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Resiliency in children through sport

In this Q&A video, Sport Development Consultant Kelly Curr talks to Neuroscience Trainer Kathryn Berkett to unpack why and how sport can be such a great place for young people to learn resilience. 

What will you learn? 

  • What is resilience and how can we build resilient children? 
  • Understand what is happening in the adolescent brain through puberty. 
  • Tips and considerations for parents and coaches to support 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 is all about being able to tolerate a level of stress and a level of emotion and then calm back down. 

Understanding adolescence and resilience 

Before we go further around resilience in adolescence, it’s important to understand a little about what is happening for 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 young people hit 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, if we think about the point of these changes, it’s because the human body is preparing itself to be able to reproduce. 

This last point is important. Because the body is changing so that it can reproduce, the brain recognises this, and undergoes an ‘upgrade’. Put simply, this upgrade is about 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 being able to only 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 get shut down, they can glitch. We see changes in mood, 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 from increased testosterone to the amygdala, is it drives ‘seek to separate from parent’ behaviours. In puberty, this manifests, particularly in males who have more testosterone, 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 that 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 one delivered by themselves, even when the message is the same. 

For females, an increase in oestrogen stimulates increased levels of oxytocin and the ability of the brain receptors to receive oxytocin. Oxytocin can be thought of as the ‘love’ hormone – it’s responsible for regulating maternal behaviours in women. And significantly, the huge increase in oxytocin just after childbirth supports women to fall 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 turmoil some young women may feel and express if they ‘fall out’ with a peer group or friends. This also means, for young adolescent women trying to connect into a new group, it can be really difficult if they’ve got no former relationships – as the bonds between peers in this group are already underpinned by ‘oxytocin love’. 

Significantly, it can be difficult for adolescents to enter into a new group. So, if you’re in charge of forming a new group of teenagers, such as a sports team, make sure you provide lots of 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?  

Acknowledging that it takes a lot of time and practice to build resilience,  Kathryn describes the process as needing to get the body to practice holding stress and emotions to a tolerable level and then calming down.  

“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? The first way we learned to hold and calm down was with our 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, they see you, relax and they calm down. What you’ve just done to your baby in practice is – activate a moment of stress then calm down. 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, it’s similar to fitness training – think about developing cardio or strength. To increase this, you would progressively increase the ‘stressor’ (e.g. the distance you run, the weight you lift) over time. Too much too soon can result in an injury. In the same way, for resilience we want to build it up over time, however, there is a tipping point where a given amount of stress no longer helps young people to develop their resilience. For parents and coaches, it’s important to understand what is that stress tipping point? – what level can the tamaraki and rangatahi I support 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, it 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 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 you think they are in control?”. It might mean they are 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 today’s day and age, there is an increased prevalence in parenting styles (when compared to previous generations of parenting styles), which over time reduces young people’s exposure to moments of tolerable stress. It’s just a changing environment and so as parents, we have to become more aware of opportunities to build resilience. 

Read: Using sport to help forge resilience  

Building resilience while the adolescent brain is upgrading. 

The ‘glitches’ discussed earlier will 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 it’s important to acknowledge, at times, this can be extremely hard to do, especially for parents, when you yourself 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, to have fun and to be challenged. There are so many moments in sport – teamwork, building relationship skills, learning to win and lose – which all layers into resilience building.  

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

“Think about 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’s going to be times in life when you’re going to learn, you’re going to probably 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 recognize those emotions and allow those emotions and then have them practice, like riding the bike, to bring themselves back down, even though those things happen. 

There’ll 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.” 

There is also increased importance for boys to assess their status when they hit puberty. This is why it can be important to keep the score and actually allow winning around that stage, otherwise, they’re going to lose 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. The more resilient he is doesn’t mean he’s going to get less angry, but his levels will stay tolerable which means calming 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 young people to build resilience: 

  1. Create space for young people to lead and to learn – Giving kids time to make up their own games and referee themselves because all of the skills that they can build in doing that stuff and managing themselves will help build resilience, will help build teamwork and will build communication skills. Let them decide who will referee, there will be arguing, negotiating, disappointment and acceptance whereas if we came along at the outset and said ‘you’re the coach, you’re the ref’ we’ve taken away that learning opportunity.  
  2. Identify where those learning moments are – listening and saying, ‘Hey, today, what do you guys want to do? 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 win six games and see who wins the most games’ and you might realise that’s something you haven’t been doing.  As adults we need to realise we don’t have all the answers all the time. If we let young people 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 mention something like ‘someone didn’t pass to me’ – use that talk about how that made them feel this time and how did they deal with it? Those questions like, ‘How did you feel?, What did you want to do? How would you deal with it next time?  

Image Source: Unsplash

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