How can a Coach (unintentionally) Create more Mental Barriers in Their Student-athlete?

Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.

-Sir. Winston Churchill…

Even if you are a great and experienced coach, you might use words, practices, or approaches that are feeding your student-athlete’s mental barriers to success. A harsh criticism on the athlete’s bad day, an general coaching style for an introverted athlete, or the wrong word slipped during someone’s training can have an undesired effect on a student-athlete’s confidence.

Naturally, as a coach, you want to empower your students to play at their best. Even if you have the best intentions in mind, not being aware of how your words and practices impact the other person can feed on the fears and mental barriers they’re struggling with. In this article, we are going to outline the main ways in which you, as a coach, can contribute to a student-athlete’s mental blocks, even if your intention is to help them break through their mental barriers. By becoming aware of these unintentional mistakes, you can improve the way you relate to your students and choose practices that motivate them.

Focusing on mistakes

Student athlete having self doubt

To do that, always ensure that you are acknowledging the student-athlete’s progress, too. Compliment a perfectly-executed throw. Let them know that you’re seeing their motivation and discipline. If you want to make some suggestions for improvement that could be difficult to hear, always start with acknowledging the things they’re doing well first – and only then follow with the rest of your feedback. This way, when you’ll deliver that constructive feedback, it will land softer on their mind, because they will have the awareness of their strengths to protect them. One way to test how your feedback could be received is to put yourself into the student-athlete’s shoes: if you were a 16-year-old athlete who doesn’t have full emotional resilience, how you would find those words? Would you be inspired, motivated, or terrified by them? This way, you don’t just remove their mental barriers to learning – but you’re also helping them integrate constructive feedback into their practice.

How to overcome mental barriers? This is a question that most athletes ask themselves at some point in their careers. As a coach, you have a big responsibility. To train someone is to help them go through countless mistakes on the way to mastery. You will probably have seen already all mistakes a student-athlete can make in their sport. If you are perfectionistic yourself, chances are you will have a difficult time witnessing people’s flaws and mistakes. Therefore, your natural tendency will be to correct them so that they get better at what they do. Even if your intentions are good, adopting an approach where you mainly focus on what a student-athlete does wrong can feed their existing mental barriers in sports. If you intervene or offer feedback only when they make a mistake, they will think that nothing they ever do is good enough. You can see how, no matter how well-meaning you are, you can harm someone’s self-esteem simply by focusing on their shortcoming while ignoring their strengths.

This does not mean that you are not allowed to make corrections where they are needed. Student-athletes who are committed to succeeding should always welcome constructive feedback, even when this is difficult to hear. But part of your greatest challenge, as a coach, is to deliver this feedback in a way that makes the student-athlete grow without losing their self-confidence.

Expecting nothing but perfection

Psychological barriers also include perfectionism – which is an antidote to growth. If we wait until we are perfect to follow our dreams and do what we love, we will never have the chance to get better. Even if you already know this in theory, you might have days where you let that aspiration of getting the best out of your student-athlete take over. In your desire to help them get to the best version of themselves and remove their mental barriers, you might be missing out on the fact that sometimes, in order to get to that perfect performance, someone needs to have 50 imperfect ones. Even if a student-athlete progresses slower, this doesn’t mean they’re not making an active effort.

Bear in mind that many student-athletes are already imposing great expectations on themselves. Perhaps they’re already perfectionistic themselves. If you mirror that perfectionism, this will do nothing but create even more mental barriers to progress. They will remain paralyzed in the “thinking” mode instead of taking action and practicing out of fear that they won’t live up to your high expectations.

Instead of expecting perfect performances from your student-athletes, acknowledge signs of progress – even tiny ones. Even if someone is 99 steps away from that perfect technique – but 20 steps ahead from where they started, notice and praise that. In sports, perfection is often worshipped at the risk of missing out on the skills and abilities that are already there. Therefore, excessively focusing on perfection as a way of enhancing your student-athletes can, paradoxically, inhibit it. Besides, it will lead the athlete to increase their own perfectionism, too.

Making everything about winning

One crucial aspect of breaking through your mental barriers is allowing yourself to fail. Have you ever taken the time to assess your coaching philosophy? How do you approach the idea of winning versus losing? How do you use this idea when training student-athletes?

Your personal perspective on coaching is likely to play a major role in your coaching style. The way you perceive the idea of losing is very likely to impact the student-athletes you are working with. If you think that the idea of a game is for the athlete to win (as opposed to approaching it as an opportunity to improve), you could unintentionally create more mental barriers to success like perfectionism and performance anxiety. Even if the world of sports is highly focused on winning as an ultimate goal, making progress in one’s sport or growing on a personal level as a result of participation are equally valuable goals to pursue. 

If you focus excessively on winning in your coaching practice, your student-athlete will pick up on that. In response to your expectations, they will put pressure on themselves to deliver no less than perfect performances, which in turn can make them afraid of taking risks and challenging themselves. This is a classical mental barrier example.

Student-athlete thinking about failure

An alternative to this approach could be a coaching style that focuses on progress over perfection. Don’t promote an “all or nothing” mindset where you discard the value of a lost game or imperfect performance. For young student-athletes who are just beginning to gain life experience, there are lessons to learn from every small action they take. Allow them to engage in taking brave action even if their chances to succeed are small. It’s only through experimentation and mistakes that they develop themselves.

Using negative motivation

When you want to motivate people, taking the wrong approach is common. For example, you might assume that you can help student-athlete be more resilient or mentally tough by criticizing or humiliating them or doubting their abilities. Based on logic only, doing so will cause the athlete to want to ‘prove you wrong’ and work hard to gain your praise. But young athletes operate on more than logic. They play with their emotions, personalities, and are impacted by other people’s feedback. They don’t become more mentally resilient as a result of negative motivation.

If a coach tells them how terrible they are at their game or how they will lose to their opponent, they will internalize this feedback as the truth about who they are. As a result, they won’t play better: their performance will suffer simply because they lose the backbone of their performance: their self-confidence. Remember that coaching a student-athlete is not the same thing as coaching a mature 30-year-old athlete who can question your arguments and fight back at you. You are coaching vulnerable, highly influenceable young athletes who rely on the people around them to build their sense of self and find their place in the world.

Contrary to common belief, negative motivation doesn’t toughen someone up. It just creates more psychological barriers. Instead, try more empowering approaches such as catching your players doing things well, underscoring their good performances, and calling attention to great plays. You will not make your student-athletes soft by doing this. Instead, you will help them feel even better about themselves and this will pay off in gutsy, mentally tough performances.

Becoming a supportive coach

No matter how experienced you are, you can destroy a young athlete’s self-confidence by taking the wrong approach in coaching. Using negative motivation, obsessing over winning, promoting perfectionism, and dwelling on mistakes are just a few ways in which you are feeding your athlete’s fears and mental barriers in sports. Even if you never engage in drastic behaviors like insulting, humiliating, or publicly offending your athlete, your blindspots (such as perfectionistic tendencies) are enough to discourage them from pursuing greatness. Remember that negative motivation isn’t the key to mental resilience and game toughness – it’s having a solid sense of belief in oneself that allows athletes to challenge themselves and become stronger.

athlete free climbing cliff

A supportive coaching approach will always be more effective in improving athletic performance because it equips the athlete with plenty of resources such as encouragement, awareness of their strengths, and validation. When an athlete has people believing in them, their confidence will build up. Part of your role, as a coach, is to mirror the potential you’re seeing in them. When you mirror it, the athlete will see it clearer. That’s how their mental barriers begin to dissolve.