Helping young athletes not be so hard on themselves

Helping young athletes not be so hard on themselves


By Dr. Peter C. Scales 

I had a high school tennis player, a senior, who desperately wanted to be on Varsity. They weren’t that close the first year they tried for it, but they worked really hard at it to do well during JV season, trained hard, and took lessons in the offseason. When Varsity tryouts came the following year, they almost made it. They were the last person who didn’t. And when we talked afterward, they said, “I always fall short.”

And I said, no no no—you did NOT fall short. You did so well last season that you raised your goal, you increased your challenge, and actually expected to make Varsity instead of just wished it. You didn’t make it, but you played far better than last year—you grew enormously, increased the level of challenge to yourself, and became a far better player. Nothing about that is “falling short.” Everything about that is being a winner, no matter what the win-lose outcome was.

Our kids can be really hard on themselves. And to a point, this can be helpful for self-motivation. But when it reaches the point when their self-worth suffers because of the outcome of a contest, then it is no longer helpful.

Here’s a few quick tips for your mental toolkit to help your young student-athletes get some emotional space and broaden their outlook so they stay mentally and emotionally healthy even while giving it their all as competitors:

  • Stop using words like “good” or “bad” to describe a play they made. Stop THEM from using those words themselves. Use “effective,” or “ineffective,” “worked,” “didn’t work,” “productive,” or “wasn’t productive” instead. That alone helps make it all less personal.
  • Ask more questions in practices, instead of jumping to judgments. Freeze plays after both effective and ineffective plays, and ask them why did you do what you just did? What were you hoping to accomplish with that play, move? What was your purpose? Then genuinely be interested in their answer. This helps kids see that the game is a series of puzzles to solve, which means asking and answering questions about who’s doing what to whom, what’s working and what isn’t, etc., and helps get them focused on the fun of problem-solving instead of worrying what the coach will think of them for blowing that play.
  • Reward mistakes instead of criticizing them. This sounds strange and counter-productive. But a team where it’s risky to make mistakes is a) a team that is no fun to play on, and b) a team where players won’t get better, because guess what? They’ll be afraid to try new things. Mistakes are necessary to improve but coach has to create a mistake-friendly zone! So it’s something like, “I love that you just tried what we’ve been working on! Excellent! One thing that will help next time is bend your knees a bit more. But nice job going after this move. Keep it up!”
  • After a rough game where they messed up and already feel bad, don’t start talking about and deconstructing the game and what they need to improve (parents listen to this too for on the ride home!). Tell them you love them whether they win or lose, and we’ll work on game stuff later, tomorrow, etc. But right now, just know I, as your coach, love you no matter what.
  • Reward, recognize, and prioritize effort, learning, and sportspersonship over winning. The approach I created years ago for coaching and player development is called Compete-Learn-Honor, with Honor being the most important, foundational pillar. Each of those is something students can control. They, you as a coach, and parents cannot control who wins and who loses. But they can control their effort, whether they learn, and whether their behavior brings credit to all, including their opponents, and the game they play. If they do that, and you’ve kept them safe and they’re having fun, well, you’ve done a great job as a youth sports coach! Keep it up!

Dr. Peter C. Scales is a developmental psychologist and internationally-known scholar of positive youth development. He’s a certified tennis teaching pro, JV tennis coach for both boys and girls at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri, and mental game columnist for Racquet Sports Industry Magazine. Known to his tennis players and families as Coach Pete, he is the author of Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete-Learn-Honor, which the National High School Tennis Coaches Association has called one of the best books ever on the mental game, and the forthcoming The Compete-Learn-Honor Playbook: Simple Steps to Take Your Mental & Emotional Tennis & Pickleball Game to a New Level (available on Amazon). For more information visit:

Dr. Peter C. Scales Mental Health Coaching Mindset Focus

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