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Children's Wisconsin sport psychology program

Train the brain: How the Children’s Wisconsin Sport Psychology team helps young athletes succeed

At Children’s Wisconsin, we understand how important a child’s mental health is to their overall health. We’ve made substantial commitments to treating a child’s mental health the same way we’ve always cared for their physical well-being. And while we’re also doing a lot of work to reduce the stigma around mental and behavioral health concerns, sadly much still remains. 

This was made all too clear the past few weeks. First, there was tennis star Naomi Osaka, who temporarily stepped away from tournaments to focus on her mental health. And then, Simone Biles, the highly accomplished U.S. gymnast, withdrew herself from some Olympic events for similar reasons. While I’m glad to see the topic of mental health in athletes and mental readiness for performance being discussed openly, it sadly also highlighted just how misunderstood this component of health is. All you have to do is look at some of the criticism Osaka and Biles received to see we still have a lot of work to do.  

At Children’s Wisconsin, I work as a certified clinical sport psychologists, one of very few in Wisconsin. So I wanted to take this opportunity to explain what mental readiness is and what parents can do to help put their young athletes in the best position to succeed. 

Mental readiness 

As a parent, you are likely no longer playing competitive sports yourself, but you likely have had a recent experience with the concept of mental readiness. Mental readiness refers to feeling mentally prepared to handle high pressure situations and having the necessary mental skills to be successful, including a high degree of self-confidence, motivation, unwavering focus, and the ability to continually perform under pressure. 

Perhaps you were asked to give an important speech at work. While there are the physical components to ensure your success in this endeavor — researching, writing and rehearsing the speech — there is also a very real mental component. Showing up to give the speech without mentally preparing would no doubt result in embarrassing and disastrous consequences. The same is true for a professional athlete who shows up to a competition — they need mental readiness just as much as they need the physical training in order to fully compete. Further, the more competitive the situation, the more mentally ready the athlete needs to be.

Notice the signs

While a physical injury like a sprained ankle or broken arm are easy to diagnose and treat, mental performance concerns can be more difficult to identify. Here are some signs and symptoms that your young athlete could benefit from seeing a clinical sport psychologist:

  • Struggling to learn a new skill(s)

  • Decline in performance or skill

  • Coming home from practice or a game upset

  • Not wanting to go to games or practices

  • Working excessively on a skill in or out of practice

  • Talking more than usual about performance

  • Talking negatively about performance

  • Nervousness about returning from a serious injury

Taking a break to mentally prepare

The grind and stress of competition is very real, for professional athletes making millions of dollars and for the 13-year-old kid on the junior varsity team. The pressure to succeed can sometimes be overwhelming. When that happens, stepping away for a brief period of time — like Osaka and Biles did — can be the best solution. 

But knowing when it is time to ask for help can be mentally tough. That’s why it’s important parents talk to their kids openly and not pressure them to compete if they’re not physically and mentally ready. Oftentimes, a short break to address the above concerns allows competitive young athletes to come back even stronger and more focused than before and be more mentally ready for performance

Expert advice

While the stigma around mental health is beginning to decrease, it is still very real, especially among athletes. That's why it's so important that athletes, such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, come out and speak about their challenges. If you think your young athlete could benefit from a sport psychologist, please don’t hesitate to reach out.