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

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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

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Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

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Running good trials and selections

Balanced Female Health

Balanced Female Health

Resiliency in children 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 sports, and how sport can be such a great place for young people to build mental health and mental strength.  

What will you learn? 

  • What is resilience and how can we build resilient people? 
  • To understand what is happening in the adolescent brain through puberty. 
  • Tips and considerations for parents and coaches to help tamariki and rangatahi build resilience.

What is Resilience? 

First of all, building 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 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. Resilience involves developing coping strategies that help us to identify positive emotions and negative emotions, accept that they are inevitable, and respond to them accordingly. It doesn’t mean controlling or shunning our emotional reactions to external events, but learning to recognising those emotions when they arise and not allow them to govern our actions.

Building mental resilience takes practice. But by developing our own 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.

Understanding adolescence and resilience 

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

As you will be aware, when children 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, these changes 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, etc.) there are very likely to be glitches. So, while adolescents’ brains are ‘upgrading’, sometimes they can glitch or get shut down; we can see changes in mood and concurrent emotional consequences, changes in behaviour, changes in decision making, and changes in their ability to cope with pressure and stress. 

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 into the ‘don’t listen to anything that person says – do the opposite’ type of thinking.  

While the ‘seek to separate from parent’ behaviours become more present, peer relationships become more important in adolescents’ lives, including those of other significant adults (such as coaches and teachers). Many parents will recognise 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, such as a sports team, make sure you provide lots of social support and encouragement, and 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 

What does building resilience actually mean? And how do you do that?  

It takes a lot of time and practice to develop resilience. Kathryn describes the process of building resilience in sports, and in the wider world, as getting the body to practice holding stress and emotions to a tolerable level and then calming down.  We might even think of this 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 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 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. There are lots of these moments and games that we can play with our tamariki – this little piggy, going on a bear hunt, trying to do jigsaws, putting blocks and shapes into holes. So much of play involves activating stress to a tolerable level and calming down. Hide and seek, up on the slides, climbing higher and higher, throwing the ball further. 

It is important to note that we don’t learn resilience when we’re under too much pressure. In a way, resilience training similar to fitness training. Think about developing cardio or strength through a physical training programme; 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 requires a form of ‘stress management’; to build resilience, we want to increase the stress over time. However, research shows that there is a tipping point whereby a given amount of stress no longer helps people to increase their resilience. For parents and coaches, it’s important to understand what that stress tipping point is – what level the tamariki and rangatahi they support can work up to.  

How can parents help their children build resilience – when do we help and when do we leave them to work things out? 

Importantly, how and when we help children to develop 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 a parent, 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. A better question to ask is “Do I think they are in control?”. It might mean they’re angry, or they’re anxious, or they’re 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’ – 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? It’s just a changing environment and so, as parents, we have to become more aware of opportunities to help children build mental resilience. 

Read: Using sport to help forge resilience  

Building resilience 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 – asking yourself “Is this stress tolerable?”. Though of course, this can sometimes be extremely hard to do, especially for parent when they are caught in the conflict.

Why is sport such a great place to practice and learn 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 win and lose – which layer into building resilience. 

Learning to cope with losing is a really important part of developing our own resilience, and sport provides plenty of opportunities practise that. Kathryn emphasises that it’s important sometimes to feel failure. 

“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 resilience in sports. There is also increased importance for boys to assess 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. They want to know what they need to aim for to increase status, so, in some situations, it’s actually necessary to have winners and losers. 

“That’s the value that sport 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.” 

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:

  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 – whereas, 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 where those learning moments are: 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 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. 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.  

Image Source: Unsplash

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