Mental Toughness for Young Athletes: How to Actually Build It

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Primary Blog/Mental Toughness for Young Athletes: How to Actually Build It

Mental Toughness for Young Athletes: How to Actually Build It

What if we told you that there’s a secret ingredient that separates good athletes from great ones? This powerful tool, known as “mental toughness for young athletes,” can help enhance their performance, develop greater resilience, and realize their highest aspirations. That secret ingredient is mental toughness, and in this blog post, we’ll explore strategies to help young athletes unlock their full potential by developing mental toughness for young athletes.

Keep reading if you want to learn how to build mental toughness for young athletes from the perspective of a former Navy SEAL, professional athlete, and father to three young athletes.

If you want to go deeper into this subject, check out my book on Amazon.

Short Summary

  • ​Instill mental toughness in youth athletes through support, guidance and encouragement to reach their full potential.
  • ​Developing a growth mindset and goal setting can help young athletes build confidence, stay disciplined & manage pressure/adversity.
  • ​Building mental toughness and physical skills work together.

The Importance of Mental Toughness in Youth Sports

Mental toughness can be a game-changer for young athletes. It’s the ability to remain resilient and push through difficult situations, which is the essence of being mentally tough. By cultivating self-confidence, young athletes can start building mental toughness from the beginning, following the footsteps of sports mental toughness giants. Resilience and the capacity to handle pressure confidently are two essential traits for youth athletes to develop mental toughness.

Parents and coaches can contribute greatly to the development of mental toughness in young athletes by providing support, guidance, and encouragement.

Benefits of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness can help young athletes a maintain confidence, stay disciplined, and equip them with the mental toughness skills to handle pressure and adversity. Skill development, self-confidence and a healthy attitude towards performance evaluation should be prioritized in youth athletes.

Mental toughness can help young athletes stay focused when the pressure is on, so they can reach their highest level of performance. It can also empower young athletes to cultivate resilience and the capacity to deal with hardship, allowing them to stay composed and bounce back from errors. This, in turn, fosters self-esteem and self-efficacy, which can lead to enhanced performance.

The Role of Parents and Coaches

Parents can be instrumental in developing mental toughness in athletes by offering their support, encouragement, and helping their children talk directly to their coaches. They can also assist their children in understanding their personal mental toughness better.

Coaches, on the other hand, can help young athletes develop mental toughness by providing inspiring guidance, unwavering support, and positive encouragement. Coaches can also help athletes recognize and address their weaknesses, set challenging goals, and devise effective strategies to reach them.

Together, as a youth sports parent and coach, we can create a supportive atmosphere that encourages grit and determination in young athletes, setting them on the path to success

Strategies to Build Mental Toughness in Young Athletes

Developing mental toughness in young athletes involves setting achievable goals, instilling resilience, heightening awareness of thoughts, using visualization to enhance focus, utilizing relaxation techniques, rewarding effort, introducing challenges to create adversity, and helping your young athlete manage expectations. Gaining self-confidence through skill development and learning to objectively assess their performance are two key characteristics young athletes can develop to strengthen their mental toughness.

Parents and coaches play a crucial role in fostering mental toughness in young athletes by offering guidance and encouragement, setting achievable objectives, and offering praise and recognition. Moreover, they can create a supportive atmosphere that encourages grit and determination. By embracing these strategies, young athletes can enhance their performance, develop greater resilience, and realize their highest aspirations.

Developing a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the key to unlocking an athlete’s potential. It involves embracing challenges, persevering in the face of setbacks, seeing deliberate practice as a path to mastery, and learning from criticism and feedback – all through hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Having a growth mindset can open up a world of opportunities for young athletes, allowing them to view challenges as learning experiences and develop resilience to reach their peak performance.

Strategies to cultivate a growth mindset include setting goals and breaking them down in achievable steps, regulating emotions and managing stress, and learning from the best athletes and sports icons. By fostering a growth mindset in youth sports, young athletes can cultivate resilience, reach their highest potential, and manage the pressures of competition.

Goal Setting and Visualization

Goal setting is an essential component of mental toughness development. Setting goals can be incredibly beneficial in developing mental toughness, as it gives young athletes direction, purpose, and focus. Achieving these goals can then help increase motivation, self-esteem, independence, and confidence, enabling them to stay focused and ignore any distractions or negative thoughts.

Visualization is another powerful technique where athletes imagine their success before a game or practice. It can help young athletes stay focused, motivated, and confident in their abilities, so they can reach their goals and achieve success. Visualization is not a substitute for skill building it is a tool to focus and utilize the skills that they have built, visualization is powerful but it it has limits.

Together, goal setting and visualization can provide a solid foundation for developing mental toughness in young athletes participating in competitive sports.

Emotional Regulation and Stress Management

Emotional regulation is essential in developing mental toughness, as it allows individuals to manage their emotions in a healthy manner, leading to improved stress management and resilience. Strategies for managing stress and emotions effectively include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and cognitive reframing.

Many successful athletes have used emotional regulation and stress management techniques to help them stay focused and perform at their peak. For instance, Michael Jordan was renowned for his ability to remain composed and collected under pressure.

Parents and coaches can support young athletes in developing emotional regulation and stress management skills by doing everything they can to reduce anxiety and pressure leading up to a game. We can never eliminate pressure and anxiety, but we must avoid adding to it. If you would like to read about how I do this with my son, click here to read the Navy SEAL method for developing mental toughness.

Overcoming Sports Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety is a common challenge faced by many young athletes. Overcoming performance anxiety is essential for young athletes to achieve peak performance and enjoy their sports experience. Strategies to conquer sports performance anxiety are simple, but not easy.

Pressure can never be eliminated, but they can get used to it. This is done through deliberate practice and spending time under pressure. If every training day is harder than competition day then competition day is just another day.

Practicing can help young athletes build comfort and confidence in their abilities, leading to a reduction in anxiety. Maintaining routines can keep athletes on track and organized, which can help them stay calm and confident. Reframing anxiety can help athletes view it as an opportunity to challenge themselves rather than a threat, which can help them stay focused and motivated to reach their goals.

Identifying Triggers

Identifying the triggers of performance anxiety can help young athletes develop strategies to manage and overcome their fears. Young athletes can become more mindful of the triggers of sports performance anxiety by taking note of their thoughts and feelings before, during, and after a game or practice. They should also be aware of any physical symptoms they may experience, such as a heightened heart rate or excessive sweating.

By recognizing and understanding these triggers, young athletes can develop effective coping strategies to manage and overcome their performance anxiety. This can lead to improved focus, confidence, and overall performance in their chosen sport.

Learning to overcome these triggers is critical in their mental toughness journey. They will overcome them by:

1. Recognizing the triggers

2. Addressing the root cause in their training

Once the thing they are anxious about in competitive sports becomes second nature they will no longer be nervous about it. There are no shortcuts, encourage them to put in the work and continue getting better. Helping them view and deal with performance anxiety in this way is critical for youth sports parents.

Breathing Techniques and Relaxation Exercises

Breathing techniques can be helpful, but they are not as important as most people make them out to be. Taking a few deep breaths can definitely calm their nerves, but addressing the root cause is the only long term solution.

Think back to high school or college when you had that math final, or some other subject. You were nervous about the test and worried that you might fail. Now imagine you were taking that same test but at a middle school level. Would you be nervous? Of course you wouldn’t, because you have mastered the topic at that level.

Competitive sports are no different. So remember, breathing techniques can help calm nerves, but mental confidence is built through mastery. Help your young athlete work towards mastery.

Learning from Elite Athletes and Sports Icons

Elite athletes and sports icons can serve as powerful role models to develop mental toughness for young athletes. By observing and learning from the experiences of these successful athletes, young athletes can gain invaluable insights and motivation to become mentally strong and achieve success in their own sports.

From teamwork to pushing through fear and failure, elite athletes college coaches and sports icons have a wealth of knowledge and experience that can help young athletes cultivate mental toughness and resilience. By understanding and applying these lessons, young athletes can unlock their full potential and excel in their chosen sport.

Don’t just look at how they performed on their best days, look at how they reacted when things weren’t going well. What did they do after failure? What did they do to become elite? What obstacles did they overcome?

Stories of Resilience and Perseverance

Stories of resilience and perseverance from elite athletes can inspire and motivate young athletes to overcome challenges and setbacks in their own sports careers. Examples of such stories include Michael Jordan’s triumph over his father’s death to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Serena Williams’ conquest of injuries to become one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and Usain Bolt’s victory over poverty to become one of the greatest sprinters of all time.

These stories serve as powerful reminders how important it is to build mental toughness in order to achieve success, both in sports and in life. By understanding and applying the lessons learned from these elite athletes, young athletes can develop the resilience and perseverance necessary to overcome obstacles and reach their full potential.

Tips and Advice from Individuals Outside of Sports

Encourage them to read or watch stories about people in different areas that have achieved their goals through perseverance. The more they understand that perseverance is necessary for success in every area the more prepared they will be to be resilient themselves.

We live in a world of instant gratification and I constantly see young people get frustrated when they are not immediately successful. Knowing that achieving goals is hard work will put them in the right mindset to actually achieve them.

Implementing a Mental Toughness Plan

Developing mental toughness involves assessing a young athlete’s strengths and weaknesses and creating a customized plan to address their specific needs and goals. By identifying areas for improvement and developing targeted strategies, young athletes can enhance their mental game and achieve peak performance.

Assessing Strengths and Weaknesses

Assessing a young athlete’s strengths and weaknesses can help identify areas for improvement and develop targeted strategies that are relevant to their individual needs and goals. To identify these strengths and weaknesses, young athletes can engage in self-reflection, gather feedback from coaches and peers, and complete mental game assessments. I go into great detail about this in my book “Young Athletes’ Ultimate Guide to Mental Toughness.”

By understanding their own strengths and weaknesses, young athletes can develop a customized plan that addresses their specific needs and goals. This tailored approach can lead to heightened self-awareness, enhanced performance, and stronger resilience.

Creating a Customized Plan

Creating a customized mental toughness plan involves setting goals, developing strategies to reach those goals, and monitoring progress. A coach can provide invaluable guidance and support in assessing strengths and weaknesses, setting ambitious goals, and creating effective strategies to reach those goals.

By following a personalized plan, young athletes can build the skills necessary to excel in their chosen sport. This tailored approach can empower young athletes to overcome challenges, maintain focus, and achieve lasting success.

As they build their physical skills their confidence and mental skills will grow as well. On the mental toughness journey remember to build the physical and mental skills together.

Utilize a Training Mindset

During skill building phase it is crucial to have the right mindset. Young athletes must develop a growth mindset that prioritizes learning and skill development over short term results. They are laying the foundation today for their future success. Having the right mindset from the onset will enable them to build mental toughness faster.

Encourage them to focus on growth and skill acquisition. If they are not failing then they are most likely staying in their comfort zone which will hurt them in the long run.

View Failure as Feedback

Failure is the ultimate feedback. It highlights deficiencies, so encourage your young athlete to learn from failure and not fear it. Some of mine and my children’s greatest improvements have come after failure.

Life in sports, just as in life, isn’t always about scoring the winning goal, crossing the finish line first, or making the team each time you try out. There will be missed shots, lost games, and perhaps moments when you feel like you’re not making the cut. But remember this: failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s a part of it. Just like how the roughest stones are polished into the most beautiful gems, every stumble, every fall, every missed opportunity is not the end, but a beginning.

You see, failure is the world’s most effective, albeit, challenging teacher. It has lessons wrapped up in disappointment and defeat, ready to unravel for those who dare to learn. Every mistake you make on the field, every shot you miss, every race where you’re not at the head of the pack — these aren’t failures, but feedback. They’re signs pointing out what you need to work on, what skills need more honing, what areas need more of your time and attention. They’re clues, pushing you to strive for excellence, telling you that there’s still work to be done.

In these moments of struggle, remember this: Age doesn’t define maturity, scores don’t define talent, and failure doesn’t define you. Whether you’re 6 or 99, playing football, basketball, swimming, or running, the road to becoming the best version of yourself is paved with setbacks. However, it’s how you perceive and react to these setbacks that truly matter.

Choose to see failure as an opportunity to grow. Embrace the concept of “failing forward,” where every setback propels you a step further along your journey. Understand that each failure is just a rehearsal for future success, an integral part of the process that fosters resilience, determination, and courage.

College athletes, NFL athletes, NBA athletes and all others who have made it to the highest levels of their sport have something in common. They have all displayed the mental fortitude to stick with it. Those who are the most successful have most likely failed the most and by pushing through they have learned the most and become the best in their sport.

When these elite athletes lacked mental confidence they dug deep and used discipline and deliberate practice to build their skills and mental game. Mentally tough athletes continue when others quit.

So, let perseverance be your driving force, and hard work be your compass. Dive into the daily grind of skill development with gusto. Make peace with the fact that you’re going to meet failure along the way, but also remember that in each failure there’s a lesson to be learned, a skill to be improved, and a chance to become better.

In the arena of sports, as in life, always keep in mind: the journey is as important, if not more so, than the destination. Celebrate your victories, but also honor your failures. They are, after all, the stepping stones on the path to success, your best feedback, your most valuable teachers. Use them, learn from them, and most importantly, keep going. Because it’s not about how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up, ready to take the next shot.


Mental toughness is a skill. Like any other skill in can be built. There are no shortcuts. Your young athlete will have to put in the work in a deliberate and systematic way. When they understand that achieving big goals takes time and failure is feedback they will be operating from a mindset that makes achieving their goals possible. A mental game coach or mental coaching will help but remember there is no substitute for skill building. Avoiding mistaking a lack of skill for a lack of a mental game. Just because a young athlete is not performing does not mean that they are not mentally tough and vice versa.

Please let me know if you found this helpful.

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Hi, I Am Chad Metcalf

My goal is to provide practical and actionable resources (that worked for me) to help you get from where you are to where you want to be. 

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