Mentoring Athletes

By Nancy Justis, Outlier Creative Solutions

It's widely accepted that participating in youth sports builds character through sportsmanship, determination, self-discipline and fair play.

Another way to build life skills is through the development of a peer mentoring program.

Everyone wins when student-athletes act as mentors. They become better leaders. Such programs can be started as early as the elementary school years.

Michael Karcher is the author of "Increases in Academic Connectedness and Self-Esteem Among High School Students Who Serve as Cross-Age Peer Mentors." In an article in TrueSport, he said when "students themselves assist in the delivery of guidance lessons and learning experiences for other students, the number of students affected by the developmental guidance program may be greatly magnified or doubled."

Older teammates can be paired with freshmen, or high school varsity teams can work with middle school or elementary school teams participating in the same sport. As an extra incentive, mentors can add these leadership experiences to college applications.

It takes certain characteristics to be a good mentor. Positive Coaching Alliance lists several:

* Candidates embrace the coaching philosophy and the tactical and technical system of the coach.

* They put the team ahead of self.

* They will go against peer pressure to do the right thing.

* They have a strong work ethic and lead by example.

* And they are coachable and "thirsty" to learn and improve.

Coaches need to explain to their veterans what it means to be a mentor and that their help is needed in instilling a winning team culture. An easily understood set of guidelines for what you expect mentors to do is essential. PCA's examples of keeping the "Emotional Tank" of the mentee filled are:

* "Picking up" a mentee when she or he seems down or discouraged.

* Sharing "Honoring the Game" rituals (i.e., developing a self-control routine to use when you feel your emotions building up, thanking officials before and/or after games, shaking hands with the opposing coach before/or after games, shaking hands with opponents, welcoming opponents, and making an announcement for coaches, players, parents and fans to "Honor the Game").

* Explaining what is expected of them in practice.

* Giving tips about what to expect before big competitions.

* Talk about academic questions they can't answer.

Mentors also should be told what not to do, such as bossing their mentee or being their personal coach. They should not feel as if they have to know everything and they can approach the coach about something they don't know how to handle with their mentee.

It's not helpful to just throw a mentor into the fray. PCA noted it would be a good idea at the first team meeting to offer an explanation what the team culture is and how the mentor program helps develop a strong culture. This can be accomplished by holding a team-bonding event, such as a pizza party. At the same time, reinforce the team culture by introducing your definition of a competitor as "someone who is committed to making him/herself better, making teammates better and making the game better," using the ELM Tree of Mastery (Effort, Learning and Mistakes are OK). A veteran could speak about what it means to him or her.

Mentoring can take place at practice, such as prompting questions or an activity. An example would be to hand out note cards and have the team write words that characterize a winning culture. Share what was written and perhaps revisit those comments periodically as needed.

Additional team-building activities could include walks, having mentorship pairs compete in activities, or prompt them with topics such as what they need to work on to help the team, what they can do to improve, and what their biggest priority is in school.

Mentors can act as a phone bank to communicate issues or meetings, to explain new drills or tactics, to share how to prepare for opponents' fans on the road, and to share a pregame ritual which assists in calming nerves.

Coaches should check in with each mentor and mentee throughout the season to make certain the pairings are successful, asking such questions as what the two have in common, how they are different, what has been the best part of the relationship, and what has been the most difficult.

At the end of the season the "torch" can be passed to the next veteran group. Graduating mentors could share:

* What parts of the team culture they hope continue.

* The things they will remember most about the team.

* What they have learned that will help them in their life.

* What they wished they'd known as a rookie.

* What they would do differently as mentors. Mentees might share things their mentor did that were effective and what mentors could do to improve the mentor system.

In closing, the Society for Safe and Caring Schools & Communities tool kit lists several benefits for a teen mentoring program. For mentors:

* Improvements in moral reasoning and empathy.

* Increased connection to school and community.

* Ability to relate better to parents.

* Increase in self-esteem.

* Enhanced organizational skills.

* Develop skills in problem-solving, communication and conflict resolution.

* Sense of generosity and leadership.

For mentees:

* Positive attitudes toward and connectedness to school and peers.

* Enhanced self-efficacy.

* Improved grades, academic motivation and achievement.

* Improved social skills and behavior.

* Improved resiliency.

* Strengthened relationships with family and peers.