Sink or Swim

Sink or Swim

Do we throw people into the deep end to teach them to be mentally tough?

Sink or swim, throwing athletes into the deep end

Once upon a time we used to teach kids to swim by taking them to the end of a pier and throwing them in the water. Some of them figured out how to swim, some survive poorly but could function when thrown in again, and some just sank to the bottom and drowned. Mental toughness is like this. It’s sink or swim.

It seems that in sports today we do the same thing. We throw people into high pressure sports situations without teaching them mental toughness. We allow the same thing to happen. Those with grit make it to the top usually just based on athleticism. They get the experience to learn how to deal with pressure. They learn how to focus and they continued feedback that builds their confidence. What of the late developers then? They don’t get the experiences and if they aren’t real motivated at the time to overcome the effects of riding the pine (sitting on the bench) so they fail to develop the mental skills that others are developing through experiences. And it’s not just the late developers. Often times gifted athletes do not develop the right set of skills either, but because of their athleticism and success on the field they get to play. The problem hits them usually in transition to the next level. This can be JV to Varsity, high school to college and even college to the pro’s. I see it all of the time. It’s what keeps us busy as mental trainers®.

What if we change the model? What if we start teaching people to be mentally tough through mental skills training? What if teachers were trained in elementary school to help kids with mental skills? What if they we paid attention to how kids were developing their emotional intelligence? Let’s start programs for kids early on in middle school and high school teaching mental skills. Oh I know teachers do some things, but they are usually one shot experiences.

Today we no longer throw kids into the deep end. We start them out in the shallows where they can develop their swimming skills without fear. Don’t we owe it to people today to teach them mental toughness skills before they need them to survive? I see athletes every day who come in with what they consider issues. They can’t handle pressure or they lack confidence. When I ask them have they ever learned to relax they say sure I watch TV or listen to music. Myself I don’t find hip hop all that relaxing, but then I listen to AC/DC. OK well maybe over time I’ve added relaxing jazz to the mix to relax.

It’s up to us to change the way we bring athletes up. Those of us who are in the field or sport psychology, those who are teachers and coaches. Let’s stop throwing people into the deep end to see if they can sink or swim. Start out in the shallow end and help more people become successful in sports and life.

Learning to swim in the shallow end of the pool