Facilitating the Mental Game with Athlete Journals

girl-thinkingHave you ever noticed that girls like to ponder things? Me too.
Have you ever wondered what they’re thinking about? Me too.
Do you know the best way to find out? Ask them.
But don’t expect it to be that easy. You have to read between the lines. Which means…get it in writing. 

I’ve had some great coaching and teaching success with teams of girls by using small notebooks that act as athlete-coach journals of a sort. They provide a place for goal-setting, feedback, evaluation, positive charting, inspirational quotes, secret messages… all sorts of stuff that gets lost in the shuffle.

Using the Athlete-Coach Journal

Schedule one-on-one meetings with a couple girls each practice to “go over” their journals. They serve as a starting point to talk about how things are going – with the team, the sport, their teammates. Often this will lead to deeper conversation about long term plans, hopes, dreams, school, sometimes even friends and family. The journal gives us a place to start the conversation and a concrete expression of what a players is thinking and feeling.

Give them a prompt each week. Here are some of my favorites

  • Record your favorite soccer quote.
  • List 3 things you really do well.
  • What position do you like to play and why?
  • Who’s your favorite professional player and why?
  • List 3 goals and one step you can take toward each.

Journaling to Claim Strengths

One thing about girls: they’re hard-pressed to tell you what they do well. I have even observed this in collegiate players. Do we train this out of our girls? Even when you point out what they do well, they’re not sure whether to believe you. They deflect: “It was a team effort. There’s no “I” in team.” Are they talking themselves out of it? or into it?

Helping players believe in their abilities, believe in themselves and believe that what they bring will make a difference for their team will always make their game better. The journal or the journal-inspired conversation may jump-start great things. And that’s the point: it’s not whether they’ll tell you about it but whether they believe it about themselves that makes it real for them.

Journaling to Address Weaknesses

Girls are quick to recognize what they don’t do well. Constructive criticism can be a tricky path for coaches to tread, especially with girls. If a player has been put down by another coach or has been treated unkindly by teammates, she may be particularly sensitive to criticism. Girls take criticism personally.

Boys are better at brushing it off. They externalize it: “Ah, the sun was in my eyes… The ball moved…The guy kicked me..The earth shook.” Whatever. Once the external is removed, that is, as soon as next time rolls around and the circumstances are different, boys get new life. They start fresh, without baggage.

Girls take it in. They remember how they failed, lost, missed, or fell short, and they transfer their miscues to themselves, personally. If the game was lost, it is their fault. If the team didn’t make it to the finals of the tournament, it was their fault…I’m to blame… the team will hate me…because I am terrible… Girls can be great at awfullizing; internalizing an error or shortcoming, they may fold like a house of cards.

Preempt this with the journal. Get healthy, helpful conversation started. Private words shared in confidence can be honest without feeling indicting. Address the errors and right the reflections. Fault and blame don’t belong on youth sports teams and they certainly find no place on winning teams.

Journaling for All Ages

Start them as young as 8, 9 or 10. No need for lots of words, complete sentences or profound thoughts. They can cut and paste, spell phonetically, draw, color or use clip-art. I found a sample journal page at the Sports Girls Play website. Here’s a look at completed page turned into me as part of training. It’s a whole sheet of colorful pastel clouds to fill in. They’ll love getting “homework.”athlete journal sheets mid ES_0003

When players get older, a flip notebook or small spiral notebook will do. Encourage their habit of writing in it regularly by supplying regular prompts and scheduling regular journal “checks.” Use the prompts above or create new ones that fit your team dynamic, personnel, and circumstances. Journaling will help them grow as players and as individuals if they use it consistently in order to remember, record and reflect.

A coach’s listening presence will help it be honest, guided and lively. You can give them a reason to write and introduce them to a practice they may use for healthy discovery in more than just sports. The process itself can be powerful.

Here are some helpful guidelines/ground rules to facilitate athlete journal writing.

  • Start with: “Just try it. No rules. Just write.”
  • Encourage with: “Share what you want to.”
  • Help their focus with: prompts, pictures, a time limit.
  • Keep it engaging with humor and relevance.
  • If possible, provide a brief time to write at practice.
  • Schedule a time to listen in private, without judgment or comment.
  • Ask if they’d like feedback.

Schedule those coach-athlete meetings. Even if there’s not a lot written, it will open the door to a lot to say, and it will let them know that you value how they’re feeling. That will go a long way to building a team. There are a lot of personalities on those girls team. Instead of ‘There’s no “I” in team’, we might do better to admit we’ve got a whole lot of “I’s.” It’s our job to help them find their “us.”

Are you journaling with your players? Add a comment. I’d love to share your ideas with my readers!

For a more formal approach to athlete journal writing, you can find Team Notebooks and Journals at WritingAthletes.com.

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