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Youth Sports Psychology

Youth Sports Psychology – helping young athletes reach their full potential. If you see that your child is capable of earning awards, sports scholarships, or even professional sports, etc…. what is and how do you determine the perfect balance of encouraging them to achieve excellence and their full potential without leading them to exhaustion or points of rebellion and quitting.


As a parent, I’ve seen the rewards of hard work to encourage a child to success. My niece, a high school state champion diver and University of Michigan champion diver, has seen the peaks and valleys of the hard work necessary to be competitive and is now on her way to a full athletic scholarship after fielding multiple full-ride college scholarship offers.

I’ve also seen the hazards of pushing a child too hard to succeed in sports. Burnout, fatigue, injuries, over-emphasis on sports often lead kids down a path where the pressure is too much causing the child to quit in cases where the potential was there, but the pressure caused the child to quit before the potential was realized.

So, what should you do if you think your child that has potential to rise through the ranks of their sport to take it to the next level beyond just fun, games and exercise? I sat down with Dr. Jared Wood, local sports psychologist and frequent OCM contributor to ask him about how to safely help a young athlete reach his/her potential in sports and beyond.

Youth Sports Psychology Interview with Dr. Jared Wood

Glen LaGrou – Oakland County Moms – Is there a “right age” that parents should notice if their child has a talent in a sport the child might want to excel in?

Dr. Jared Wood, Sports Psychologist – I don’t think there is necessarily a right age. Actually, the research suggests the “best” age statistically is just “older than average grade level peers,” which makes sense physically, emotionally, and intellectually. I’m sure most parents can think of examples, like Tiger Woods, who has been golfing seemingly since he was born, but I can think of many examples of successful elite athletes who did not specialize early or even picked up a new sport in their teen years. So I don’t think parents of elementary school-aged children or even teens need to give up hope for their child excelling athletically if they haven’t yet. Even many teens haven’t physically matured yet, after all. Similarly, I don’t think there has to a great rush to get a child specialized early. Physically and mentally, playing a variety of sports is very good a young athlete’s development. I understand the movement toward specialization, but I don’t like what I’m seeing in many cases.

I love a study that one of my mentors (Dan Gould, Ph.D.) and some colleagues did a few years ago. They studied parenting habits of Olympic champions. What they found, and didn’t find, was great in my opinion. They found that parents of Olympic champions focused on quality and commitment. Basically, these parents stressed the idea that if their child chose to commit to a sport season, the child 1) gave their best and 2) honored and finished their commitment to the season. In other words, what they focused on was a recipe for success in any life endeavor, not just sports. After the parents set the stage of, “Do your best and honor your commitment,” the young athlete took it from there by channeling that life philosophy to their own love of the sport. Importantly, the parents of Olympic champions did not necessarily focus on wins, losses, long term commitment, or over-involvement. The parents provided and guided rather than pushed or forced.

Glen LaGrou – Oakland County Moms – Who should decide if a child has the ability to try to achieve at sports at a higher level (college scholarship, for example) and what practical steps should a parent or child take to achieve that goal in the early stages? Is youth sports psychology a practical option?

Dr. Jared Wood, Sports Psychologist – As for ability, it’s hard to say. So many developmental factors have not played out yet in a young athlete. Certainly, elite sports are filled with athletes who were precocious athletes as youngsters, but there are too many late bloomers to pretend that early success is a must. Ultimately, we don’t have much choice but to put team selection or playing time in the hands of coaches. If your young athlete has a good coach, decisions such as being cut or earning playing time can be addressed specifically. But approach a coach carefully. Respect their position. Catch them at the right time. Ask for their help in understanding. Don’t pretend to know their job better than they do. Most coaches will be helpful.

Regarding practical steps to help them achieve at a high level, I’d like to suggest that the first step is to adopt the right mindset. Forget about the big time and just focus on getting better today. Help the athlete understand the development process in their sport. Help them focus on the little things they can do to get better each day. Focus on technique. Focus on enjoying the challenge of getting better and competing each day.

Further to your question, I’m obviously a big believer in the importance of the mental part of the game, and testimonials and research support this idea. I think it’s an under-addressed topic. It doesn’t have to be a huge investment either. Read, attend seminars, hire a sport psychologist, find a highly-regarded and recommended coach. Do what you can to help your young athlete master the mental game. A good youth sports psychology resource will help them not only in sports but in life too. I constantly try to help my athletes view mental sport skills as mental life skills, and we talk about how to apply them.

Personal training is another area that can give an athlete an advantage, and like sport psychology, it is good not only for sports but life too. Learning how to be fit, strong, and flexible is good for health, and it’s a lifelong need.

I realize that hiring a sport psychologist or personal trainer can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. A good youth sports psychology consultant or training can teach an athlete how to be self-sufficient. After teaching some basics, the professional can serve as an occasional consultant for booster sessions. For the price of a new bat or driver, a young athlete can learn some skills that will give them a lifetime advantage in sports and other important activities. Youth sports psychology is an investment with a great return on investment. I can’t say the same for a bat or driver or most other equipment. The right equipment is specific and at best beneficial. The right mindset is generalizable and vital.

Jared Wood, Ph.D., is a sport psychology consultant and limited licensed psychologist based in Clarkston, Michigan. Additionally, he has 15 years experience as a school psychologist in the Lake Orion School District. He is the author of “It’s Already in Your Head: How Everything You Know About Caddyshack Can Improve Your Mental Golf Game”. You can follow Dr. Jared Wood @woodjared, on Twitter.

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