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Coaching Mental Skills in Adolescent Female Athletes

BY Joanna Zeiger

Coaching female youth athletes can be a challenge, and the importance of mental toughness can't be overstated.

A few weeks ago, the mother of a 13-year-old female runner (let’s call her Lisa) reached out to see if I could help her child with mental skills training. Lisa’s coach indicated that Lisa is extremely talented, but her general lack of mental toughness was holding her back in practice and competition.

Lisa’s mother was conflicted about reaching out to me. She wanted someone to help Lisa with her mental toughness, but she was worried that maybe Lisa was too young to tackle mental skills training. I assured Lisa’s mom that 13 is a perfect age to work on mental skills training. I explained that honing mental skills in adolescence will provide Lisa with an arsenal of tools that are imperative for her continued development as a runner as well as for her personal growth. We began our sessions and Lisa learned how to be a more aggressive runner and conquer her biggest mental challenge: the fear of failure.

Lisa’s situation is not uncommon. Adolescence, a tumultuous time in general, can be more difficult for adolescent athletes and even one step harder for female athletes. It takes tremendous courage to join a team, train hard, put yourself out there on a daily basis, endure the watching eyes of naysayers, all while navigating the challenges that accompany a maturing body and brain. I can’t believe anyone pushes through these challenges, yet millions of adolescent girls are kicking ass competing in sports every year.

The system for developing mental skills in this age group is often lacking. Teams are frequently large and understaffed. Coaches are predominantly male. It is easy to get lost in the shuffle. A small problem with confidence can escalate into paralyzing situational anxiety, if left unchecked. That is why 13 is not too young to start intentionally developing mental skills.

How to measure mental toughness

I have written extensively about The Sisu Quiz, first as a way to measure mental toughness and second about how you can implement the results of the quiz. I won’t belabor how the Sisu Quiz works, but I would like to mention that I have used this quiz with much success in adolescents. The specific numbers may not be completely accurate as the original study was done for adults. However, the adolescents who have taken this quiz have produced results that reflect what I hear when I speak to them.

In fact, when I ask the adolescent quiz takers if they were surprised with their results, they almost universally say “no”. This might indicate a few things.

Adolescents are aware of their mental toughness strengths and weaknesses after it has been measured. For many of these girls, taking the Sisu Quiz is the first time they’ve conceptualized the dimensions of mental toughness. Up until then, the notion of mental toughness and the dimensions that comprise it were fuzzy at best because it had never been concretely explained to them. And, when they get their results, even if they show low mental toughness, almost all of them are actually relieved to talk about them. Because, even in this day and age, the parlance of mental toughness is “suck it up” and has no structure on how to do so or when it isn’t appropriate to suck it up.

Two major components that plague adolescent girls are exactly the same as those that plague adult females: confidence and self-esteem. It isn’t even necessarily low self-esteem or low confidence at work. Oftentimes, it is that self-esteem and confidence are based on athletic performance, and if performance wanes, if there is an injury, or if an athlete is beaten by competitor, confidence and self-esteem plummet, and can result in burn-out. This is but one example of many that adolescent girls face as athletes.

The next steps

What can be done? Here are some first steps to working with adolescent female athletes:

  1. While I always speak to the parents before I speak with their child, any conversation between the athlete and myself are confidential unless: 1) the athlete specifically states otherwise or, 2) there is a suspected mental health issue which needs a follow-up with a specialist.
  2. Don’t be afraid to address mental toughness and mental skills training with adolescent girls. They want to talk about it.
  3. Use the Sisu Quiz to measure the eight specific dimensions of mental toughness. It is an excellent conversation starter to ask “did these results surprise you?” The floodgates will open.
  4. I am going to recommend reading my book, The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness. In my experience, the adolescents that have read my book often highlight passages and refer back to it. It is an excellent tool with real-life anecdotes and mental toughness tips that speak to many of the concerns of adolescent female athletes.
  5. In the beginning, let the athlete dictate the conversation. Listen well and you will be utterly surprised by their honesty and intuitiveness.
  6. Offer some gentle prompts. At this age, sometimes the words to express what they mean or feel are just not readily available.
  7. Some commonalities among athletes to consider: dealing with fear of failure, how to approach the notion of disregarding what others think, separating performance self-esteem from global self-esteem.
  8. Don’t be afraid to assign “homework” for the athlete to help them develop their mental skills.

Adolescent female athletes experience a host of difficulties that are often left unaddressed. This underserved demographic beckons for help. It doesn’t take much to impart big changes in their mental skills development, but if these deficits are unaddressed girls end up quitting sports or carry their challenges into adulthood.

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About Joanna Zeiger

Joanna competed as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed 4th in the Sydney Olympics and was the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion. She excelled at all 3 distances in the sport of triathlon, winning races in the Olympic, Half IRONMAN, and IRONMAN distances in additional to qualifiying for Olympic trials in marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna has been a coach and mentor to endurance athletes of all ages and abilities since 2003. In 2013, Joanna created Race Ready Coaching with partner Jared Berg. After receiving a B.A. in Psychology (1992) at Brown University, she went on to Northwestern University to earn her M.S. in Genetic Counseling (1995). Motivated by the excitement of independent research, Joanna earned her Ph.D. in Genetic Epidemiology (2001) at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.