One reason sport psychologists teach psychological skills is to enhance performance in sport; but the value of psychological skills for young athletes is questionable because of the qualitative and quantitative differences between children and adults in their understanding of abstract concepts such as mental skills. To teach these skills effectively to young athletes, sport psychologists need to appreciate what young athletes implicitly understand about such skills because maturational (e.g., cognitive, social) and environmental (e.g., coaches) factors can influence the progressive development of children and youth. In the present qualitative study, we explored young athletes’ (aged 10–15 years) understanding of four basic psychological skills: goal setting, mental imagery, self-talk, and relaxation. Young athletes (n= 118: 75 males and 43 females) completed an open-ended questionnaire to report their understanding of these four basic psychological skills. Compared with the older youth athletes, the younger youth athletes were less able to explain the meaning of each psychological skill. Goal setting and mental imagery were better understood than self-talk and relaxation. Based on these fndings, sport psychologists should consider adapting interventions and psychoeducational programs to match young athletes’ age and developmental level.
Paul J. McCarthy is with the Department of Psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University in Glasgow, UK. Marc V. Jones is with the Centre for Sport and Exercise Research at Staffordshire University in Staffordshire, UK. Chris Harwood is with the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, UK. Steve Olivier is with the School of Health and Social Services at the University of Abertay in Dundee, Scotland, UK.