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Psychology of sport and mental preparation for competition with children

Psychology of sport and mental preparation for competition with children: an interview of three professionals

More and more parents are contacting us because their children are subject to stress, loss of concentration or reduced performance in competition. How are we to meet these requests? Is mental preparation indicated with children? How are we to approach this type of work?

Three specialists have been asked to answer a few questions:
Virginie Lemaire de Bressy- VL- sports psychologist in France (Nice-Vpro Coaching http://vpro-coaching.fr/),
Eric Medaets-EM- (sports sophrologist in Belgium),
Manuel Dupuis-MD (sports psychologist and mental trainer in Belgium).

1 / Could you introduce yourself (studies, experience) and explain the context in which you work with children in sports?

V L: I first took a double degree: a STAPS degree and a master's degree in psychology, and proceeded with a doctorate in sports psychology. I also have coaching and NLP certifications. I have been working for 10 years now with all types of athletes, including children.
E M: I am a physiotherapist and a sophrologist specialized in the field of sport. Being a former basketball player and coach, I have been accompanying athletes from different fields for 47 years. I have some experience in Babybasket (I am president of the FBBB). I have been a mental trainer of the Francophone Tennis Association (aft) for 4 years. I am also president and co-founder of SportExperience.
MD: I am a sports psychologist and a mental trainer since 2003 and I coordinate the activities of Psychosport in Brussels. I receive children and their parents in my office and sometimes in the field in order to meet their requests, most often concerning stress management or questions of self-confidence in competition. Mostly children are induced by their parents to come and see me, but sometimes the young people ask for it themselves, often because they have heard that a friend or an idol is being assisted by a "mental coach" or a "sports psychologist".

2 / What are the choices children have to make when going in for sports, and how can we help them with this?

V L: In sport matters each choice has visible consequences, since performance can quickly fluctuate. Sports children are therefore faced early enough with their own responsibilities : if I practise, I can improve and win, otherwise I can’t. This awareness of things develops a certain maturity that can be profitable because it helps to learn from ones difficulties. But it can also keep a child away from its condition as such by depriving it too early of a share of carelessness. In my opinion, the important thing is to help children find their way without feeling guilty and to develop a well-balanced mind so that they can thrive in their sport.

E M: Our first purpose is to preserve them from the pressure exerted by environment and from the obsession of becoming a “champion”. Our second objective is to keep the pleasure of playing alive, for it tends to disappear when a certain level has been reached. The pleasure of playing is the very element to be activated without moderation.

MD: Nowadays children get earlier and more intensively involved in the world of competition, pressure and overtraining. They too soon resign a relationship to game playing as a source of pleasure and have to face a very difficult life rhythm at their age, which can disturb some ordinary feelings that are essential to the young ones. Many identity and development problems arise, which sometimes imply choices that children are not really able to make. Stress appears very often when entering the world of competition. At moments of competition children often prove less efficient than while training.

3 / Do you think that mental preparation is indicated for children and from what age?

V L: If we want to feel good in our sport and gain victories, it is important to care for a good state of mind : we must increase self-confidence, manage stress, learn to concentrate and feel motivated at the right time and in the right way. On this point, there is no difference between children and adults. So I think that as soon as children are able to choose for themselves, they can benefit by mental preparation, around the age of 7.
Nevertheless, personality and motivation are still more important than the age, so that the mental trainer must be able to adapt himself, the more since children are continuously building their personality, and since all that they assimilate determines the adult they will be. It is therefore important to help them to manage failures and difficulties properly so as to avoid trauma, and to value their skills and qualities so that they can build on a solid foundation later.

E M: To play, a child does not need any mental training! However 75% of the sportsmen who come to see me are 8 to 12 years old! This is not normal and I consider it a failure of their coaches who surely should question themselves. A child under 12 years old I only see with his parents once or twice, but I refuse to start a longer assistance. Have you ever seen children playing football during playtime or in a park: do they need a mental trainer? No, they are just having fun: let them enjoy themselves!

MD: I think that psychological support and mental training are very often indicated, because it is essential that children should keep having fun with sports. It would be better if they could do without it but we know that talented children are very early put in an intensely competitive context, causing stress and fatigue, and being also a real trial for their parents, who are caught up in an unusual life rhythm and have some difficulty in finding the right place to occupy.

Many athletes develop a "stressful" relationship to their sport. This often results in being unable to exploit fully their technical and tactical potentialities. It even leads them to give it all up after a time (often in adolescence or pre-adult age). Not all of them reach the highest level, only a few actually...

4 / What types of requests do you receive when you are asked to take care of very young sportsmen?

V L: Often I get children who feel bad about their sport but want to continue to train. It may be because they do not find their place in the group, or because they stress too much before a deadline, or also because they are disappointed with their results and tend to lower themselves. Once again, each request is unique and deserves particular attention. Sometimes, a problem in the sports field can reflect a deeper trouble in the personal or family field, which needs to be taken care of as soon as possible.

E M : Such requests mainly concern individual sports, and are mostly initiated by the parents, sometimes by the coach, and rarely by the child itself. The child does not reproduce in competition his level of game training, it is stressed and overwhelmed by emotions ...
Almost all sportsmen who come to consult me, are regardless of their age, perfectionists who undoubtedly will be a prey to frustration.

MD: There are various situations parents want to consult me about. Sometimes, they believe they have noticed something with the child that does not work properly and that negatively affects its performance in competition (weaker than in training) or its well-being (it looks unmotivated, or sad, or is regularly seen crying ...). Sometimes they also perceive a loss of attention, or a lack of concentration, or a lack of combativeness that they consider inadequate.

5) / Can you briefly explain how you work with children?

V L: Children prefer to work with concrete supports: it is easier to appropriate an idea about oneself if one can see it. So drawing, writing, the construction of adapted diagrams and metaphors are suitable tools in this respect. More and more, I also make use of cinema therapy, which consists of showing cinematographic supports according to the tastes of the child. A film or a motion picture makes it possible to approach complex notions through a character who experiences similar difficulties, and to open interesting discussions. The purpose is to help the child discover new ways of growing richer in ideas. Whatever our tools, we must constantly adjust if we want children to communicate and assimilate new ways of seeing things.

E M: Simply by having them experience game playing while "de-dramatizing" the situation. They need to accept to make mistakes. A champion does everything to win but he accepts defeat.

MD: First of all, I analyze the request and see if I can propose an accompaniment. I make a complete account of the situation of the young person. Several scenarios can exist. Most of the time, it is appropriate to start a "mental training". Referring to the general frame, we work on specific points we have defined together with the child (goals), such as stress management before the game or at important moments, or self-confidence, which children usually call "daring" in competition. Depending on the situation, I also work with the parents and with the coach, with whom I try to collaborate. Occasionally, I begin a more elaborate treatment, in cases of pathological stress for example. Sometimes I have to refer the patients to a colleague for some systemic work.
After a series of mental training sessions including preparation for competition, I make together with the child a short estimation.

6 / What techniques do you use with children for mental training and preparation for competition? Can you give an example?

V L: The different ways to combine techniques are as numerous as children are. I shall mention only two. It is for example possible to work on breathing techniques that allow young athletes to know how to calm down or to come into action when they wish. This is quite concrete and easy to set up. One can also use visualization as well as drawings to represent what has been imagined. This technique opens many possibilities: it can help to assimilate more easily new information, to gain confidence, to overcome certain fears or recover more quickly from a wound or a failure.

E M: I use simple techniques of conscious breathing: learning how to be attentive to exhalation, then to inspiration, and describing one's physical and mental feelings.
I also use relaxation practices adapted from and inspired by Jacobson’s progressive or differential relaxation. And so on all techniques that make you live consciously, in movement and at rest.

MD: I first settle objectives with the child by using some concrete materials such as drawings or games. Then I manage to render the work that is to follow accessible to him and to stimulate his attention and interest. Creating pleasure is essential because it is not easy for children to deal with personal things. Being practical and simple is therefore quite important. I work with images, sometimes with stories, especially to tackle complicated situations that are problems to the child. I use behavioral or body-minding techniques such as breathing, meditation or sophrology ... The young person is invited to use a small notebook, which reminds him of exercises to repeat, and helps him to remember and to develop.

7 / Do you also work with parents and / or coach? If so, can you explain how?

V L: Confidentiality always comes first, of course, but fair and selective communication helps to find common strategies and to avoid disagreements and unspoken feelings that can disturb the athlete. So I think a systemic approach is relevant and offers benefits to everyone involved. Parents and the trainer can adapt more easily to the child when they better understand its needs and how to proceed in its particular case. For example, we do not motivate the same way someone who needs recognition ("we are with you") and someone who needs challenge ("who is the strongest ?! "). The mental trainer can derive advantage from the varied reactions of familiars as long as he keeps the necessary distance. This shared involvement suggests to the child that it is a person of importance since a real team has grown around him and is interested in what he feels and wants to help him. This is a new way to strengthen already strong links.

E M: Yes, I always meet the parents during the first session and seize this opportunity to define their role and to warn them against certain excesses in high level sport.
I remind them of the fact that the child needs to feel secure and reassured and that the best way to achieve this is that they would simply stay in their role as parents, and avoid to project themselves on their child and to try to make a dream come true.
When I accompany grown up athletes I always work closely with the coach who participates in the sessions as often as possible. This gives tools to the coach who can relate them to concrete situations in the fields.

MD: The ideal situation is to be able to work with the coach (with the agreement of the athlete and the parents) so as to interact with him and discover hints on how find ways to work. He knows the athlete well and sees him as well in training as in competition. This is not always possible because sometimes the child does not want it. I also interview the parents when necessary or useful. Parents ought to remain in their position as merely parents, it is to say as supporters and not as would-be coach or trainer (even if sometimes this seems to work). My work creates a special space for the child, and my contacts with the environment are only meant to feed my interventions with it. It can happen that I only work with parents, since being the parents of young athletes is not an easy task : they also need some help and advice. When family problems are too intense, I sometimes refer to a systemic psychologist.

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