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How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

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Balance is Better Principles Poster

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Creating a positive parent culture

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

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Running good trials and selections

Balanced Female Health

Balanced Female Health

Helping Children Build Mental Resilience Through Sport

In this Q&A video, Sport Development Consultant Kelly Curr talks to Neuroscience Trainer Kathryn Berkett to unpack the topic of resilience in sport and education, building resilience in children, and how youth sport can be such a great place for young people to develop positive mental health, mental toughness, and mental strength. 

What Will You Learn? 

  • The term ‘resilience’: what is it? And how can we build resilient people?
  • How building resilience in children and young people could yield positive mental health outcomes for future generations.
  • To understand what is happening in the adolescent brain, and the dynamic psychological processes that occur through puberty.
  • The fundamentals of resilience in sport: how youth sport and physical education can help young people to develop resilience and mental toughness — and ultimately support their long-term mental health.
  • Tips and considerations for parents and coaches to help tamariki and rangatahi develop resilience.

What is Resilience? 

Defining resilience accurately is complex. So first of all, let us state that developing resilience is one of the most important things we’ll ever do.  

From a neuroscience perspective, resilience is the ability to feel emotions (whether they be anger, sadness, frustration etc.), manage those feelings, and use coping strategies to calm back down again. Those emotions might last for five minutes, a couple of hours, a day, a week. Sometimes we can stay with that feeling for a very long time. When we build and foster psychological resilience, we develop coping strategies that help us to identify positive emotions and negative emotions, accept that they are inevitable, and respond to them accordingly. We might say that resilience includes positive adaptations to challenging circumstances.

Crucially, resilience doesn’t mean controlling or shunning our emotional reactions to external events, but learning to recognise those emotions when they arise and not allowing them to govern our actions or mental health. These ‘resilience skills’ are not innate qualities that we are either born with or will never possess, but skills we can develop and refine, just like physical fitness.

Developing our resilience — whether we’re looking to build resilience in sport or in other walks of life — doesn’t just help us in the heat of the moment, but can significantly enhance our ability to overcome adversity, thereby producing significant performance benefits and promoting positive mental health in the long-term.

Just like improving our fitness or physical resilience, building mental and emotional resilience takes practice. But when we develop resilience, we can enhance our ability to tolerate and manage stress, stay calm during adverse situations or traumatic events, and typically respond to challenges in a positive manner. Thus, building resilience isn’t just important for elite athletes; it is invaluable for all of us.

Resilience is a skill. The more we practise being resilient, the more our resilience levels will increase. And as our overall psychological resilience increases, so will our ability to react positively to challenging situations and overcome adversity. This, in turn, will enhance our ability to face any mental health issues we may encounter and overcome stressors that occur naturally in life.

Furthermore, resilience skills are transferable; athlete resilience developed within sporting environments will still be present when that athlete faces adversity in the real world; when young people develop resilience in sport, whether through participation in team or individual sports, it doesn’t just help their performances in an a sports context — it benefits them in all other aspects of their lives. Sporting resilience yields the same positive mental health benefits as resilience developed through other environmental and sociocultural contexts. And resilient athletes will be able to rely upon the same coping strategies they learn through sport in all aspects of their lives.

Given the importance of resilience, particularly from a mental health perspective, it’s essential that we encourage children to build resilience from a young age.

Understanding Adolescence, Resilience, and Mental Health  — And Providing the Right Social Support

Before we go further into building resilience in children during adolescence, it’s important to understand a little about what is happening to teenagers/rangatahi neurologically, and their mental processes, through puberty. That is, what is happening in the adolescent brain, and what these changes mean. 

As you will be aware, when young people reach puberty, their bodies undergo a rapid flurry of physiological changes. These changes are triggered and then sustained by different hormones. At a very deep biological level, they are the human body preparing itself to be capable of reproducing.

This is important. As the body is changing so that it can reproduce, the brain recognises the change and undergoes an ‘upgrade’. Put simply, this upgrade is the brain changing from being wired for ‘self-preservation’ to being wired towards ‘preserving one’s own offspring’. So, at a neurological level, young people’s brains are changing from only being able to look after themselves to being able to look after any future children that they might parent.

And when we upgrade anything (like renovating a house, or upgrading a computer) there are likely to be glitches. So, while adolescents’ brains are ‘upgrading’, sometimes they can glitch or get shut down; we can see changes in various psychological and mental processes, reflected in things like mood and concurrent emotional consequences, changes in behaviour, changes in decision making,  changes in their ability to cope with pressure and stress, and maybe even mental health issues.

When we see changes manifest in the behaviours of young people — perhaps in the form of disengagement, or ‘acting out’ — it’s important to remember the psychological factors that may be underpinning them. Even if their behaviour frustrates us sometimes, it’s important, in the face of potential conflict, to understand the changes they are experiencing, remain unconditional in offering emotional and social support, and work to build and maintain positive relationships.

We don’t always know what other people are going through; this perceived social support might have a profound impact on a young person during a challenging moment — perhaps considerably more so than we can appreciate ourselves. As parents and coaches, it’s vital that develop the emotional intelligence to recognise when young people are experiencing moments of adversity, respond calmly, and support them.

How Do These Changes in the Teenage Brain Impact Behaviour (And What Are Some Common Glitches?)

One key area which Kathryn highlights is the impact of hormones on some parts of the brain. 

Testosterone impacts the development of our amygdala, which forms part of our limbic system — the part of the brain involved in emotional and behavioural response and control. One of the responses in young people to increased testosterone is that it drives ‘seek to separate from parent’ behaviours. In puberty, particularly in males who have more testosterone, this manifests as ‘don’t listen to anything that person says — do the opposite’ type of thinking.  

While the ‘seek to separate from parent’ behavior patterns emerge, peer relationships become more important in adolescents’ lives, including those of other significant adults (such as coaches and teachers). Many parents will recognise these mental processes — for instance, in a teenage son or daughter who is far more receptive to a message that has been delivered by their coach or teacher than to one delivered by themselves, even when the message is the same. 

For females, an increase in oestrogen stimulates increased levels of oxytocin and the increased ability of the brain receptors to receive oxytocin. Oxytocin can be thought of as the ‘love’ hormone’ — responsible for regulating maternal behaviours in women. (The huge increase in oxytocin just after childbirth supports women in falling in love with their babies.) For adolescent young women, lots of oxytocin in their body means they ‘oxytocin fall in love’ with their friends. 

This can explain the emotional pain some young women may feel and express if they ‘fall out’ with a peer group or friends. This also means it can be really difficult for young adolescent women to connect with a new group if they have no former relationships — as the bonds between peers in that group may already be underpinned by ‘oxytocin love’. 

Consequently, it can be difficult for adolescents to enter into new groups. So, if you’re in charge of forming a new group of teenagers — for instance, while coaching a team sport — make sure you provide lots of social support and encouragement, and allocate time for young people to get to know each other. Creating lots of whakawhanaungatanga at the beginning of the season will help to build feelings of belonging and safety. 

Read:  A parent guide to child growth and development 

Building Resilience in Sport: What Does Building Resilience Actually Mean? And How Do You Do It?

It takes a lot of time and practice to develop resilience — whether we’re trying to build resilience in sport, academic, or other real-world environments. So when we’re trying to develop resilient athletes — or even when our objective is simply building resilience in children — we must be patient. 

Kathryn describes the process of building resilience in sport, and in the wider world, as getting the body to practice holding stress and emotions to a tolerable level and then calming down. This is why an individual’s level of resilience can have such a big impact on their mental health. We might think of developing these coping strategies, or resilience skills, as a form of resilience training.

“As an example, I use the analogy that I could sit here and teach you about riding a bike; I could draw a picture of a bike and tell you to hold the handles and pedal but, until you actually get out there and your body does the biking, you’re not going to be able to ride a bike. We often tell our kids: you need to be resilient, you need to be kind, you need to walk away from people if they say things to you. All of these instructions are verbal instructions — which is great, just like it would be good for me to tell you how to ride a bike — but we still need to practice it. What the body needs to do is practice holding emotions to a tolerable level and calming down.” 

So how do we do that? How do we practice mental resilience?

The first way we learned to hold emotions and calm down was as newborns, through games like peek-a-boo. You watch their little bodies; there is a little bit of stress when they think we’re gone; then you go boo, and they see you, relax, and calm down. In practice, what you’ve just done to your baby is activate a moment of stress and then calm. Through play, they’re building resilience skills.

There are lots of these moments that we can create with our tamariki — games like this little piggy or going on a bear hunt, or trying to do jigsaws, or putting blocks and shapes into holes. These kinds of games expose children to moderate amounts of stress at a young age — in the same way that a competitive sporting environment might expose its participants to stress — and allow them to practise various coping strategies; they help our children to build resilience.

So much of play involves activating stress to a tolerable level and calming down. Consider simple activities like climbing higher and higher, or throwing the ball further; we instinctively think of these as games that, besides being a crucial source of enjoyment and fun for our children, will help them to build their physical resilience and, over time, promote a life of physical activity that will benefit their overall physical and mental health; but in challenging themselves, succeeding and failing, and perhaps even experiencing environmental risk factors (such as tripping or falling from a mild height), they are also practising mental resilience — and ultimately building their overall resilience levels.

Similarly, team sport — and the inherent social challenges and opportunities that accompany it — doesn’t just produce benefits related to physical health, but provides invaluable opportunities for children to develop psychological skills, mental resilience, and ultimately support their long-term mental health.

However, it is important to note that we don’t learn resilience when we’re under too much pressure

Naturally, sporting resilience arises when individuals are exposed to adversity — even failure — while participating in sport. However, it’s important that this occurs in an environment providing balanced challenge; if we want to develop resilient athletes, we must give them challenges that, with time and effort, they can meet, enabling them to experience a mix of both success and failure.

In a way, resilience training similar to fitness training. Think about developing cardio or strength through a physical activity, or a targeted training programme to build physical resilience; to do this, you would progressively increase the ‘stressor’ (e.g. the distance you run, or the weight you lift) over time; too much too soon could result in an injury. 

In the same way, developing resilience and mental toughness requires a form of ‘stress management’; to build resilience, we want to increase the stress over time. But recent research shows that there is a tipping point, whereby a given amount of stress no longer helps people to develop resilience.

And like the risk of injury when over-training in the pursuit of building physical resilience, we can negatively impact psychological resilience when the load we experience is excessive. In this case, instead of physical injury, we may see things like burnout, disengagement, or more severe mental health issues.

Therefore, when trying to develop resilient athletes, it’s crucial for parents and coaches to understand what that stress tipping point is — what level the tamariki and rangatahi they support can work up to. Even adults — whether they’re parents, coaches, or elite athletes — can become overburdened by stress factors and experience negative mental health outcomes.

Sometimes the consequences of excessive psychological loading may even require medical and psychological support. If you sense that you, a peer, or a young athlete you work with is experiencing negative mental health outcomes, it’s important to remember the potential consequences of psychological overloading, recognise the symptoms, and seek/offer help.

How Parents Can Help Their Children Build Resilience and Safeguard Their Mental Health: When Do We Help and When Do We Leave Them to Work Things Out?

Importantly, how and when we help children to build resilience depends on the individual. There’s not a scale like “they’re seven years old, and that will be seven minutes of stress”.  As with physical resilience, we all develop psychological resilience at different rates, depending on factors that are inherent to us (like our personality and mental health) and external factors (such as our environment). As such, context-appropriate solutions, accounting for the individual and their environment, are required when trying to develop resilient athletes.

As parents, we need to observe our children and ask ourselves: “Do I think it’s tolerable?”. Now the question there is not “Are they crying?”, because tolerable stress sometimes involves crying. Therefore a better approach might be to ask “Do I think they are in control?”. They might be angry, or anxious, or sad, but do you think they still have the capacity to get back to where they need to?

Call it ‘overbearing’, ‘over-nurturing’, ‘lawn-mower parenting’ — but what we know is that, in this day and age, there is an increased prevalence in parenting styles (when compared to previous generations of parenting styles) which, over time, reduce young people’s exposure to moments of tolerable stress.

Could this lack of exposure, in the long-run, cause children to lack resilience and produce negative mental health outcomes for future generations? It’s just a changing environment and so, as parents, we have to become more aware of opportunities to help children build mental resilience.

As discussed, sport — whether individual or team sport, through clubs, informal environments, or physical education in schools — and other forms of physical activity provide great opportunities to help children develop resilience at a young age and bolster their long-term mental health. Below, we’ll look deeper into creating opportunities for young people to build psychological resilience and improve their mental health on the sports field.

Read: Using sport to help forge resilience 

Building Resilience and Bolstering Mental Health While the Adolescent Brain Is Upgrading

The ‘glitches’ discussed earlier underpin a lot of the conflict and turbulence we see in adolescent relationships with their peers, family, and parents. And with conflict comes moments of stress, which, in turn, requires resilience to self-regulate the emotional response. As an adult, it’s worth continuing to frame these moments as opportunities to develop resilience and coping strategies — asking yourself “Is this stress tolerable?”.

Of course, this can sometimes be extremely hard for parent when they are caught in the conflict, but is a valuable form of social support for young people who are themselves learning new coping mechanisms during periods of profound hormonal and emotional change — and can reinforce our construction of strong relationships with those young people in the long-run.

Why Individual and Team Sport Environments Are Great Places to Practice and Develop Resilience

We know that young people want to play sport to be with their mates, have fun, and be challenged. But there are so many moments in sport — teamwork, building relationship skills, learning to compete, win, and lose on the sports field — which layer into building resilience. 

Learning to cope with losing is a really important part of developing our psychological resilience, and sport provides plenty of opportunities to practise that. In fact, sport can be great for providing significant stress-producing adversities in a safe environment, and without over-stressing individuals. Kathryn emphasises that it’s important for children to experience failure sometimes. 

“Think about them going for their first job interview? Are you going to go to their boss and say, ‘Look, could you just hire them because they were nice in the interview?’ There are going to be times in life when you’re going to learn, you’re probably going to have a relationship breakup at some stage in your life, you’re going to lose someone you love, all of those sorts of things. They happen and we can’t stop these things happening. So, the more resilience we build, the more people can feel their bodies and recognise those emotions and allow those emotions and then practise, like riding the bike, to bring themselves back down, even though those things happen. 

“There will be times when kids lose the plot when they lose a game — but if you stay out of it, they will soon be playing again, and that’s resilience.” 

Essentially, winning and losing are cornerstones of athlete resilience in sports.

Additionally, it’s increasingly important for boys to assert their status when they hit puberty, meaning it can be necessary to keep the score and actually allow winning around that stage in order to prevent them losing interest in physical activity. They want to know what they need to aim for to increase their status, so, in some situations, it’s actually necessary to have winners and losers. 

“That’s the value that sport and physical activity can play — and the worst thing you could do as a parent is say ‘Well, he gets really upset when he loses, so I’ll let him win.’ Him becoming more resilient doesn’t mean he’s going to get less angry, but his levels will stay tolerable, which means he’ll calm down faster.” 

Building Resilience in Children: Key Takeaways for Coaches and Parents

Kathryn suggests that there are some simple things coaches and parents can do through sport to support children in building resilience and laying the foundations for good mental health:

  1. Create space for children to lead and to learn: Give them time to make up their own games and referee themselves, because all of the skills that they can develop through managing themselves will help them to build resilience and communication skills, and encourage teamwork. Let them decide who will referee. There will be arguing, negotiating, disappointment, and acceptance, and these are key components of resilience in sport. They will develop their own coping strategies when things don’t always go their own way. If we come along at the outset and say ‘You’re the coach, you’re the ref’, we take away that learning opportunity.
  2. Identify the learning moments within physical activity: Try listening and saying ‘Hey, what do you guys want to do today? Why don’t you set up a game?’ Just set up an exercise and watch, and they will focus on what they need. They might say ‘We’re going to play six games and see who wins the most’, and you might realise that that approach is something you haven’t been doing. As adults we need to realise that we don’t have all the answers all the time. If we let children go with their gut a lot more, we can follow their lead, and this is massively important for helping them to develop resilience.
  3. Talking through emotions: Support tamariki and rangatahi to talk through and understand their emotions. When they say something like ‘Someone didn’t pass to me’, use that to talk about how it made them feel, and how they dealt with it. Such simple exercises can be invaluable in helping children to develop their emotional intelligence and, ultimately, improve their mental resilience and mental health. Those questions like ‘How did you feel?’, ‘What did you want to do?’, and ‘How would you deal with it next time?’ can go a long way towards developing future generations of resilient people.  It is through conversations such as these that sport and physical education can be such powerful tools — not only in improving athlete resilience, but in helping children to improve their resilience levels and hopefully develop the kind of emotional awareness that can improve their long-term mental health.

Image Source: Unsplash

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