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Category: Parents & Youth Sport

The Psychology of Young Athletes (podcast)

Published February 8, 2018


Episode 21 of the Create An Athlete podcast sees co-hosts Stephen Edelson and Jerry Carino discussing the psychology of young athletes with 2017-2018 AASP President Amy Baltzell, author of "Whose Game Is It, Anyway?". 

Click here to listen to the podcast.

About the Create an Athlete podcast
Real-life advice for parents and young athletes on emerging happy and healthy from shark-infested waters of youth, scholastic and – with a little luck – collegiate sports. Because in the quest for athletic success and maybe even college scholarships, the emotional and financial costs can be excessive.

Published in: Athletes, Parents & Youth Sport

From “Me” to “We”: Promoting Team Cohesion among Youth Athletes

Published October 10, 2017

Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu photo

By Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu
University of North Texas; AASP Youth Sport SIG

Alan is currently a Ph.D. student in Educational Psychology with a Sport Pedagogy concentration at the University of North Texas. He works with the NCAA Women’s Volleyball as a sport psychology consultant. His research interests focus on the associations of coaching and team environments with sport motivation among adolescents and young adults.


Have you coached a high school sport program for many years? Have you volunteered to coach a youth sport team in a recreational league? Either way, team cohesion has a big impact on the success of your program and you as a coach.

What is team cohesion?
Cohesion is defined as a dynamic process of the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united to pursue instrumental objectives and satisfaction of member affective needs (Carron, Brawley, & Widmeyer, 1998). In a sport team, it can be viewed as the extent to which athletes are motivated to practice, compete as a team, and “hang together”. Cohesion is multidimensional, including:

  • Task cohesion: the level of unity of a team in task performance (e.g., teamwork and task completion within sports such as working together to win a championship); and
  • Social cohesion: the level of unity of a team in social aspects (e.g., social support and friendships outside of sports).

Why is team cohesion important?
Team cohesion positively predicts team performance, and team performance positively predicts team cohesion (Filho, Dobersek, Gershgoren, Becker, & Tenenbaum, 2014). In other words, if a team is more cohesive, it is more likely to perform well, which in turn will lead to a more cohesive team. This concept is especially important for youth athletes because it is also positively related to sport satisfaction, sport continuation, and youth development.

It is important to understand how task and social cohesion influence youth athletes in order to implement effective team building and coaching strategies. Some general considerations are:

  • Task cohesion is more strongly related to optimal sport performance than social cohesion, demonstrating the importance of having congruent task-related goals such as making practice plans together
  • Task cohesion is generally higher in teams that require working together during competition (e.g., track relays) than those that do not (e.g., cross country)
  • High social cohesion could result in both functional and dysfunctional behavioral patterns such as enhancing motivation in a sport while creating difficulties for constructive criticism
  • Motivational climates created by coaches are influential on task and social cohesion, thus highlighting the important role of coaches in creating optimal environments

Is team cohesion still important within an individual sport (e.g., golf)? Absolutely, because any sport team is a “team”! As soon as there is task or social interaction within a team, the concept of cohesion applies. As a coach, this answer should become clear when you ask youth athletes about why they play on your team — they will likely talk about their friendships and the fun that they experience within the sport (Visek et al., 2015).

As a coach, how can I improve team cohesion among my athletes?
A good starting point is to assess perceived cohesion from the athletes’ point of view. This can be done informally through individual or group conversations with your athletes. A sample question is: “How is your experience working with your teammates?” The key is to listen openly to their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Assessment can also be done more formally using existing validated questionnaires such as the Youth Sport Environment Questionnaire (YSEQ; Eys, Loughead, Bray, & Carron, 2009), which is designed for youth athletes.

After gaining an understanding of the current cohesiveness of your team, you may select some or all the following strategies to implement. In determining your next steps, it would be helpful to consider your sport, your athletes’ characteristics (e.g., age and gender), and your coaching philosophy.

  1. Team environment: Foster a strong sense of “we” instead “me” through team building activities, use of team slogans, and social interactions within and outside of the sport. One sample activity involves giving athletes a piece of paper and asking them to write down the word “me”. Then, have them flip the paper upside down so they see the word become “we”. During this process, facilitate a discussion of how the perspectives are different between “me” and “we”, and why the “we” perspective is important to adopt for better team performance and relationships. (Figure here.)
  2. Team structure: Instead of deciding roles for your athletes, offer them a chance to discuss their perceived roles and preferred responsibilities. This discussion can enhance teamwork and accountability, as well as empower athletes by giving them a choice in their team roles.
  3. Team processes: Focus on individual sacrifices and team cooperation to facilitate the process of building a strong team identity. Ask team captains to “take a new athlete under his/her wing”, involve all athletes in establishing task-related team goals beyond individual goals, and invite athletes of similar skill levels to discuss techniques and strategies to learn from each other.
  4. Team climate: Create an optimal motivational climate for your athletes to grow individually and as a team by utilizing the mastery approach to coaching (MAC; Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2007). For instance, when athletes make mistakes, you can encourage them to learn from those mistakes by praising their effort and giving them positive corrective instruction.

Improving team cohesion does not happen overnight. It is recommended that you reflect on your own coaching and team dynamics regularly in order to apply appropriate strategies to optimize both task and social cohesion. Starting to build your team early in the season and continuing your efforts throughout the season will likely make your team more cohesive and improve their performance.

Published in: Parents & Youth Sport

Freaked-out Kids in Sports: Keys to Stress Reduction

Published August 23, 2016

Frank L. Smoll photo

By Frank L. Smoll
Department of Psychology, University of Washington

Frank L. Smoll is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Smoll’s research focuses on coaching behaviors in youth sports and on the psychological effects of competition on children and adolescents. He has published more than 140 scientific articles and book chapters, and he is coauthor of 22 books and manuals on children’s athletics. Professor Smoll is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), and the National Academy of Kinesiology. In 2002, he was the recipient of AASP’s Distinguished Professional Practice Award. Dr. Smoll has extensive experience in conducting psychologically oriented coaching clinics and workshops for parents of young athletes.

A 20-year trend in youth sports emphasizes teaching coaches how to create a healthy psychological environment for their athletes. However, there’s also an important need to educate parents, so they can support and supplement what trained coaches are trying to do.

How do parents unintentionally become a source of stress for young athletes?

All parents identify with their children to some extent and thus want them to do well. Unfortunately, in some cases, the degree of identification becomes excessive, and the child becomes an extension of the parent’s ego. When parents over-identify with their child’s sport performance, they begin to define their own self-worth in terms of their son’s or daughter’s successes or failures.

A father who is a “frustrated jock” may seek to experience through his child the success he never knew as an athlete. A parent who was a star may be resentful and rejecting if the child does not attain a similar level of achievement. Some parents thus become “winners” or “losers” through their children, and the pressure placed on the children can be extreme. The child must succeed, or the parent’s self-image is threatened. When parental love and approval depend on how well their children perform, sports are bound to be stressful.

What can adults do to help combat performance anxiety?

Coaches and parents are in an ideal position to help young athletes develop healthy attitudes about achievement and an ability to tolerate setbacks when they occur. In fact, a study conducted with my colleagues, indicates that by educating coaches and parents, they can effectively reduce athletes’ competitive anxiety (Smoll, Smith, & Cumming, 2007). Our research demonstrated the combined effectiveness of two adult-education programs.

What were the research methods?

The 151 participants were 84 boys and 67 girls, who played in two different basketball leagues. The average age of the athletes was 11.6 years. Coaches in one league (an experimental group) participated in a Mastery Approach to Coaching workshop that we developed. The workshop content emphasized skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun (see Smoll & Smith, 2015).

Additionally, parents of youngsters in the experimental league participated in a Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports workshop (see Smoll & Smith, 2012). The program taught them how to apply mastery principles and how to reduce performance anxiety in their children. Coaches and parents in the second league (a control group) were not offered either of the workshops.

What were the results?

Pre-season questionnaires showed little difference in the levels of performance anxiety among the youngsters in the two leagues. However, by the end of the season, athletes playing for trained coaches and whose parents attended the Mastery Approach workshop reported that their levels of stress, worry, and concentration disruption on the court had decreased. Players in the other league reported that their anxiety had increased over the course of the season.

What was learned?

The evidence indicated that a combined education approach helped coaches and parents to create a mastery-oriented climate. In regard to this, we never ignore the importance of winning, because it’s an important objective in all sports. But with a Mastery Approach, winning is placed in a healthy perspective. As a result, young athletes exposed to the mastery climate had less worries about their performance, and they were better able to concentrate while playing.

A core component of the Mastery Approach is a conception of success as giving maximum effort and becoming the best one can be. Coaches and parents are thus encouraged to adopt a four-part philosophy of winning (Smoll & Smith, 2012, pp. 29-32):

  1. Winning isn’t everything, nor is it the only thing. Young athletes can’t get the most out of sports if they think that the only objective is to beat their opponents. As noted above, winning is an important goal, but it’s not the most important objective.
  2. Failure is not the same thing as losing. It’s important that athletes don’t view losing as a sign of failure or as a threat to their personal value.
  3. Success isn’t equivalent to winning. Neither success nor failure need depend on the outcome of a contest or on a won-loss record. Winning and losing pertain to the outcome of a contest, whereas success and failure do not.
  4. Athletes should be taught that success is found in striving for victory (that is, success is related to commitment and effort). Athletes should be taught that they are never “losers” if they give maximum effort.

Fear of failure is an athlete’s worst enemy, and sport competition can easily create this type of anxiety. The encouraging thing is that educational programs for coaches and parents can give them the tools for decreasing pressure and increasing enjoyment. And an added bonus is that athletes who are not afraid of failure typically perform better. When coaches and parents are taught stress-reduction principles, they can be a winning combination for kids.

How can you get online training in the Mastery Approach?

To facilitate distribution of the workshops, the research-based coach and parent programs have been converted to video format. To find out more about the Mastery Approach, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website (

Smoll, F. L., & Smith, R. E. (2012). Parenting young athletes: Developing champions in sports and life. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Smoll, F. L., & Smith, R. E. (2015). Conducting evidence based coach-training programs: A social-cognitive approach. In J. M. Williams & V. Krane (Eds.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (7th ed., pp. 359-382). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., & Cumming, S. P. (2007, Summer). Effects of coach and parent training on performance anxiety in young athletes: A systemic approach. Journal of Youth Development, 2. Article 0701FA002.

Published in: Coaches, Athletes, Parents & Youth Sport

Importance of AASP Certified Consultants

Published February 5, 2015

By Jack J. Lesyk

Jack J. Lesyk, Ph.D., speaks about the importance of AASP's Certified Consultants.

Published in: Coaches, Consulting, Athletes, Parents & Youth Sport

Disordered Eating in Athletes

Published February 5, 2015

By Dana Voelker

Dana Voelker discusses what parents, coaches, and certified consultants can do to prevent and manage eating disorders in athletes.

Published in: Mental Health, Coaches, Parents & Youth Sport, Consulting