More parents of 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds are calling sport psychology professionals these days. Improving the mental toughness of a child seems a bit premature regardless of competitive goals. Is this an example of parental caring run amok? Perhaps, but parents seem like too easy a target on this one. Maybe they are seeing the consequences of developmentally inappropriate stresses being placed on the pre-teen athlete by the greater, sporting environment.
An 11-year-old hockey player brought things into focus a couple of years ago. In discussing the season he just began, he stated things are a bit tough because, “Coach reminds me every practice that I’ve got good skills, but if they don’t show up on the ice he’ll have to put me on the bench.” The athlete also made it clear that the year before, this same coach just asked him to have fun and play hard.
In one season—more precisely, one off-season—youth sport coaches seem to turn off of Sesame Street and onto Mean Street.
This is really confusing to kids—and stressful. Adults may be able to turn their competitive foci on and off, but this is a far greater challenge for a preadolescent. In reality, pre-teens are just beginning to intellectually grasp the concepts of winning, losing, and competition. “Just beginning” means issues related to the outcomes of competitive sport—such as playing time, starters and non-starters, A, B, and C teams—are not fully understood. Therefore they become unduly stressful.
Understanding one’s relationship to others in the world is a long-term developmental process (consider the works of Piaget, Kohlberg, and the rest). Keeping this in mind, fully embracing and cognitively grasping competition (our measurement of ourselves in relationship to others) evolves over years. This wisdom does not magically manifest itself after one short off-season. While hockey may get more “serious” as one becomes a squirt, the human mind cannot truly grasp “serious” sporting outcomes until at least the teenage years. Adults may be ready for an abrupt transition to scoreboard, standings, and select teams, but at 10 years of age, youth are ready to begin to grasp nuances of offense and defense with the outcome of the game just being a by-product of such learnings and luck.
Beyond simple cognitive readiness, the emotional consequences of pressures to live up to coach and parent expectations are also likely magnified during this age of development. In a telling piece of research, Hellstedt in 1990 noticed that pre-teen/early teen athletes perceived greater pressure from parents when compared to mid-teenage athletes. It is reasonable to consider that parental pressure did not change dramatically over these few years, but rather the athletes’ understanding of parental pushing have. The coach that praises an athlete’s skill level then mentions that without it playing time may vanish is likely trying to remind the athlete of his relevant skills, albeit in a very adult manner. Unfortunately, the athlete clings to the words of adults and strives to please. Rather than hearing the compliment, the young athlete grabs onto the veiled threat. Later in life, young-adult brashness may minimize the mental consequences of threats to playing time, but this takes fairly developed understandings of sports and competition.
Just as sporting skills gradually develop with age, practice, and experience, so do sporting mindsets. If an 11-year-old would not be asked to compete with the same speed and strength as a professional, why should they be asked to display the same mental maturity? Preadolescence is a time where Big Bird, Oscar, and Elmo are left behind, but one is not ready to tune into Breaking Bad. Preteen sport needs to be coached with this transitional understanding—for the kids, for performance, and for fun.