By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
Any coach who works with teenage athletes knows they will have to deal with a lot of weirdness. Biologically and psychologically, children reach puberty earlier and adulthood later. That leaves a lot of room in the middle for an extended period of awkwardness, which often leaves parents and coaches scratching their heads in disbelief.
An excellent article in The Wall Street Journal summarizes a number of new research findings, which can be useful to the coach and parent. The main new thinking is that there are two different systems in the brain and body that help to turn children into adults. The first of these systems has to do with the psychology of emotion and motivation. And the second brain system deals with control.
With regards to emotion and motivation, it turns out that teenagers do not underestimate risk, but that they overestimate rewards. Essentially, as noted in the WSJ article, teenagers find rewards more rewarding than adults do.
In an interesting study, Laurence Steinberg of Temple University did an MRI study of teenagers performing simulated risky driving maneuvers, and noted that the teens took more risk when they were being watched by another teen. The teens wanted social reward and the respect of their peers.
The second system, dealing with control, roughly translates to long-term planning. How do kids learn to do things they will need to do as adults? In the past, skills were often learned by practice, making errors, and then finding ways to correct the errors. Kids these days are expected to be “right” and have fewer chances to fail. And in the relatively long-ago past there were even apprenticeships to teach technical tasks and trades.
So what’s a coach to do? Is this just psychology-junk that has absolutely nothing to do with youth sports? Well, no.
Coaches can effectively incorporate sport psychology techniques into their coaching. An article titled “Developing Young Athletes: A Sport Psychology Based Approach to Coaching Youth Sports” offers some tips:
* Emphasize reward. Allow leadership roles by letting players lead drills.
* Emphasize peer respect. Consider allowing players to select a drill or tactic during one portion of a practice session. The coach might offer two or three drills for a designated player to select.
* Consider opportunities for mentorship. In a club, it might be possible for older players to work occasionally with younger players. In a high school team the upperclassmen can work with underclassmen.
* Allow the young athlete to provide feedback, rather than always telling them what they did right or wrong.
It’s not practical to do these every practice session, but you might be able to do at least a few of them once in a while. And the reward for you could very well be a little better performance, and a little less weirdness.
(Dev K. Mishra is the creator of the SidelineSportsDoc.com injury management program for coaches. He is an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Burlingame, Calif. He is a member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation and has served as team physician at the University of California, Berkeley. This article first appeared on SidelineSportsDoc.com.)