Beyond the Scoreboard
By Greg Bach
The expectations, pressures and ups and downs that accompany competing in sports breed many challenges for young athletes.
As well as those who volunteer to coach them.
Helping young athletes strengthen their mental games for handling those and other challenges that come their way can lead to not only greater performances but also embed those all-important life skills that they’ll tote into adulthood.
“I agree on the importance of making sports fun, but if kids learn to play differently would they have more fun? And I absolutely believe that that’s the case,” says Dr. Nick Molinaro, a New Jersey-based performance and sports psychologist who has worked with Olympic champions, PGA Tour golfers and collegiate and teen athletes. Molinaro and Celeste Romano are the authors of Beyond the Scoreboard: Learn It Through Youth Sports, Carry It through Life.
“One of the reasons we wrote the book is to help parents and coaches understand that it’s essential how they are training players because most of what kids are believing is that positive reinforcement is important and that confidence is important,” Molinaro says. “And when they’re 13 years old if they’re not feeling confident why would they go on to play the sport in high school?”
The book covers a wealth of material: how to help athletes foster internal motivation; helping children practice awareness and intention on and off the field; helping a young athlete be accountable; effectively introducing pressure to enhance practice sessions; and much more.
“It’s never about winning – it’s always about excellence,” Molinaro says. “If we can teach kids these basic skills now about how to go through life they are going to be more competitive, and there are negative and positive factors that influence that.”
We caught up with Molinaro to get his insights on some of those factors – confidence, imagery, positive reinforcement, and more. Check out what he shared:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: There is so much talk these days on building confidence in kids and helping those with low confidence, so what is the key for coaches to focus on?
MOLINARO: A lot of parents, coaches and athletes believe that confidence is a good predictor of performance. But if the theory is that low confidence produces low performance and high confidence produces high performance, how does someone with low confidence produce high performance? So there is a flaw in that whole theory.
Coaches need to pay attention to what the child is doing versus what the child feels about what they are doing or feels about what they’ve done. I always stay away from feelings because they are overrated, and they don’t tell us the truth. There are no real studies that will tell you that you can affect confidence other than by the performance itself. If you saw me work with any player, I never talk about confidence and I never talk about winning. I always talk about execution. When I work with athletes, we zero in on very specific aspects of their functioning and that’s what we pay attention to.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How important is it for coaches to deliver positive reinforcement and what happens if they go overboard with the praise when it may not be warranted?
MOLINARO: Now the problem with our culture is that we have relied so much on positive reinforcement that when a player doesn’t hear it they feel bad, their muscles tense up, and as a result their performance falls apart. Our culture has based its learning on positive reinforcement and I’m not saying it’s unimportant, but it’s overdone.
You can tell them that they did a good job, but you have to be specific about what it is that they did. So when a coach says “great job” what if it’s not? And what’s happening in colleges today is that because kids have not learned to fail, they become so anxious because they can’t handle adversity.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: So how should coaches approach providing feedback and corrections to young athletes?
MOLINARO: If a coach says to a child, “I noticed when you were batting you dropped your right shoulder, let me show you what to do,” that’s not a bad thing, that’s what coaching is. Let’s not look at it as good or bad, but our culture says we always have to look at it as good or bad. When you are being truthful the kids are going to learn at a higher level of performance and they’re going to learn it quicker.
Saying to a kid “great job” is worthless. If you’re instructional – saying to a kid “wow, I liked the way you backpedaled on that, I liked the way you moved to the right, I liked the way you came through the ball” – that’s what is going to help them perform at a higher level. When their feelings change that’s a byproduct of telling them the truth.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Negative images pop into kids’ heads all the time, so how can coaches help them replace it with a positive one?
MOLINARO: You can’t have a positive image and a negative one at the same time. So the task is simple conceptually, but the degrees of difficulty are different. It’s what I tell kids all the time: I want you to imagine you have a remote control in your hand and I want you to put on a negative image and I want you to immediately change the channel to a positive one. And you’ll be surprised at that simple instruction of willing yourself into another performance. Getting your mind where it needs to be is based upon what is called intentional shifting. That’s what I drill into kids and parents, too. All we have to do is have them change where their attention is.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: And that will impact a young athlete’s performance?
MOLINARO: All performance is based upon high level intentional shifting. You can shift your attention without moving parts of your body, but just your consciousness, by directing your intentional shift.
If you have a negative thought and I said I want you to have a positive image, when you shift that you are exercising the right side of the brain, which actually neutralizes anxiety in your brain’s functioning. In the golf swing, as an example, if you have a negative thought, what actually happens is you tense opposite muscle groups, so when you take the club back and you tense up certain muscles and relax other ones, and then you do the opposite when you are coming through, you actually fire both muscle groups at the same time. So your coordination, power and distance will be off.
When you get anxious, when you have a negative thought and if you don’t correct it with a positive image, your coordination will be off. That’s what I have to train athletes in and we can train any kid with these kinds of images.
Dr. Nick Molinaro
Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion Briana Scurry, author of MY GREATEST SAVE, on managing challenging moments and what young athletes in all sports can do to navigate them and stay focused on the present
Ryan Gareis, former University of South Carolina standout and current forward for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, on bringing energy, enthusiasm and a team-first mentality at all times
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance