From the outside, the life of a young high-performance athlete looks like a dream. They’ve spent their life playing a sport they love and are now able to play at a higher level than most could ever aspire to. And they have more opportunities ahead! But that’s only half the story.The transition to elite-level sports brings with it a ton of intrinsic struggles that athletes need to overcome in order to reach their full potential.

It’s a journey in which athletes need support from those around them–but only those who truly understand what they’re going through and how best to help them. 

The Internal Struggles of Many Young High-Performance Athletes

For young high-performance athletes, navigating the road through high-level sports is incredibly exciting. But it’s not without its share of challenges.

Good Questions vs. Bad Questions

Every young athlete will inevitably ask themselves questions about their performance and their trajectory. An athlete may question the situation, their behavior, or the results they’re getting. Athletes think about these things all the time. 

But there are good questions to ask and bad ones to ask. Bad questions are rhetorical ones that don’t offer any real insightful, actionable answers. For instance, if an athlete ends up in a slump, they might find themselves wondering when their struggles are going to end without actually examining what’s actually going on. Instead, ask, what will get me back on track?

It can be all too easy to default to bad questions. On the other hand, good questions tell an athlete something valuable about what they can control. These questions help athletes find real solutions to the challenges they’re experiencing and include things like:

  • What is one thing I’m struggling with right now? What do other athletes do that makes them successful at this one thing?
  • What do I do well when I’m playing at my best? 
  • How do I feel when I am playing my best?
  • How confident am I feeling right now?
  • Where can I get the help I need?

Bad questions send athletes into a negative tailspin while good questions help them take stock of the situation and create actionable paths forward. To get yourself to ask good questions requires commitment to reflect on where you are. It requires practicing understanding the facts and thinking critically. 

If you as an athlete don’t truly understand what makes you successful, it can be all too easy to get caught in this circular loop of asking bad questions that never solve your problems.

Dealing with Comparisons 

One of the toughest things for young high-performance athletes to cope with is comparisons to other players–both self-driven comparisons as well as those fueled by outside opinions. Athletes compare skills, achievements, opportunities, and results. It’s more rare that they compare what matters: your own behavior. 

The short reason why: it is a natural human tendency to look externally to see where we fit in the group.

This is especially true in the era of social media which creates constant access to news of your fellow athletes’ success and can lead some athletes to devalue their own achievements and their own careers. Or worse, they can devalue themselves when they lack the achievements that others have. Social media almost never focuses on what it is that makes an athlete great, it just captures some of the star athlete’s life. 

If you want to succeed in sports, find ways to compare yourself to yourself. Otherwise, this mental habit can become toxic–especially in those with a high need for appreciation from others. The AthleteDISC is one way you learn if this is you.

Managing Relationships with Coaches

Among the most common challenges for young high-performance athletes is navigating their relationships with various coaches throughout their careers. This is no surprise considering every team has a hierarchical structure that starts with the coach.

As a result, players all too often gauge their own value based on their interactions and alignment with coaching staff. But contrary to common misconceptions, you don’t need to be your coach’s best friend in order to share the same mindset and common goals.  The best player-coach relationships are ultimately based on an aligned purpose and trust. Rather than expecting to always see eye-to-eye, the key is in seeking clarification and understanding what’s expected. Then take care of your responsibilities. This will earn you trust. 

And the ability to successfully achieve a common goal starts with understanding who you are as a player, who they are as a coach, and how best to interact with one another. While great coaches tend to find ways to understand their players, young athletes can’t always expect to encounter coaches who coach differently for each player. So, the most successful athletes take charge of figuring out this dynamic rather than waiting for their coaches to do it for them. 

Stepping Into a Leadership Role

Many young athletes perceive being a leader as the most important role they can play. But that’s not always true. On the hand, maturity is arguably the most important thing an athlete can strive for–and this is a trait that comes from understanding both yourself and others on a deeper level.

By taking care of your piece of the puzzle as an athlete and ensuring you’re bringing your best performance and mindset each day, you’ll create a trickle-down effect that extends to everyone around you. That is how leaders really lead, not by acting like someone who is respected and not being themselves. 

Managing Emotions

By their very nature, sports are emotional. Many athletes let their emotions hurt their chances of success. Anger turns to self-criticism–which in turn destroys confidence. Unless you stop to understand what makes you emotional. 

No athlete can play without emotions–but the most successful ones know how to manage them. Understanding your emotions starts with proactively taking notice of your emotions and tracking your behavior changes under specific circumstances then finding ways to bring yourself back to center. You want to be focused–you are in control–but level-headed too. You do not need to be too ramped up to play well, unless your goal is only to be a physical force. 

The key is being able to understand your emotions and stay grounded. If you can master the moments between action and reaction, you can supercharge your athletic performance. One of the greatest pieces of advice an athlete can receive is this: 

“Don’t let one mistake turn into two.”

I would add: let one mistake be the reason you learn. When it comes to emotions, having the strength to deal with adversity and move forward is the first mental skill you need to be successful. This is often known as a growth mindset.

What about life without growth mindset? One mistake–or one frustration–can easily turn into a spiral. Being able to manage your emotions can help you avoid falling into a tailspin and ensure your performance remains high. Instead, let one mistake turn into a new ability. Learn to manage your emotions, or they will manage you. 

Mitigating Self-Criticism 

Young high-performance athletes are hard on themselves. But this self-criticism can quickly devolve into perpetuating damaging negativity. Instead of being overly self-critical, the best thing you as an athlete can do is to give yourself honest self-evaluation. Figure out what’s going well, what could use improvement, and what needs to be done in order to achieve the desired results. 

This requires an analytical approach to performance analysis rather than an emotional one.

Handling Feedback 

Many athletes go to camps where they receive feedback on their performance. But the problem is that most of this feedback is focused only on weaknesses rather than strengths. And to a degree, focusing on weaknesses is important. But it can also be a deterrent from dialing in on the areas where an athlete truly excels and can create a negative mindset that ripples throughout other areas of an athlete’s performance. 

One of the most important things for an athlete to remember is that feedback isn’t the end all, be all. Feedback is just feedback. The people giving feedback are just people too. But when you’re getting feedback from people you respect (coaches, managers, and scouts), this can be easier said than done. It takes a degree of mental fortitude to cut through the clutter and take only the useful feedback. 

Most importantly you cannot get beat down by feedback. It is potentially helpful every time someone gives their opinion on your game. It is up to you how you react. You can get hurt or you can get thoughtful.

How High-Performance Athletes Can Overcome Struggles 

High-performing athletes are determined and driven but, as a result, they often opt to internalize these struggles rather than seek support. Read more about our approach to mental performance in sports here

But the most successful athletes have a deeper level of insight and understanding into who they are, how they think and behave, and how these factors impact their performance. Having this level of self-awareness not yet a common skill, but it has the chance to impact your life as an athlete as much as all the hours of physical work that you put it.