How Coaches Can Help Student-Athletes Improve their Mental Barriers

“The road to easy street goes through the sewer”

-John Madden

As a coach, your role in a student athlete’s life is critical. You’re not only teaching some skills or correcting postures. You’re guiding someone to overcome their limits, step into the next version of themselves, and achieve their greatest dreams. You are a living role model that mastery in sports can be achieved. If you’re unaware of your influence on the lives of college athletes, perhaps this article could help you change your mind. As a coach, you have a wonderful–yet challenging– job. To support athletes’ progress. Yet as we already know, progress isn’t just physical: it’s also mental.

In fact, progress is primarily mental. Before improving at their sport, athletes must first believe that they’re capable of doing so. And here lies your most important role as a coach: to promote that space in which the athlete can overcome their limits and reach their biggest goals. In this article, we are going to outline the main ways in which sports coaches like you can make a huge difference in the athlete’s ability to overcome their internal limitations–or mental barriers to success, as we like to call them.

The coach’s role in athletic mental performance

Lack of support is part of the reason why mental barriers develop in student-athletes. As someone who guides athletes’ progress, you know what it takes to motivate or discourage a student. You can help them pick themselves up after a lost competition, but you can equally make them lose confidence in themselves by using the wrong words. Knowing this should make you more aware that your role is mental support just as much as it is skills training. By becoming aware of the ways in which you can enhance an athlete’s confidence in themselves, you can become a more empowering coach that helps their students achieve their goals. The following tips will help you develop a more supportive approach to overcoming mental barriers in your student-athletes.

Promote strengths

Many student-athletes struggle with internal limitations and mental barriers because they’re not directly aware of their personal strengths. In a world that focuses on mainstream traits like extraversion, ambition, and charisma, student-athletes can overlook what makes them unique and powerful. Because of this, many will put all their energy and attention into what they lack as opposed to what they bring to their teams. For example, a student-athlete might get so caught up in their lack of social charisma that they will fail to notice the valuable leadership skills they bring to their team. In this sense, a mental barrier definition refers to someone’s lack of awareness of their unique strengths and skills.

The coach can correct this imbalance by delivering a coaching approach focusing on the student’s strengths while pushing them to improve at their sports. When an athlete is more conscious of what makes them unique, talented, and great, they will feel more resilient in battling those mental barriers that hold them back from pursuing their dreams.

Student athlete having self doubt

A coach can act as a reminder of someone’s natural talent and abilities by bringing those strengths to the surface. For example, when coaching an athlete whose strength is love of learning but who struggles with speed, you can teach them to apply the same principles they apply when learning something new to their speed training process. You can encourage them to approach their training with patience, curiosity, and a desire to improve-just like they do when trying to learn something new. Asking questions that prompt the student-athlete to think about what they do well (in their personal life, at school, in their sports) is a great way to promote strengths. Also, whenever you notice your student-athlete progress at something they’ve been struggling with, make sure to acknowledge that. Everyone wants to hear about what they’re doing right–especially a college athlete who tries to build their self-worth in a competitive environment. That’s how breaking through one’s barriers can start.

Become aware of your words

The words you’re using are powerful–especially when coaching people. A sentence that may seem inoffensive to you might cause a student to feel terrible about themselves for the rest of the day. This is particularly important when working with children and teenagers who are easily influenced. They will internalize every word you say and use it to form an internal narrative that will make or break their self-image and confidence. But when using the right words, you can reverse this process and actually help the young athlete overcome their mental barriers.

You can do this by paying attention to the words you typically use during a coaching session. Are you primarily focused on what the athlete does wrong? Do you offer criticism often? Do you fail to acknowledge progress and proof of improvement? If so, you might be contributing to someone’s mental barriers rather than helping them to work through them.

Tailor your coaching style

The student-athletes you are coaching have a wide range of personalities, learning styles, visions, and ways of relating to others. As you are becoming more aware of your words and help athletes play to their unique strengths, you must ensure that all interventions and feedback you deliver are specifically tailored to your student-athlete. Of course, this implies that you are more intentional about how you’re coaching athletes and how you structure the training process.

 Delivering intentional coaching should start with understanding each student’s needs, experiences, and cultural backgrounds. This could entail setting up conversations to get to know your student-athlete better, building in activities to help students reflect on what they need from the coaching process, or finding time to talk about how you can work with them in a more personalized way.

Student-athlete thinking about failure

Tailored coaching may not seem like the most obvious intervention to help athletes push through their mental barriers, but it definitely impacts their performance in the long term. It is a time-consuming intervention, but it shifts the way an athlete self-worth. Tailored coaching encompasses the two elements mentioned above: training someone to their strengths and using the right words. When the athlete feels prioritized and valued, their self-confidence increases–which is already one step forward to removing mental barriers. Many athletes struggle with self-confidence and low self-worth, which is the reason they are afraid of working towards a better version of themselves.

Coaching style and mental barriers

Adopting a coaching style that decreases the athlete’s internal limitations–as opposed to increasing their mental barriers–can make all the difference in how someone feels about themselves. In other words, as a coach, you have control over creating and maintaining the standard and quality of your athlete’s preparation environment. You either drive these factors through your own coaching and leadership skills or by empowering your athletes to drive these factors themselves. But either way, this is what great coaching is about: creating an environment where the opportunity for success is increased.

 This is the core of high-performance coaching: it encourages athletes to gain evidence that they have the skills and the strengths to perform. Your job, as a coach, is to prepare the environment for your athlete to find those pieces of evidence. When they accumulate the proof they need to believe in themselves, those mental barriers that hold them back from success begin to diminish.

 The point of this article was to remind you that you have a tremendous role in helping a young athlete shape their internal narrative. Your role is more complex than you might believe. You have the power to encourage someone to push themselves by bringing their strengths to the surface. Through the words you’re using and the training you are delivering, you can promote a coaching and training environment that sets an athlete up for success.

Final words

To sum up, it’s important for you to know that, as a coach, you have a key role in helping your athletes find a solution to their psychological barriers. Make an effort to be an active participant in their support systems. You can do that by promoting a supportive training environment where they can play to their strengths. Pay attention to the words you’re using: are they harsh and critical, or do they have the power to boost someone’s self-esteem? Is your coaching style vague and general, or does it address the unique personalities and learning styles of your student-athletes?

Finally, help your student identify their main mental barriers before a competition and make a plan with them so they can better cope with those. How could you highlight their strengths so they feel less nervous in front of their adversary? How could you talk to them in a way that reminds them that they’ve got everything they need to succeed? As a coach, you are a key person in an athlete’s development and growth. Instead of letting this responsibility overwhelm you, use it as an opportunity to help a human being become their best version.

athlete free climbing cliff