Recently a friend opened up to me about her anxiety over her son being in a lacrosse “funk” and suffering from low self-esteem. My first reaction was to say, “Oh, he's just having a few bad games. He will get over it soon.” I quickly realized that wouldn't be the best way for me to respond. Over my 20 year coaching career, one of the most reoccurring conversations I have had with parents is about the growing phases and puberty and how that may adversely affect their child's athletics. This “funk” my friend's son was having sounded like the classic issue many 11-15 year olds encounter in youth sports—what I refer to as the “suck phase.”
Between the ages of 11-15, most kids go through several growth spurts and major body changes due to puberty. These changes can drastically change your child's body,their coordination, and proprioception as they adapt to and learn their new bodies, which can very quickly and dramatically change your child's performance on the field, in the pool, or on the court. Not only does your child's body change, but, for many, I see a big change in mindset, self-esteem, and interest in the sport. Growth phases bring about both positive and negative change. Athletes get the benefits in body size, hormones, muscle strength, power, and cognitive abilities, but also may see a temporary decline in balance, body control, and subsequently self-esteem. Because of the quick changes in height and weight, arm length, and leg length, athletes often seem clumsy, uncoordinated, unable to throw and catch as well, and slower running and reacting because their brains have not adjusted yet to these drastic body changes. This decline in performance is why the average ages for kids to quit their sport or to lose interest in their sport is between 12-15. Your athlete's self-esteem can take a major hit during these growing phases, and the best way to combat that is to have open conversations with your child about how growing can change the way they perform. Knowledge is what can help your child get through the “suck phase” which is simply a natural phase of athletics.
If you are like most parents, you want your child to succeed at every game and competition. We all do! I love it when I see my son ripping a goal and making an awesome play on the field. Our kids all know we like them to perform well. But, when they start declining in their performance, especially if they are accustomed to being one of the better players, they will really take a “suck phase” personally and emotionally. As parents and coaches, it is our job to be informed and aware of when things don't seem right and to step in to teach our kids how to mentally get through a growth phase so that they don't take major hits on their self-esteem, mental toughness, and maybe even lose interest in the sport all together. Oftentimes, the kids who were the best at 10, 11, 12, are not the kids making the varsity team in high school. Puberty almost wipes the slate clean, and it is fun to watch who makes it out on the other side tougher, stronger, and more passionate for the sport as their genetics manifests itself. You may be surprised at who is the best player at 16, 17, and 18 years old. A huge determining factor to success is how these growing years are treated. It's up to parents and coaches to properly prepare and navigate these pivotal adolescent years with our athletes.
Every athlete is different, and every athlete responds to different approaches when it comes to guidance and motivation. Over my 20+ years of coaching youth sports, I've been able to successfully help hundreds of kids move through the “suck phases” and come out on the other side mentally strong and hungry for more development and success. Here are some of my best words of wisdom I can pass on to you to use with your team and your child at home.
YOU MUST FIRST ACCEPT YOUR CHILD'S “SUCK”---This one is simple, but the most important. You must accept the changes in your child. Not just their physical changes, but their performance changes. We could write a whole other piece on how your attitude affects your child's performance, but I won't go there today. If you accept the changes and truly show an attitude of encouragement instead of disappointment for the “suck,” then your athlete is WAY more likely to accept the changes too and not let it affect their self-esteem. Remember, this is your child's athletic career, not yours. Their performance should not have any bearing on your own self-esteem. It is your job to be their biggest cheerleader, teacher, and ally no matter how they are performing in their sport. Help them understand and give them a feeling of safety. If you accept the “suck” they will most likely accept the “suck” too. This should not be an excuse to not put the work in, rather an awareness of the acute physiology of the situation.
KNOWLEDGE—Knowledge is power! Talk to your athlete and let them know that sometimes “sucking” is part of the process. Being open with your athlete regardless of whether they are seeing any change in their performance at the time will help them know what may be coming, or help them through a tougher time they are experiencing presently. If your athlete knows that what they are experiencing is normal, they are more inclined to accept the process and not take it so personally. Give them facts, not opinions, about the science behind what they are experiencing and that it is all a part of the growing process. Encourage them by explaining to them all the performance benefits they may gain on the other side of all this growing and changing if they stick with it and remain mentally tough.
SKILLS, SKILLS, SKILLS—During the growing phases, it is extremely important to go back and focus on the basic skills of the sport. Coaches—go back to basics and throw out winning or losing. Bring back the skills and focus on that. Parents---now is the time to go out in the yard and throw and catch with your kid again, or take some video of your athlete and breakdown their technique. Calling in a professional to help is often a good idea for many sports, as well. Get some technique lessons, and take the focus off of performance and put it all on skill development. Your athlete will get through their clumsy phase faster if they are focusing on the right areas of their sport. Technique and basic skills often take a major hit during these phases as kids adjust to their drastically changing bodies, which is what frustrates coaches and athletes the most. So, go back! Go back to the basics and celebrate the successes of fine tuning the basics of the sport. Your athlete's performance in a few years will thank you for it!
REST--- Growth phases leave your athletes extremely vulnerable to injury. Inside the ends of children's bones is cartilage that will gradually turn into bone after they are done growing. This section of cartilage is called the growth plate and it is a very delicate area. The growth plates are weakest during growing phases and periods of rapid growth. If your child is complaining of pains in their knees, legs, arms, ankles, etc, these pains are not to be ignored, especially if your child is not a constant complainer. As a limb rapidly lengthens, it stretches the muscles and weakens the connective tissue temporarily and the body is very susceptible to soft tissue injuries. When your athlete is growing, it is important to listen to their complaints of pain and to give opportunities for more sleep and more rest. And, by rest, I mean days off---gasp! Parents and coaches are often of the mindset that more practice produces better results. That is sometimes the case, but not during a rapid growth phase. While an acute injury like a fall or hard hit can lead to injury when the growth plates are still delicate, the most common cause for injury during a growth phase is overuse or repetitive stress. So, your athlete just had a long weekend of games and they are complaining of being tired and possibly a little knee pain? Don't always use the “just power through it” mentality. Their bodies might need a few days off to recover. During growth phases, sometimes the best thing you can do to help your athlete refocus and start feeling better is to take a day off, or two, or three, or maybe even a week. More is not more when you are growing.
MINDSET PRACTICE AND RETEACHING---Often the destroyer of your child's self-esteem is not someone else, it is themselves and the self-talk they are repeating in between their ears. The early teen years is the most important time to teach positive mindset, self-talk, and mental toughness. Currently, I can see a big mindset and mental toughness issue with my son's team. The language I hear and the body language I see out on the field is not very positive. You see this a lot with teams and kids who are not well equipped with positive mindset and self-talk skills. You must be cautious in confusing negative mindset and body language with a lack of motivation or enthusiasm as this can be very detrimental, even ending an athletic career before it has begun. Sometimes it may be a motivation issue, but before going on the attack, you need to investigate further.Adolescence is the perfect time to start drilling the life-long skills of positive self-talk and mental toughness. Instead of allowing and ignoring the negative talk that kills self-esteem, kids need their coaches and parents to help foster a toughness and positivity in their athletes so they can put their focus in a different direction. All of the above steps will help start this process. Sometimes mental toughness and mindset are hard to teach, but it is not impossible and is very achievable. Start having these conversations with your athletes. You may find that cutting practice short 20 minutes and working on mindset and mental toughness will bring you bigger gains during these pivotal years instead of those extra reps of drills they have done hundreds of times. Teens have self-esteem struggles and they need guidance on changing their mindsets and self-talk. Address this with your kids and teams and you will find they will benefit greatly on and off the field.
At the end of the day, it is not easy as parents and coaches to watch a decline in performance with your athletes. Sometimes, there is a need for panic and frustration if your athletes aren't giving their best efforts and putting in the work they need to succeed. But, if your athlete's lack of performance is sudden, often unexplainable, and clearly a source of frustration and defeat to your athlete, then maybe they are going through a growth phase and you need to cut them some slack. Be aware that it happens to most athletes and embrace this time as an area of opportunity for your athlete. Puberty and growing is only temporary, but can be pivotal in how your athlete views sports moving forward. Be the teacher and source of encouragement your athlete needs so that they can build on their self-esteem, skills, and mental toughness instead of tearing it down. Remember, it's not your job to produce an Olympian, it's your job to foster an environment for your kids to love the sport they play and hopefully continue a healthy, active lifestyle into adulthood. Embrace the “suck” and teach your athlete to embrace the “suck” too.