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The Mindset of a Champion: How Parents Can Nurture a Healthy Mindset for Young Athletes

Setting Realistic Expectations for Young Athletes: Nurturing a Healthy Mindset for Success

I feel grateful for the ongoing opportunity to provide guidance to youth sports parents as they navigate their child's athletic journey, as they still reach out to me from time to time. As a coach and former athletic director, my world has revolved around these conversations and it’s clear that the need for guidance in youth sports has not waned. If anything, the volume has been turned up on many issues troubling parents, especially since the pandemic, and almost exclusively surrounding the topic of mental health.

As parents, we naturally want the best for our children, especially when it comes to their athletic endeavors. However, it is essential to set realistic expectations for young athletes and foster a healthy mindset that prioritizes enjoyment and personal growth over purely winning. Let’s explore the importance of managing expectations, the negative effects of excessive pressure, and the benefits of nurturing a balanced approach to sports.

The Pressure Dilemma

Research consistently highlights the detrimental effects of excessive pressure on young athletes. A study published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology found that high levels of parental pressure were associated with increased anxiety and decreased motivation among young athletes. When parents overly focus on winning or set unrealistic expectations, it can lead to stress, burnout, and even a decline in performance.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced additional stressors and uncertainties to the sports landscape. Research conducted during the pandemic highlights the importance of adapting to the new circumstances and reevaluating expectations. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology found that young athletes who faced increased pressure during the pandemic experienced higher levels of stress and anxiety, leading to decreased motivation and a decline in performance.

Recent studies conducted in 2021 have revealed a significant increase in mental health difficulties among children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, including symptoms of anxiety and depression. As sports parents, it is important to be mindful of the added pressure that young athletes may be experiencing during these challenging times, emphasizing the need for a supportive and understanding approach that prioritizes their mental well-being alongside their athletic development.

Supportive research suggests that when parents foster a positive and balanced approach to sports, young athletes experience numerous benefits. They develop intrinsic motivation, which is the internal drive and enjoyment that individuals experience when engaging in an activity for its inherent satisfaction and personal fulfillment, rather than solely for external rewards or pressures. It is the natural desire to pursue an activity because it brings pleasure, satisfaction, or a sense of accomplishment to the individual. This is crucial for long-term engagement and success in whatever you choose to do. A recent study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that intrinsic motivation positively influences persistence and adherence to sports participation.

Moreover, nurturing a healthy mindset allows young athletes to cope effectively with setbacks and failures. Research published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology indicates that athletes with a growth mindset perceive setbacks as learning opportunities, bounce back stronger, and show greater resilience in the face of adversity.

The Role of Parents

Parents play a crucial role in shaping their child's sporting experience. By setting realistic expectations, parents can provide a supportive and nurturing environment for their young athletes. Research from the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology suggests that parents who emphasize enjoyment, effort, and personal growth foster a healthier mindset in their children. By focusing on these factors, young athletes are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation and long-term success.

The Benefits of a Healthy Mindset

When young athletes are encouraged to prioritize enjoyment and personal growth over winning, they experience several benefits. Firstly, they develop a positive attitude towards sports, leading to increased engagement and a higher likelihood of long-term participation. Secondly, a healthy mindset allows athletes to cope better with setbacks and failures, viewing them as valuable learning opportunities rather than insurmountable obstacles.

Practical Tips for Parents

Here are five practical tips for parents to help set realistic expectations and foster a healthy mindset for their young athletes:

  • Encourage open communication and active listening to understand your child's goals and aspirations:

    • Example: Sit down with your child before the season starts and have an open conversation about their goals and aspirations in sports. Listen attentively to their desires, whether it's improving their skills, making new friends, or simply having fun. By understanding their perspective, you can better support and align your expectations with their individual goals.

  • Emphasize effort, improvement, and the joy of participation, rather than solely focusing on outcomes:

    • Example: During a game or practice, praise your child's effort and the improvements they make, regardless of the outcome. For example, if they displayed good sportsmanship or showed dedication to learning a new technique, acknowledge and appreciate their hard work. By emphasizing the joy of participation and the process of growth, you foster a love for the sport that extends beyond winning or losing. NEVER TELL YOUR CHILD HOW ‘GOOD’ or ‘TALENTED’ THEY ARE!! I cannot emphasize this point enough. This will create a “fixed” mindset, in which they attribute their success to some mythical internal force rather than their own hard work and effort. This will prevent them from trying activities in which they have little experience and likely lead to giving up once they face some early adversity.

  • Avoid comparing your child to others, as each athlete's journey is unique:

    • Example: Resist the urge to compare your child's performance or progress to that of their teammates or other athletes. Recognize that each individual has their own strengths, weaknesses, and pace of development. By appreciating your child's unique journey, you create an environment that fosters self-confidence, self-acceptance, and a focus on personal growth rather than external comparisons.

  • Celebrate small achievements and milestones along the way to boost confidence and motivation:

    • Example: Whether it's mastering a new skill, showing improvement in performance, or displaying good sportsmanship, take the time to celebrate your child's small achievements and milestones. Acknowledge their efforts and let them know how proud you are of their progress. By recognizing these moments, you boost their confidence, motivation, and overall enjoyment of the sport.

  • Create a balanced schedule that allows time for academics, socializing, and other interests, promoting a well-rounded development:

    • Example: Ensure that your child's schedule includes dedicated time for academics, socializing with friends, and pursuing other interests outside of sports. Encourage them to engage in diverse activities, which can foster a well-rounded development and prevent burnout. By maintaining a balanced schedule, you promote their overall well-being, provide opportunities for growth in different areas, and reduce the likelihood of excessive pressure solely focused on sports.

Keep it simple: Require only these three things

As sports parents, it's easy to get caught up in the complexities of the game and the numerous expectations that come with it. However, when it comes to fostering a healthy sports environment, it is essential to keep it simple and focus on the core aspects that truly matter. Instead of overwhelming your child with a laundry list of demands, hold them accountable for just three fundamental things: their Effort, Mindset, and Attitude.

By emphasizing these areas, you prioritize the development of important life skills that extend beyond the realm of sports. Encourage your child to give their best effort, to approach challenges with a growth mindset, and to demonstrate a positive and supportive attitude towards teammates, coaches, and opponents, as well as toward their own performance. By keeping the focus on these three key elements, you provide a solid foundation for their growth, enjoyment, and success in both sports and life.


As sports parents, it is crucial to remember that nurturing a healthy mindset and setting realistic expectations for young athletes is paramount. By prioritizing enjoyment, personal growth, and the development of intrinsic motivation, we create an environment that fosters long-term success, resilience, and overall well-being. Let us encourage our young athletes to thrive in sports, not solely for the sake of winning, but for the invaluable life lessons and experiences they gain along the way.

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David Walsh
David Walsh
19 may 2023

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