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Sport and its role in developing young people

John L. Perry

For those who pick up news on youth sport, barely a week passes without a story discussing the ever-declining participation rates of young people in sport, competitive or otherwise. Often cited

for this are two significant concerns that make this topic a real issue; one obvious reason is the future health implications associated with sedentary lifestyles, as the much-discussed obesity epidemic continues to grow. The other commonly quoted reason concerns the lack of development of psychological attributes that are associated with sport participation.

We frequently hear anecdotes of sport being good for character, teamwork, and potentially leadership. Moreover, sport inevitably leads to failure at times. Many will argue (including me) that it is experiencing failure that enables us to succeed. The key to succeeding in the face of failure is mental toughness.

Young athletes demonstrate significantly higher levels of mental toughness than non-athletes of the same age (under twenty-one years). In this chapter, I will explain why sport can play an important role in developing mental toughness in young people.

Consider again what mental toughness is; it is about dealing effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure … irrespective of prevailing circumstances. Now consider a logical view of sport. Firstly, it is specifically designed to be a challenge. Remember that sport requires entirely unnecessary goal-oriented actions to be successful. For example, a football team aim to score in the opponents' goal without conceding in their own. But in sport, we actually raise the challenge by imposing rules with the sole purpose of making it more difficult for the participants to achieve their aim. In this example, rules exist to prevent players using their hands, not tripping opponents, and not benefiting from an offside position. We then very clearly and objectively measure ones success (or failure) and present this as clearly and brashly to the world as possible. Participation in such a contrived situation will naturally lead to prevailing circumstances on a consistent basis. We could argue that the great benefit of sport is that it provides an ideal stage of prevailing circumstances to constantly test its participants' mental toughness. Indeed, future success often relies on how well participants adapt to such circumstances or recover from failure.

Sport, stress, and coping

By participating in sport, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a situation that will inevitably present stressors. Consequently, it is those who cope best with these stressors that will flourish. To cope well, requires mental toughness, which has been shown in a series of studies.

Coping with adversity or difficult situations is arguably the most defining factor of a mentally tough athlete. Nicholls, Polman, Levy, and Blackhouse (2009) investigated the types of strategies used by mentally tough athletes. Using a sample of 677 performers from a variety of sports, they found that mentally tough athletes use more approach coping strategies and avoidance strategies. Task-focused coping refers to strategies aimed directly at reducing stress such as mental imagery, expending more effort, controlling thoughts, and logical analysis. In Nicholls and colleagues' study, mentally tough performers would cope by using such task-focused methods. Performers with lower mental toughness tended to use more distraction or distancing based coping methods rather than tackling the problem head on. Furthermore, all aspects of mental toughness were significantly positively correlated with optimism and negatively related with pessimism. In a follow-up study, Kaiseler, Polman and Nicholls (2009) measured mental toughness, coping strategies and coping effectiveness on 482 athletes. They found that higher levels of mental toughness lead to more problem-focused coping and less emotion-focused or avoidance. In short, when faced with a stressor, mentally tough athletes looked at ways of dealing with the problem rather than merely reducing the emotional effect. Perhaps more importantly, they tackle problems and do not bury their heads in the sand. Kaiseler and colleagues also found a strong positive relationship between mental toughness and coping effectiveness. Said differently, more mentally tough performers cope better with stress.

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