The developmental years have a lot of built-in pressure. Kids contend with academics, physical and emotional changes, and jockeying for social position. Uncertainty, inexperience, and FOPO (fear of other people’s opinions) create choppy seas. Sports magnify these things. For some kids, staying under the radar is an effective survival mechanism, so resist the urge to perceive it as a failure of assertiveness. Passivity provides emotional, physical, and psychological safety. Don’t worry, assertiveness and passivity aren’t an either/or proposition and they aren’t fixed traits.
What is Assertiveness?
We teach our kids to be nice, share, and put other people first. As soon as they walk out the door of school and onto the field or court, we tell them to be aggressive. Aggressive is interchangeable with assertiveness in sports, but I prefer assertive. It’s really what we want to develop. Being assertive is a quality that serves a person well on and off the field.
I define it this way:
That’s it. It’s simple. There is a thing that needs to be done and the athlete does it.
Knowing What to Do
If there is any uncertainty about what to do and how to do it, there will be hesitation. It’s human nature to be passive when what you are supposed to do is unclear. To consistently apply self-directed behavior, an athlete must know their responsibilities regarding their team, sport, and their position. This includes the expectations their coaches and parents have for them. They must know where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do. They must understand the task at hand and know how to execute. This is true in practice and in games. Encourage your athlete to figure this out by asking the coach, teammates, or by doing their own research.
Self-talk is how we experience our thoughts. This is important because our thoughts influence performance. Negative self-talk has mental, emotional, and physical consequences that degrade an athlete’s ability to perform consistently and at the top of their ability. When trained and controlled, the inner voice becomes a powerful tool. It manages emotion and anxiety, directs effort in the right direction, and funnels everything to the task at hand. Check out the December blog for more on self-talk.
Improve Skill Development
It is difficult for a player who isn’t competitive with their peers to be assertive. There are several important facets to developing the feeling of competence in one’s skills.
Mental Skills Training
A mom was talking to me about her son’s recruitment process to play college baseball. She said she was glad her son, “Didn’t need sport psychology.” I smiled and nodded. But boy-oh-boy, does she have it wrong. Mental skills training creates mental processes to deliver the athlete to the moment of action every time. It isn’t to fix what’s broken, but to tune the mind for consistent performance at the upper range of an athlete’s ability. When I work with athletes and their parents, I help them develop a mental skills plan. This provides a systematic approach to training mental skills for practice and competition. Athletes move through specific and individualized steps, getting their mind right for practice and competition. A mental skills plan is a template offering goals, direction, and the ability to measure progress. Any mental skills training should address fundamentals like self-talk, routines, anxiety and emotional management, and managing of physical activation levels. Reach out to me through the contact information below if you would like some help to get started with this.
Besides understanding the task at hand and know how to execute their role, an athlete must believe they have the skills to do it. Confidence and the feeling of competence grow with experience. Experience is the key to being elite in any pursuit. Repetition helps groove in needed skills on both the physical and mental sides. An athlete has to win, lose, and face down challenges to improve. Repetition creates automation. Many people call this “muscle memory,” but it’s not accurate. Automation is the alignment of and grouping of neurons that support the action. When triggered, these clusters fire off the behavior automatically with very little thought. One of the great things about training the mental game, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, is that an athlete learns to get out of their own way and let automation take over.
Mechanical, technique-based repetitions are good and necessary, but practicing against others in a way that simulates play is even better. Besides grooving in mechanical reps, it allows for reps of decision making, in real time and in context. This provides a much richer texture and promotes development. It is ideal for an athlete to practice against people who are equal to or a little better than them. People who aren’t as skilled don’t offer a challenge and can create an inaccurate perception of one’s standing and ability. This can be boring for an athlete or condition them to play down to the level of their competition. Conversely, practicing against athletes who are significantly better can be demoralizing. Getting consistently crushed by a much better opponent takes away the desire to compete.
How Parents Help Develop Assertiveness
Make it your performance goal to be objective about your athlete’s performance. Don’t compare their day-to-day level of performance to their highlight reel. You will feel like they aren’t measuring up. Even the best-intentioned parents get caught up in an outcome focus when supporting their athlete. Focus on achievement sends a message that part of the athlete’s value comes from good outcomes. Instead of focusing on outcomes, look for evidence of effort, self-directed behavior, and how they manage adversity. When you find them (and you will), praise and encourage them!
Understanding Rules, Roles, and Expectations
When my kid was playing high school volleyball, she would often get a kill and then rotate out. Her grandfather would get hot under the collar because she was “getting benched.” He didn’t understand how rotations worked, no matter how many times we explained it to him. He figured if you score a point, you deserved to stay in. Knowing the rules of the sport, where your athlete is supposed to be and what they are supposed to do, is important. It is also helpful to understand how substitutions work and how penalties are assessed. For a parent, this understanding allows assessment (and enjoyment) of performance against the athlete’s duties, not personal preferences and expectations.
Facilitate Self-directed Action
Talk to your athlete about assertiveness. Discuss what happens when they appear passive and help them figure out what they need to do to act. Discuss times when they are assertive and help them figure out how to repeat those thoughts and behaviors. As always, let them be the expert and tell you how things work. They will surprise you with their depth of understanding and ability to figure things out if you let them. If you are open to it, they will teach you a lot. Where they are lacking, encourage them to find out what they need to know by asking the coach, a teammate, or researching on their own. You do the same. Kids clam up when they perceive a finger wag or hear “When I was your age,” advice. When someone is told what to do, even when the instruction is well intentioned, there is a natural resistance. Be tactful and seek to understand first. Stay away from your tried-and-true explanations like laziness, or your athlete just not “wanting it.” They want it, they just need help to navigate the fears, pressures, and expectations placed on them to get it.
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Hi, I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach at Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training builds a repeatable approach to performance, enabling an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently.