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Cognitive Development of Athletes

Regardless of sport, one thing all high school coaches can attest to is the fact that each athlete on their roster progresses differently—and not just athletically. The cognitive development of student-athletes is just as vital to on-field success as any exercise in the weight room or practice drill.

In an article for, Ed Garrett, Psy.D., CMPC, Associate Professor in the health science department at California Baptist University and a former scout for the United States Beach Volleyball Program, discusses three cognitive phases of development that young athletes go through and how coaches can help athletes progress through each stage. “The challenge is in helping athletes progress through the stages while attempting to understand each stage and the facets associated with each,” says Garrett.

In what Garrett describes as “the early phase,” 12 to 14-year-olds will begin to figure out which sport they want to focus on. While playing multiple sports in high school is still accepted, Garrett believes societal factors pressure these tweens and young teenagers into picking one path. “No longer is our society seeking the attention of simply being average in two or more sports,” says Garrett. “The focus in society is now geared to becoming the ‘best’ by being elite in one specialty.”

When coaching student-athletes who fall under this “early phase,” Garrett worries that those choosing to specialize in one sport may not even participate in high school athletics at all. He examined research that indicated a growing number of volleyball athletes who are “spending more time with their club team” than in their own high school gymnasium. “This is due in part to the increased coaching experience and intensity of club volleyball practices, competition, and college recruiting,” he says.

To prevent this scenario from playing out, Garrett suggests to observe why those student-athletes may be choosing club play in the first place and implement some new best practices into your own. “At ages 13-14, the early stage, the athletes are starting to learn the game,” says Garrett. “Strength breeds strength and club’s ability to attract the elite athletes from high school simply allows them the fortitude to develop experts in their sport.”

Garrett uses a volleyball example to illustrate how coaches can structure their practices to keep up with the club programs. “The practice demands for a young volleyball athlete may start simply at first. Most high school volleyball teams practice every day, Monday through Friday, for two hours a day,” says Garrett. “A typical club volleyball practice would consist of practice one to two nights a week, averaging two hours each day. The competition schedule would consist of one to two tournaments a month, mostly on the weekends.”

By the end of “the early phase,” most student-athletes will have figured out which sport to pursue and whether to play high school or club. When they transition into Garrett’s “middle phase,” student-athletes begin to understand how they fit in on the team and more about who they are as individuals. “Young athletes begin to place judgements and therefore bring doubt in one’s ability to play the game effectively and at the highest level,” says Garrett. “On top of that, society is now influencing the young athletes as to what [they] should look like and who [they] should be.

“At that point, the athlete may question if he or she has what it takes to advance to the next level. The answer may be in the athlete’s self-efficacy at this middle stage,” Garrett continues. “The athlete must have a belief in his or her capabilities to recognize and execute the courses of action required to produce a level of achievement. Athletes can have a strong self-efficacy when in practice but can struggle with their self-efficacy in the presence of game-time.”

There are many things high school coaches can do to help their student-athletes during this “middle phase.” “To help the athlete, one may start by working through the athlete’s cognitive self-efficacy issues,” says Garrett. “One example may be to help the athlete control his or her thoughts and emotions. Most times, if an athlete is having problems with her thoughts and emotions it’s the cognitive thinking that robs the athlete’s self-confidence in believing he or she can accomplish the skill at hand.”

According to Garrett, another key for coaches in the “middle phase” is to “change the doubt that is brought on by other athletes, the fans, the coaches, society and any cultural influence.” The tool Garrett suggests to use here is positive self-talk to reverse the negativity. “This can start by simply finding a key play that typically causes the athlete problems,” says Garrett.

“An example may be a volleyball athlete that steps to the service line and always repeats, ‘Don’t miss the serve.’ Change this statement every time to, ‘I can make this serve,’” continues Garrett. “By making this small change, the volleyball athlete will begin to instill self-confidence back into their game.”

When “the later years” arrive, the athlete has developed to the point where they can now focus on honing in fine tuning his or her athletic skills. “While at this stage it is critical that the athlete understand and implement some daily cognitive training that enables the athlete to push to the maximum of the sport,” says Garrett. “Imagery can be a great tool to use, as most athletes in the later stage are mature enough to understand and apply this talent.”

While working with older high school student-athletes, coaches must keep attention and focus at the forefront of developing cognitive toughness. “The athlete must focus all negative talk away from the game and focus on positive self-talk that leads to self-confidence,” says Garrett.

Though it takes time for student-athletes to move through these three phases of cognitive development and onto what Garrett describes as a “level of maintenance,” coaches must not become frustrated and need to continue to find ways to help these young athletes overcome any hurdles holding them back. “Athletes work best when they have a target before them. That target can be provided daily within the way you structure practice,” Garrett concludes. “Couple the phases with the tools for growth and you have building blocks to help your athletes progress with measurable results.”

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