Sports Psychology and Children - 3 Simple Principles

2013 Youth Basketball Jamboree - U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, South Korea - 23 March 2013

Photo Credit: USAG-Humphreys

Preparing a child mentally for sports is just as important as the focus on developing their skills.

Applying a few simple principles during your time as a coach or mentor will help make their enjoyment of the game of basketball a success now and in the future.

Principle #1 - Setting Goals

Children need to not only be able to achieve goals to install in them a sense of accomplishment and self esteem, these goals need to also be achievable by them personally. Setting team goals as the only sense of accomplishment does not allow the individual to develop a sense of their own achievement, above and outside of what the team accomplishes. By this I mean if your only goal as a coach is to win, then not winning is a failure, not just for one individual, but for ALL on the team.

Winning is not a bad goal, it has its place and is preferable to anyone who competes in any sport. But focus on goals that your young players have control over. Goals within the game like:

  • Number of basketball rebounds or assists
  • Number of hustle stats like... screens set, deflections, or charges taken
  • Giving my best effort
  • Being a good teammate
  • Showing sportsmanship

By making individual goals, you empower the child to succeed even if the team does not, and developing their sense of self at a young age is just as important as the team concept.

Principle #2 - Solving The Big "What if I... " Problem

Participating in any sport, but specifically a team sport is a lot of pressure for young people...

They feel like they are the center of the world, and that world is watching their every move! What if I miss this shot? What if I don't play good defense? What if I...the list in these young minds can be long and very remotely connected. What if my dad thinks Johnny is a better player than me?

Try and keep your players in the moment.

Teach them to focus on the “the next play” and not to worry about mistakes. Teach them to focus on their team and the court, rather than the spectators. Taking their focus off the questions and placing them on the action at hand, will help them to focus mentally and take the pressure away that these random self doubts will bring up.

Not to mention, they NEED TO KNOW it’s ok to make mistakes. That is how you learn!

Remind them that as long as they are truly giving their best effort, then “what if” doesn’t matter.

Principle #3 - Motivate Players by "Asking Them"

Not sure how to motivate your kids or what will work? Ask them!

Trust me, if anyone knows what is fun to kids, what they like to do and what they like to’s kids. Just remember any Christmas from your childhood and it will bring back memories of what you wanted and how motivated you were to get Santa to bring it!

Communicate with your kids, ask them what they like about basketball, what they don’t like. Listen to what they say. If there are certain drills they hate, then find out why and choose a suitable replacement. If they can’t seem to understand your inbounding play, then change it or find out how to motivate them to learn it.

Do they enjoy scrimmage time, lay up drills, or playing Donkey? Then instead of pushing them with “we are running this inbounding play till you dang well get it!”, motivate them with extra time doing a skill they find fun once they all concentrate on the inbound play.

This is just one example but I think you get the gist of it. Communicate then motivate!

The mind of our young athletes is just as important as their bodies. Do yourself and them a favor and get inside their heads, help them figure out what’s going on in there and be a coach and mentor who is helping them become a happy, fun loving and competent player, inside and out.

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


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Bill Flitter says:
3/4/2014 at 11:18:40 AM

I coached a 5th grade team this year. Early in the season we set game goals. For example 30%+ shooting and 25 rebounds (off & def). Magically, the team averaged exactly both for the season. The kids were motivated to take high percentage shots and fight for every ball. We never talked about winning the game. I told them if we hit our game goals we will be in great position to win the game. I let them make decision on things that didn't necessarily have a big impact on the game - like naming the plays or choosing between drill A or B. We went 13-1 with a 12 game winning streak. I'm a big believer in setting goals.


Ariel Rabe says:
2/12/2014 at 2:40:09 AM

From my own experience teaching, I've learned not to be critical at all. And let them know that it's all right to commit mistakes; telling them that it's the main reason why they are there doing the repetition, etc. The young ones show more excitement (but really sensitive, need to be careful on this end) than the older ones but which appear to be eager to learn, self-motivated to say the least.



Ken Satini says:
2/11/2014 at 3:40:41 PM

Gary -

Maybe you could direct him to this site where he could get some ideas >?? Obviously this is something you have to deal with carefully IF you are going to deal with at all.

Here is another thread you and he can go to for some ideas/thoughts.

Every kid reacts differently to the way we talk to them... and its up to US to know what works best .... a kick in the butt or a pat on the back.


gary says:
2/11/2014 at 3:19:30 PM

Hi love your site. My comment is actually a question. My sons Basketball coach is the complete opposite of what you describe. Things like screaming in their face during a timeout to the point of tears. Ruining kids confidence. My own son last year in 7th grade had more points than 3 whole teams in our division. This year he is averaging a dozen points less per game. Is hesitant to shoot. Our bigest game of the season he has 12 or 14 in the 1st half and make a stupid foul at halftime buzzer. This guy is screeming at him as the kids our coming off the court. Couldnt hit a shot in the third obviously affected but continued to play hard. We won with him sinking 10 of11 free throws. This guy actually looks for stuff to complain about. We as assistant coaches/and parents have hinted etc. But to no avail. Is there any way to reach this guy. He does more harm than good. We changed schools this year otherwise would not be here.


Homegrown2014 says:
2/6/2014 at 11:08:38 AM

I read all your articles and subconsciously have used these principles with kids in Jamaica, it works!


Coach Malcolm says:
1/29/2014 at 5:06:55 PM

I've used Principle # 3 quite often... Particularly in trying to build chemistry with a newly assembled team but also helping the understand the true meaning of "team", the players, coaches and parents are all I this together to develop these young people why not provide an opportunity for them to a say naming plays or what they see on the court or any decision that may make the overall situation better... Great article!!


John says:
1/29/2014 at 4:44:54 AM

This a clear understanding of what is important. Not only on the court but off the court as well. The concept should not only pertain to coaches but for parents also who are very much involved in pushing kids to be stars as such an early age. Sometimes, it is important for the child to learn how work hard and accomplish goals.


mike says:
1/28/2014 at 7:38:48 PM

Well said. we tell our 4th graders mistakes are learning opportunities, play ,smile and sweat.


Heather O'Brien says:
1/28/2014 at 7:46:46 AM

The importance of setting goals I feel is one of the most important successes of having a winning season. This year I took on the HS Softball team that was mercied every game the year prior. By setting beginning of the year goals, each players contributed something different to the team and while we did not win any games, we were NOT mercied every game and we scored more runs in this one year than the three prior combined.
Great information!


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