Coaching the Mental Game & Self Esteem — working with children

Back in the summer, I completed Coaching the Mental Game, the final course in the series led by Paddy Upton, from Deakin University via FutureLearn.

Since then, I have endured an enforced break from coaching, to recover from a keyhole surgery to tidy up some damage to my knee — caused by an inexpert sliding stop in the outfield to save a long chase to retrieve the ball from beyond the boundary…or perhaps it’s just that my knees are getting old…

The time out has given me chance to reflect on the course, and on how it might apply to my own coaching, especially working with children.

Closely related to the discussion around self esteem was a question about how to manage mistakes to build confidence and self esteem.  I wholeheartedly subscribe to the concept of the ‘growth mindset’, but sometimes this can come across as wishful thinking — “you will get better if you put in the effort” reeks of unsubstantiated positive thinking.

I want my players to have a growth mindset, and I want them to respond to challenge with counter-challenge; I expect them to develop appropriate focus behaviours…but if I don’t help them to develop these behaviours, I might only be setting them up to fail.

How not to do it — a case study.

As part of the course, we were asked if there was one thing we did that could potentially inhibit players’ mental game.

I often employ a “challenge-coaching” approach — if a player starts to get comfortable with a practice, I make the practice harder.  For a batter, I’ll bowl faster, or slower, or with more swing; a bowler might find their target reduced to two stumps, or just one, or just a single cone positioned on a good length.

Now, by moving the goalposts further away, I might never allow the player to feel that he has achieved ‘mastery’ of a given task, denying him the confidence that comes with consistently nailing a skill; he might never develop the confidence to effectively transfer the skill from practice into match play.

I once pushed a player too hard — didn’t allow him to settle into a comfortable pattern, but kept increasing the difficulty of the practice, to the point where he effectively gave up.

He didn’t enjoy being challenged, didn’t want to face better bowling — “yes, I can hit 50mph half volleys and I want to hit more”; a mis-hit could bring on a bat throwing tantrum.

I wasn’t the only coach frustrated by his (apparent) complacency; coaching was not the only factor in his disillusionment with the game.  But I (we) didn’t help him to thrive.  Our expectations exceeded his, at the time.

We had seriously misjudged the appropriate challenge-state for this player.

[I have recently shared this reflection with the player’s father — the player, and his father, are happier in a different sport, with much different (initially lower) expectations.]

What I should have done

I needed to modify my challenge-coaching approach so that it might enhance the player’s mental game by allowing him longer to practice a skill before making it harder, or (and) by increasing the difficulty only by small(er) increments.

I also needed to better explain why I kept ramping up the difficulty — “I am not trying to “beat” you, just challenging you to get (even) better.”

Most importantly, I should have been coaching the player in front of me, not following my own methods until they failed, and the player walked away.

Conclusions — from mistakes (and success) to self belief…maybe not such a long walk

Practical demonstration (evaluation of a skill; practice & relevant games; re-evaluation of the skill, hopefully with some improvement) is the best way I have found of showing the kids that they have the capacity to improve.

And being able to learn from mistakes is an important skill that coaches need to nurture in their charges.

But it is also important to remember that success can be a learning opportunity, just as much as a mistake is.

I do try to celebrate every success — I’ll fist-bump with a batter who has hit a good shot, I’ll applaud a good delivery in the nets just as I would in a game, I’ll run across the hall to high-five a player who has taken a catch or made a run out in a practice game — because I want the player to appreciate that she can do it!

With my “constant improvement” hat on (I wear it a lot!) I will then encourage the player who has done something well to ponder if they could do it even better next time!


Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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  1. Reblogged this on mazzacricketcoach and commented:
    It’s always nice to know that your colleagues share your experiences and struggles! I really admired Andrew’s honesty in his coaching blog, “The Teesra”.
    Here, he talks about the process of coaching mental strength in cricketers……..and the importance of being sensitive to each person’s receptiveness to pressure.

    It’s a difficult journey, and we all learn more every day about when and how to employ different methods!

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