friends?”. If players feel that making a mistake will result in being humiliated or benched, they are apt to shut down and not try to make plays. They become spectators. The fear of making a mistake becomes more powerful that the desire to make a play.

This is what ruins the enjoyment of playing team sports for many young athletes. The fear of failure and the embarrassment from making mistakes can take all the fun out of it.

So, if your goal as a coach or parent is to help young athletes get the most out of a team sports experience, the approach you take in addressing their mistakes is important.

Just keep reminding yourself that the game is about the kids, not us.

Positive Reinforcement Works

Helping a young athlete understand what happened and how to make a better play the next time, is effective. Kids will accept correction if it isn’t done in a way that embarrasses them. When children know that you have their best interests at heart; that you are trying to help them improve, their effort and attitude likely will reflect it. They will listen and respond in a positive way.

The research is clear.

Young athletes respond best to instruction that is specific, patient, and supportive. Skill-building drills and games that are fun, ones that keep all of the players active and involved, have been proven effective.

One last element regards being positive. This concept is sometimes misunderstood by those who think that young athletes shouldn’t be “coddled”; that they need to learn to be tough-minded or risk falling behind their peers.

Praise should not be empty or lack foundation. It shouldn’t be given when it isn’t deserved. To do so makes it meaningless. Kids know fake praise when they see it. However, we often miss opportunities to reinforce good performance because we place our emphasis on the overall result of the play or outcome of the game.

For instance, sometimes a player will make a very good play, but because it didn’t lead to a score, we miss the opportunity to reinforce the value of that play. A player may make the right decision on defense, but the other team still scores. That doesn’t mean that the player failed.

This is an important distinction.

Praise Should Not Be Tied Solely to the Outcome

Youth coaches should recognize and compliment good plays, whether they lead to a score or not. Poor plays that have a good result should be used as a teaching opportunity.

Take these two common cases in youth basketball.

A player tosses up a wild shot that goes in. Another makes a strong drive to the basket, but misses the layup. The player who makes the wild shot should be encouraged to get a better look next time down. The player who missed the lay-up should hear positive reinforcement of the move he made, and then be given specific instruction on how to finish that play the next time. We want that athlete to feel encouraged to try again, not give-up because of negativity.

When we reinforce good plays and not just good outcomes, we send young athletes the message that improving skills, and learning to play the game the right way, is important.

Above all, let’s remember this.

This is About Them, Not Us

These are kids. Let them have fun. Be positive. Support them.

It’s their game, not ours.

Let’s all embrace the concept that developing skills, teamwork, and a desire to improve, have greater importance in youth sports than just the outcomes of games.

The way young athletes play their sport likely will be reflected in their actions and behaviors the other 22-hours of the day. Let’s be sure we are modeling and reinforcing the behaviors and values that will help these young people become, not just better athletes, but better people.

Photo Credit: Kristofor & Rebekah via Flickr | Co-Written by Matt Wilson


  1. […] up in Part 2, We’ll explore ways youth coaches can help young athletes overcome the fear of […]

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