Max Trenerry is a licensed psychologist who works at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. At Mayo, Max is a specialist in diagnostic clinical neuropsychology and Associate Professor of Psychology in the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. He is a sport psychology consultant for U.S. Youth Soccer’s Region II, and lectures for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. Max has provided sport psychology consultation for his local club, Rochester Youth Soccer Association, and has worked with athletes in youth leagues, the Olympic Development Program, College and Junior College soccer players, and soccer players in the Professional Development League.
1. What is important about sports for kids?
In general, kids will tell you they participate because the activity is "fun." And, the reasons that some activity is fun are important. In general, we all are inclined to pursue an activity if we feel like we are "good" at it (being "good" at something can be defined in different ways), if the activity is our choice (choices may need to be directed in a way appropriate for the child’s development or situation), and if there is some sense of "affiliation" or belonging or caring about the child’s pursuit of the activity (the sense of belonging or caring also changes based on development). So, again, kids participate in sport for "fun"…and that will be mediated by who cares and how the caring is demonstrated, the child’s choices, and if they feel like they are "successful" or competent.
2. Some schools, some districts in North Carolina, come to mind, require periodic movement activities in the classroom. The purpose is to encourage/improve learning. Is this evidence based? Comments?
To their credit, members of the North Carolina’s consensus panel on physical activity in schools seem to have put together a good document with information on the importance of physical activity along with health and academic effects. There does appear to be evidence that physical activity helps to improve cognitive performance. The mechanism for that effect may not boil down to a single component of physical activity, and I suppose that this may be a secondary effect. For example, regular physical activity may improve sleep, and that may in turn improve cognitive performance.
3. Why are some kids successful in sports and others not?
The definition of "success" is important. And, how a child defines success will likely be learned from the situation(s) they are in (which will many times be supervised by adults) and from what they see and hear.
4. What can be done to allow more kids to be successful in sports?
By providing them with opportunities to have self-referenced success with minimal comparison to the "success" of others until it is more developmentally appropriate. For example, kids won’t get much into true cooperative play until around 8 years old. And, they’ve had only 8 years (fewer, really) to build up any sense of self. So, if we provide them with a caring environment, in which we’re impressed by their improvement that is quantitatively or qualitatively "better" than their previous performance, give them plenty of developmentally appropriate options for how they might pursue that activity, we’ll be providing them with the motivational "building blocks" they need to continue.
Later in their lives, some kids will "shine" and during their adolescence, some will stand out as more skilled than others. There is the "10,000 hour rule" that seems to have come from Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers" book. I think the "take home" message from this is that excellence at anything requires lots of practice and training, and it has to be real practice with an intent to learn or add to knowledge or skill.
At the same time, I doubt that any 6 year old starts out their soccer or tennis career thinking that they have to rack up 10,000 hours in order to make it to the top of their game. They may have a marvelous dream of playing at the top level like a hero, and they may want to go train like their hero, but they are more "in the moment" with their play and training even though they might reference a fantastic future.
And, excellent performance requires focusing on "the moment at hand" rather than some imagined future.
5. Let’s take sports psychology to another level. What separates great athletes from those who "don’t make it."
As suggested above, lots of quality training is necessary. At some point there may be physical qualities that just make some athletes better (V02max, the mix of fast and short twitch fibers someone has in their musculature).
From a psychological perspective, the type of motivational environment provided early on is probably extremely important. And there isn’t any one thing to do with this…it’s a matter of providing that environment in a consistent way over time…as parents and coaches, we usually do that by "painting in broad brush strokes."
As athletes develop and mature cognitively, emotionally, socially as well as physically, they also develop varying degrees of "willingness." They start to find out that they can define success based on their own terms, but also by how they measure up to others. And, they become ‘willing" to put in the effort, become uncomfortable, experience some failure, and they are willing to experience that failure or adversity for the sake of trying.
6. How important is the mental aspect of athletes as they rise in the level of competitiveness?
As suggested above, this can become a huge issue. One of the concerns I’ve been asked to help with is how soccer players deal with mistake management…or their own emotional reaction to events in training or competition.
7. What are some of the mental aspects that we should discuss?
8. Does mental imaging aid performance in sports? Other endeavors?
In sport, and probably other endeavors…yes.
9. What is "choking"? What causes this? What is the prevention?
"Choking" typically refers to a mistake or error during competition or training in a situation that appeared to involve relatively low demand or effort. For example, the classic miss. What causes choking may well be a bit different across athletes. Dr. Sian Beilock’s book, "Choke" is an interesting read on the topic. It might be considered "over thinking", and athletes will report that they sometimes have too much time in a game situation to "think", and so they choke. Sometimes, there is a significant emotional interference. As I recall, Dr. Beilock suggested that athletes learn to consider themselves in multiple life-roles, not only as athletes. When practiced, that’s probably a good cognitive intervention. I use related approaches to help athletes stay focused during training and matches. Those methods involve awareness, mindfulness, and refocusing attention.
10. In the wake of sexual abuse accusations involving coaches and players, some parents may be hesitant to allow their children to participate in athletics? Is this reasonable? What can be done to alleviate parental concerns regarding possible abuse, sexual or even physical?
It’s always a good idea to have a "two deep" or "two adult" rule so that you always have two supervising adults around athletes. Ultimately, this also provides some protection and assurance for the adults involve. And, any adults who have contact with youth athletes should go through a background check for criminal or related activity.
There are a few simple guidelines to follow as well. For example, don’t drop off your child with the coach who is still waiting for her or his assistant…and then leave. Etc.
11. What makes a good coach – athlete relationship?
That is a great question…I don’t know that we’ll summarize that in the next few minutes. I’ll consider the question below, "what makes a good coach?", at the same time.
I think a coach is ultimately a teacher. In this role, I like to think of coaching as providing some information about what is to be learned, and especially providing lots of situations to utilize the information in a creative learning environment. So, athletes may take some basic information, and then be given problems to solve, in the context of there game…whatever that might be…to use the information.
Successful coaches provide lots of chances to learn in this way, and set the situations up so that there is a fair amount of success while keeping the learning situations demanding.
12. What makes a good coach?
13. What is your approach to coaching as a youth soccer coach in Minnesota?
I’ve described some of it just above…and while it sounds sort of straightforward, it’s always a bit challenging to put into practice every time. There are lots of nights I’ll come home and sketch out how I might have run the session differently because I had a different idea…Sometimes I realize that I could have made the session better, but too late, because they’re already playing their game at the end of the session. There are those nights when it all seems to click, the kids get the ideas and use them…sometimes in ways I hadn’t considered…they’re creative…they have fun, and it’s a great night. My family can usually tell when that’s happened.
14. What’s more important, winning or quality of play?
For me, it’s quality of play. I’m biased because I coach younger players where I’m more concerned about developing them as soccer players and as individuals. At the lofty heights of national team or professional play, winning will typically take over.
15. To keep kids playing you have promoted three key ideas: choice, competence, and caring. Let’s discuss each and why these approaches can help to keep kids involved and enjoying sports.
Great…I can usually go on quite a while over Self Determination Theory!
16. The Positive Coaching Alliance stresses honoring the game and effort not winning…is this similar to quality of play?
I’d say so. The Positive Coaching Alliance doesn’t get into it by name, but what they are inculcating is a fairly high level of moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg was a developmental psychologist who studied moral behavior and development in children. The idea of "honoring the game" brings in the idea that we are all together, that we are pursuing an activity for some greater good, that we are all part of something larger than us that we hope lasts beyond us. That type of perspective helps to build a "higher" level of moral reasoning that involves social justice, and even sacrifice for the sake of a greater good.
17. An evidence based approach of the Positive Coaching Alliance is for coaches to practice positive reinforcement over negative comments as a way to improve performance, especially in an important game situation. (For example it provides less stress/anxiety on the competitor.) Does this make sense to you?
It can. I don’t know if there are specific studies on this…perhaps the Positive Coaching Alliance has pursued this. In general, I prefer that youth be approached with an attitude of trying to "add to their game" by first noting what they do well, and then asking them to add some "piece" that is attainable (though perhaps challenging) for them. Doing so can actually involve correcting mistakes, but without directly pointing them out. This is probably more important for kids who have lower self-esteem.
18. From the Positive Coaching Alliance ELM script: "So, remember, as long as you give your best Effort, Learn and are not afraid of Mistakes, you are climbing the ELM Tree of Mastery, and you’ll be a winner in sports and in life." Comments?
The positive coaching alliance approach is just that, Positive. I like the idea though I wonder how many times kids can hear this without starting to tune it out. Finding ways to express and show this attitude can speak louder than words even years later.
19. A discussion about sports psychology may seem to be a strange place to discuss bullying but you have discussed this often with coaches/parents/media. What is the connection?
20. What are the results of bullying?
21. What can be done to prevent bullying?
I was asked by colleagues at Mayo to help with a video on deterring bullying in sport. My approach to that, which I use as a base for a lot of the work I do, was a value-development intervention. All of the athletes, even they young soccer players (and younger) that I’ve worked with come up with values like "hard working", "dedicated", "caring", "honest", "kind", when they are asked what kinds of soccer players, sons, daughters, students, and friends they want to be. It’s really impressive, gratifying, and heart-warming. The beliefs and values they come up with are obviously inconsistent with the behavior of bullies…and kids can come up what they could do to act in ways consistent with their values if confronted with bullying in some situation. The girls I worked with in the video came up with the idea that they would confront a bully, ideas on what they would say, and that they wouldn’t have to do it alone…all to honor the values that they came up with when I asked, and that they all shared.
22. What are a few of the common mistakes parents make with their children participating in athletics?
That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? Well, to be honest, cheering is a big one. I have some comments on what’s a cheer and what’s not.
And, the ride home. If you’re a youth athlete, the ride home from training or competition can be hell. It doesn’t have to be.
23. Can we relate the advice above to general parenting advice?
I think so. When I’ve helped with MYSA PACT meetings, we’ll have a school room or cafeteria full of soccer parents, and by the end, several will typically volunteer that the whole program is simply about how to improve what they already do as parents (notice I’m trying to take the idea of adding to what they already do well).
24. How important is it for the advice above to start early in a child’s life? Why?
Well, I can give you examples of "automatic language." Here, I’m making reference to the idea that once a word or phrase is "in your head", it’s not coming back out. And with athletics, or other things, once we’ve said the words to the child or around them…we can’t take them back. Some of the athletes I’ve worked with have some pretty terrible words automatically come to mind when they perceive themselves as making a mistake. They weren’t born with those words…they had to be learned. So, if we can start out with self-referencing goals, improving on what is being done well by adding some new attainable skill, seeing the athlete in the here and now (for the beautiful and amazing child they are at that moment), letting their coach help them be competent, and give them lots of developmentally (and that changes as they change) appropriate choices and chances…who knows how far they’ll go? (and, actually, we won’t until they get there…which is good…or we’d miss all those moments)