Coaching Association of Canada

Psychological Literacy - A new term or old concept?


By Dr. Leisha Strachan and Kevin Kristjanson - University of Manitoba, and Dr. Adrienne Leslie-Toogood - Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba

In sport psychology circles, consultants often come across very talented young athletes who show a great deal of potential in sport. The problem is that once a failure or challenge is presented, some of these talented young people do not know how to cope. As researchers, we wondered why this was happening. Then it hit us – sport skills are being developed, taught, and refined but the effort to teach psychological skills has been thrown by the wayside. Which skills are developmentally appropriate to teach through the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model and how?

LTAD & Psychological Literacy

The LTAD framework, created by Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L), outlines the development of physical skill and activity levels over the lifespan. The model is used to assist everyone from young children learning to use their bodies, to athletes at the highest level training for international competition, to older adults looking to maintain active lifestyles. The ‘FUNdamentals’ stage of the LTAD model refers to male athletes ages 6-9 and female athletes ages 6-8. The focus during this stage is on general movement patterns and overall development as well as the introduction to concepts such as fair play, while ensuring activities remains fun and enjoyable. The ‘Learn to Train’ stage targets male athletes ages 6-12 and female athletes ages 8-11. This stage is centered on general sports skill development through the introduction of sport specific training and periodization. All basic sport skills should be learned prior to or during this phase. One thing seems to be missing though - the LTAD framework places an emphasis on physical development but what about psychological development? How is this developed through the LTAD phases? Sport organizations have placed a huge emphasis on how physical skills are developed but what coaches and administrators have failed to realize is that psychological skills (i.e., psychological literacy) also need to be developed for children to be able to perform and cope with disappointments that are experienced in sport.

We used theories from classical psychology to try to help us understand more about children and youth and then did a study with kids in the ‘FUNdamentals’ stage and the ‘Learn to Train’ stage of sport to see what they are experiencing. In total, 18 sport participants (between the ages of 7-11 years), 13 parents, four coaches, and four sport administrators participated in the study. They represented four sports: basketball, hockey, diving, and gymnastics. The parents and sport participants were engaged in focus groups and the coaches and administrators completed interviews.

How can sport help young children develop psychological literacy?

Based on our results, there are some suggestions that we have to help develop psychological literacy through the LTAD model. The process is a long one but we feel that the skills must be infused in sport much sooner than it is currently happening. Simple steps can help to make a big difference.

1. Let’s remember that children are not mini-adults.

The children in the ‘FUNdamentals’ stage are not quite ready to put losses in perspective or learn life lessons. Coaches should simply start to encourage the use of mental skills, particularly imagery, at this stage. Coaches and parents should provide simple debrief techniques to focus on a specific experience in sport. For example, if there is a failure, the adults should ask the child or participant how they feel, acknowledge that feeling, and then help them to think of a positive event that happened as well. There is no need yet to ‘put things in perspective’. Administrators need to provide workshops to coaches and parents about how to help children cope with failures and how to move forward in a positive and healthy fashion.

2. Psychological literacy skills need to be practiced and encouraged throughout development.

Once children are in the ‘Learning to Train’ phase, they are developing coping skills and starting to understand perspective with joys and disappointments. They need to continue to develop their mental skills. Coaches can continue to teach imagery skills but also need to build the participants’ ‘mental tool box’ including self-talk awareness in practice and competition. Coaches and parents can continue to learn debriefing techniques that could include links to life skills development. Finally, sport administrators should hold yearly meetings with coaches to provide information about mental skills and coping as well as support.

3. There is no need to “re-invent the wheel”.

The classical theorists, like Piaget and Vygotsky, have already done the work years ago. The information about child and youth development is there but it is up to us to apply it to sport development. We need to know more about what children and youth are going through at various stages so that we can help. Coaches have a number of resources available to them. There are a couple web-based, free resources developed by Canadian researchers that could help coaches teach mental skills ( and youth development ( Learning the appropriate time to introduce psychological concepts in sport is a crucial piece to athlete development and coaching education. Understanding what children and youth are ready to learn at each stage can help develop specific strategies within sport and a more holistic and healthy approach to sport development.

Given the increased realization of the importance of mental wellness in sport, psychological literacy is essential for both peak performance, but also long-term mental health. Our hope is that discussion of this concept will help coaches, parents and administrators engage in processes to assist athletes with the development of psychological literacy; an essential skill for both sport and life. Although the concepts might be old, a new and fresh approach is needed so that sport participation can truly be a vehicle for teaching positive life skills.