Hi, my name is Erica.
And I’m not a psychologist.
I’m just a woman in the middle of Baltimore, Maryland with a passion for coaching kids, an affinity for Eastern philosophy, an obsession with fashion, and a bookshelf stacked with science fiction novels.
But wait. Don’t leave me quite yet.
Before you say, “to hell with this!” and click out of this site and search for an expert with a phD, or peruse The Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, hear me out.
Admittedly, I’ll be the first to claim I’m no expert on sport psychology.
But over the past seven years, I’ve coached hundreds of players in the vulnerable environment of the weight room, have experienced the myriad of mental roadblocks athletes face throughout their careers, and have tackled these battles to better the life of my players.
I’ve heard kids speak about their traumas.
I’ve seen comparison.
I’ve witnessed jealousy.
I’ve heard negative self talk.
I’ve seen the detriments of social media.
I’ve seen kids out of alignment with their goals.
I’ve overheard gossip and drama (from parents, too).
I’ve seen self worth defined by Snapchat filters.
I’ve seen it all.
And I’m terrified.
In fact, the most jarring experience I’ve had as a coach was when a college athlete came into my facility with her head in her hands, tears pouring out of her eyes, and her breath gasping, “I don’t know who I am anymore. I’m so overwhelmed with everything, Erica.”
After giving her a big, sweaty hug and listening to her brain dump her emotions to me in my office, I couldn’t help but ponder, ‘this is happening to so many athletes. She is not alone.’
Let’s face it: the youth sports world is messed up nowadays.
So messed up, it makes my stomach knot.
So messed up, it makes me want to radio silent my social media.
So messed up, it makes me mute conversations on Twitter.
So messed up, it makes me want to say, “screw it!” and ride away on a unicorn.
As cool as unicorns are, escaping into a magical abyss of fantasy won’t solve anything.
Instead, I am going to dive in on actionable steps to help everyone face the madness with strength and courage.
And for the sake of brevity, I’ll hit you with the bullet point outline. This ain’t no peer-reviewed research study that will make your eyes gloss over from data, science or footnotes.
Without further ado, here is a cacophony of thoughts on mental skills training for youth athletes. Written by not a psychologist:
1. Take inventory of your sports life.
Who are you spending the most time with? Who are you following on social media? Who are you engaging with? What coaches are you playing for? What food are you consuming? How are you sleeping? What training are you doing? What conversations are you having with teammates, friends and your parents?
Take inventory of everything. But more importantly, jot down how each aspect is making you feel.
The questions above are a good start to discern whether or not your thoughts, conversations and actions are life breathing or soul sucking.
As an example, do you find yourself talking smack about how your teammate who got more playing time over you, rather than doing something to better yourself?
Or another one, are you following social media accounts that trap you in comparison, or that motivate you into action?
Get clear on everything. In fact, I urge you to become obsessed with taking inventory of your life as an athlete and what is serving you and what is not.
2. Get off social media.
I understand it’s hard to quit social media altogether, but gradually cut back on it in your life, especially during times of high performance.
This could mean avoiding your phone before team practice.
This could mean bringing and end to the before-bed Instagram scroll.
This could mean muting group chats before you play that championship game.
Slowly decrease social media use during times you need to dial in and be focused.
The last thing you want is to see someone leave a nasty comment on one of your photos before you play a big game.
Or your boyfriend liking another girl’s photo.
Or your friend blocking you on Instagram.
Or JoJo bows going bankrupt.
Trust me, your mental health and performance will blossom when you stay away from the noise.
3. Own your genius.
Humans are funny. We see life under a negative lens and only focus on the bad traits, weaknesses, and shortcomings.
But you know what? I say we do the alternative and hone in on the genius in ourselves.
What are your strengths? What are you known for? How do you contribute to your team?
Sure, maybe an athlete isn’t the most aggressive on the pitch, but are they maybe a good playmaker? Can they finish every goal? Can they win 50-50 balls?
Owning your genius boosts your confidence and allows you to create impact on your team. Isn’t that what team sports are all about: a culmination of athletes with unique traits who contribute to the greater whole?
Focus on what you bring, not what you lack.
4. Own your recovery.
The youth sports folks are in an unending battle of who can trainer harder, be busier, be on more teams, attend more camps, hire more trainers, post more Instagram workout videos, and acquire more college interests than their neighbors.
But what people don’t understand is as productive as they think they’re being, they’re in for a rude awakening when the law of diminishing returns kicks in.
Everyone needs rest, no doubt. Even professional athletes are getting more recovery than 10-year-old kids. People need time to regroup so they come back with tenacity and passion and creativity and clarity.
Put simply, recovery should not be demonized. It should be normalized.
Let’s say you are oscillating between withdrawing from the year-round grind and actually taking a month off in June.
Or let’s get really weird: let’s say you follow through with this, despite society’s expectations, you tell your coach, “to hell with you holding practices year-round!” and you post about it on social media:
“Hey Instagram, I’m taking a month off to be with family and travel and be a kid and pursue other hobbies and passions. #Recovery #DaysOff #TheGrindCanStop”
5. Surround yourself with athletes who are on the same page.
Do you want to play at a high level? College? Professional?
Good. Then stop training with athletes who don’t align with your goals.
There’s nothing worse than surrounding yourself with others who deflate your motivation, who undermine your mission, and who suck your energy.
As an example, I know many athletes who text each other about group gym workouts and hold each other accountable to come in for strength training with me. The support system is amazing to see, and they make each other better because of it.
What’s funny is, this can be applied to anything in life. Do you have friends who make you stronger? Do you have friends who propel you to live a healthy life? Do you have friends who make you a kinder person?
Or do you have friends who make you gossip? Who bring out the mean girl in you?
Taking the conversation back to inventory, do this with your friends as well. Your squad should uplift you, inspire you, and push you to level up.
I say this as I’m drafting this article with a good writing friend of mine sitting next to me.
Did he encourage me to get my exhausted butt out of bed this morning to write something meaningful for you guys?
6. Write down what you’re grateful for.
Just like gym training, you have to put in the reps with mental training.
So get your notebook out and start writing down gratitude thoughts. Doing this daily builds new connections in your brain, reminds you over and over again of what you have, and programs you to move out of a complaining mindset.
What can you be grateful for?
A body. A healthy body that can play sports. Access to nice fields. Amazing teammates. A caring coach. Limbs. Clean air to breathe on the pitch. The sun. Equipment. Water. A gym. Shelter. A bed. Good health. Eyes. Legs. Coffee.
You’d be surprised how much there is to be grateful for that what you write down will turn into a rolling, unending archive.
As mundane as keeping a gratitude journal sounds, doing it daily leads to magical results. Gratitude is genuine and authentic and reminds us that everything is fine. In fact, everything is freaking great.
7. Stop with the jealousy.
“So and so is so much further along than me.”
“Look where they committed to play in college, a better program than where I’m going.”
“So and so has scored more goals than me.”
Have you been jealous of other athletes? Chances are, you have used envy as an operating system and chances are, you have noticed the defeatist emotions you feel after the fact.
Hating on others and being jealous are the quickest ways to lose motivation, derail productivity, and feel flat. So instead, go do something to better yourself.
Truthfully, I can’t think of anything positive that is birthed from jealousy.
8. Remember, all of this matters, yet it doesn’t.
During my time living in Brazil and coaching kids in some of the poorest neighborhoods, I quickly learned what youth sports was all about.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so bear with me.
Not only did my identity as a hot shot athlete dissipate into nothing, I felt the accolades, All-American awards, and record breaking statistics slowly became meaningless the moment I immersed myself in a culture that loved the game for what it is.
A ball. Two goals. And your friends. That’s all it is, really.
And seeing the minimal equipment, access to fields and material embellishment, kids played for pure joy. I saw them do bicycle kicks and scrape their backs on concrete courts. I saw them smile ear-to-ear when one of their teammates did a rainbow move. I saw them cheer with exuberance after every goal. And they weren’t even playing for a state cup championship. It was just street soccer.
Now, looking back on my career as a soccer player, the best memories weren’t the awards and recognition as a record breaking goal scorer. The elation from the high was so fleeting that the ten second dopamine hit was nothing compared to the long-lasting friendships, connections, and life lessons I learn through the beautiful game.
These I will cherish forever and look back fondly on.
So as much as everyone thinks rankings, stats, college commits, awards and all that jazz matter, they don’t. I mean come: we’re on a rock floating through space, essentially going no where.
It’s an uncomfortable truth. Yet so relieving at the same time.
The moment you realize nothing matters – from the coach and parent gossip, to who-switched-to-what-team, to who-committed-to-where, to who-got-more-playing-time and all the nonsense- is the moment you stop taking yourself so seriously and living through your toxic ego.
Just like the kids in Brazil, enjoy the game for what it is, and find joy in the creativity and connection.
Mental skills training is a practice. Just like everything else – team training, gym workouts, homework assignments, and career promotions, it takes consistent habits over time.
Moreover, we need to take mental training as seriously as every other facet of our lives. And do so relentlessly.
Hopefully, these tips created an explosion of introspection for you.
Hopefully, they inspire you to make your mental health a priority.
And hopefully, they make you a better human being.
For more mental skills tips, get Total Youth Soccer Fitness