Developing Young Players’ Confidence and Playing “… at a level”


Developing confidence in young players is crucial not only for their development but just to keep them playing.  The key to development is to keep them in the game.

Confidence is vitally important in order for young players to advance in their development.  Ask any and all professional players in ANY sport and they will tell you that CONFIDENCE is the KEY.

There is a lot of (for lack of a better term, let’s call it “elevator”) activity in youth sports; movement “UP” and although technically players are not moved “DOWN” they are NOT moved “UP”.  They are kept in the SAME PLACE.  Elevator … going UP or … GETTING OFF at a floor and NOT going up!!!

We all know “the deal” in these leagues.  Youngsters are moved to a higher league or moved into an older age bracket so they will compete against bigger, better players.  They are asked to play for All Stars or on travel teams.

Or not …

Parents and coaches and most importantly of course the players themselves get crazy over all this.  Emotions are racing along in fifth gear.  Vrooom  vrooom vroooooom!!!  Parents get to brag.  The players feel teriffic, at least momentarily and everybody is excited and feeling great.

Or not …

So what about the kids who DON’T get picked?  What about the kids who got picked and end up STRUGGLING at the “next level”?

What are the emotions of the parents and players when all that happens?  Most important of course are the young players.

As a Mental Skills Coach I teach that all emotions are good.  In the bottom line they are simply COMMUNICATING DEVICES: “chemicals” in our body (they’re called peptides) reacting to our thoughts.  Emotions tell us that we need to “DO SOMETHING”.  Feelings of sadness for example are triggered by a sense of “loss” or “missing” something/someone.  The feelings are there to initiate a response for us to “replace” whatever has been lost or is missing.  Feelings of anger are triggered by a “threat”; oftentimes the threat of loss.  The response, in general is to fight or “to protect” whatever we feel is being threatened.

There are eight primary difficult emotions and, at least in my estimation, INADEQUACY is the worst of them all because, if you follow the logic of the emotion triggering a response; the emotion of inadequacy is a feeling of powerlessness; a feeling that THERE IS NO APPROPRIATE RESPONSE.  You CAN’T DO ANYTHING to change or “fix” whatever the situation or condition you are faced with.

No being able to compete for example.  Not getting picked.

Unless an individual player is truly ready to play at that next level; not just in terms of skill; but in mental preparedness,  they will feel INADEQUATE; they will feel that they are trapped in a place where there is nothing they can do; no “fix” or “solution” to their problem; their helplessness.

All of a sudden that rush; that thrill of being selected to play UP is replaced by massive amounts of fear and even anger.  That feeling; that self-awareness and perception of “being a great player” is gone.

And the player who (figuratively) got OFF the elevator?  This player is also feeling inadequate.  Why NOT me?  Why wasn’t I selected?   I guess I must not be good enough.  Gosh, and after all the work I put in and … and …

… best case scenario is that it motivates the players who did not get “picked” to work harder; more intelligently.    Worst case scenario is that both individuals begin to think about quitting?

Baseball, basketball, and hockey all have both major and minor league systems.  Baseball is probably the most recognizable; with teams playing throughout the United States.

The organizations that operate these teams are always weighing the consequences of “playing at a level”; players doing two things: (a – gaining confidence and (b – being challenged.  I have a client right now in short season A ball with the Marlins.  He had a great season last year and is expected to be “moved up” this year.

It is a reflection of his performance which is, in turn, a reflection of his MENTAL SKILLS.

Oftentimes youngsters and their parents struggle with this dilemma.  I have a client right now who absolutely DOMINATED his 10U league; the best player in the league but his performance “froze” when he was asked to move up to play in “majors” with the eleven and twelve year olds.  All of a sudden the kids were bigger and specifically they threw harder.  He was afraid he was going to be hit when at bat.  He was afraid to strike out.  He was afraid that he would embarrass himself on defense.

The way to defeat inadequency is actually to CREATE SMALL SUCCESSES AND BUILD CONFIDENCE.

This particular young man had his first “success” by simply standing in the box through an entire at bat without flinching or backing out in response to fear of being hit.  He was thrilled.  “I stayed in there.”  He nodded and grinned.  His second triumph were two “swing and miss” strikeouts. He was elated.  “I’m not afraid anymore,” he exclaimed to me.  “I swung.  I swung.  I’m not afraid.”

Two days later; a weekend double header against the best team with the best (and biggest and hardest throwing) pitcher in the league.  Would you believe 4 for 5;  three singles and a triple!

I played in semiprofessional baseball for twenty years.  Before one of the games last year, a group of players were belittling and making fun of a player on the other team.  Bad enough when people point at you. Worse when they laugh at you but … when they do both at the same time, you’re in trouble.

The group, however, was interrupted by one of the player/coaches; a player who had played professional baseball.  The player/coach corrected the group; remarking that, as an individual advances through baseball it is not about being able to play baseball (“Everybody can play,” he remarked) … but being able to “play baseball … at a level.”

What does that mean; “… play at a level?”  How does it apply to working with youngsters and, as the competition levels advance, how does it apply to an individual player’s goals?  His development?  How does it apply to his “self perception; his confidence?

Interestingly enough, I helped recently with the evaluations for a pro tryout for the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball and the same issue came up.

The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball; in case you’re not familiar with it … and you’re probably not …  is at the highest level of minor league baseball in the country; a level many baseball professionals consider to be 4A; not triple A or major league but 4A;  somewhere in the twilight zone between Triple A and the major leagues.  The rosters are filled with players who have played in the majors, triple A, or in a foreign country.

Players such as Jose Canseco, Ruben Sierra, Tim Raines, , Dante Bichette, Pete Incaviglia,  Carlos Baerga, Jim Leyritz, , Edgardo Alfonzo … have all played in the Atlantic League.  Ricky Henderson played in the Atlantic League.  Yes … that Ricky Henderson; Hall of Fame Ricky Henderson.

So … boys and girls … this league is the real deal and just why is that important?

Because twice during the proceedings the manager addressed the group and explained the very same issue; the issue of “playing at a level”.  He explained that, even if the players at the tryout did not make the Bluefish, it did not mean that they couldn’t play professional ball.   It meant that they couldn’t play at this level; a level that was filled with players who had played at the highest levels available …

… YET!!!

We should approach our youngsters the same way; place them at appropriate levels and allow them to continue to compete and (here’s that word again) … “develop” and have fun?

The trick is to keep them coming back to the field to play.  When THAT happens they can’t help but get better.  It’s inevitable.

The process works when we work the process.

 Sometimes it is difficult to ask for help. 

 All of us could improve something with our mental approach to our game.  Sometimes we need help but don’t know who to ask … or how.  Contact me and I can explain my sports mental toughness programs and you can learn how to quickly and easily improve your own mental game or that of your son/daughter or the players you coach.

I work with athletes and their families from all over the world using ZOOM over the internet!!!







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