Peer-to-Peer Mentorship Among Youth Athletes

Stepping Up to Leadership through Mentorship

Good youth coaches all have a focus on more than just developing better athletes. They also use the abundance of learning opportunities that come up in sports to help develop better people. Opportunities for mentorship arise frequently in youth sports, and it’s a good idea to take advantage of those opportunities.

Below is an explanation of the benefits to both the mentor and mentee in peer-to-peer mentoring. After that is a description of what the mentor and mentee roles might look like for young athletes and lastly, some ideas of ways to incorporate mentoring into a youth sports program, including tips about age appropriateness. matching mentors with mentees, and managing expectations.

Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Mentoring

Peer-to-peer mentoring has proven benefits for both the mentor and the mentee. In Issue 7 of Research in Action, Michael Karcher, Ed.D., Ph.D., outlines several of those benefits. Mentors can see improved

  • reasoning skills,
  • a greater feeling of connection to school (or team),
  • increased self-esteem,
  • increased empathy,
  • improved conflict resolution skills,
  • and organizational skills

Mentees experience

  • increased academic achievement,
  • greater self-efficacy,
  • improved social skills,
  • decreased behavioral problems,
  • and a lower rate of engaging in risky behaviors.

Unlike other types of mentoring (like traditional mentoring that includes one adult and one young person), peer mentoring consists of two people close in age. For the mentee, a mentor is a wise and trusted friend and guide.

Risks of Peer-to-Peer Mentorship

In some cases risks can be associated with peer-to-peer mentoring. These risks include mentors having too much on their plate to assist mentees; mentors managing, rather than mentoring, mentees; or mentees who become too dependent on mentors. Since mentoring in youth sports doesn’t usually come with a lot of extra responsibilities for either party, the benefits typically outweigh the risks. Outlining expectations for a mentor program in the beginning can go a long way in reducing its risks.

What Athlete-to-Athlete Mentorship Looks Like

 The Peer Mentor Handbook used by the Mentoring Partnership in Pennsylvania does a nice job of outlining clear and simple expectations for the mentor role. For instance, a mentor is a friend, supporter, advisor, role model, and listener. A mentor is not a parent, super hero, parole officer, therapist or solution to all problems. On a spectrum of mentorships that go from no structure to highly structured and spontaneous to long-term, the mentorships in youth sports will most likely be fairly informal and short term.

It’s good to break it down even further for young athletes. Coaches can ask mentors to focus on the follow four aspects of their role:

Model Behavior – What mentors do is as important as what they say. Mentors need to be themselves, but know that their mentees are watching their actions and listening to their words.

Focus on the Positive – Mentees (all teammates for that matter) should receive five words of encouragement for every critique. Mentors should verbalize when they notice good effort with words of encouragement and support.

Seek Opportunities to Help Teammates Improve – Mentors can keep an eye out for skills that mentees need to work on so they can learn to give constructive criticism the right way at the right time.

Encourage – Helping mentees build self-esteem and self-confidence is a crucial part of mentorship.

On the other hand, mentees also have a role to play. According to P, Caddick’s Building Effective Mentoring Partnerships, mentees must also devote their time to the relationship by participating in ongoing interaction with the mentor. While mentors can look for opportunities to help, it’s really the mentee’s responsibility to identify the skills and competencies they wish to gain and assume the initiative to ask for help or guidance to achieve their goals. Because that concept can be a little daunting for young athletes who aren’t sure of what they don’t know, it’s best to simplify their responsibilities by asking them to focus on a few simple things:

Develop a Growth Mindset (from PCA) – Maintain a teachable spirit by being hungry for feedback.

Be a Team Player – Prioritize team success and be a part of building team chemistry.

Pursue Mastery (from PCA) – Give maximum efforts and practice and games, have patience in the process of getting better.

Take Risks – Be open to trying what’s suggested, be flexible enough to adjust when needed and track progress.

Have a Positive Attitude – Take the first step to a great mental game with a can-do attitude.

Incorporating Peer-to-Peer Mentorship into a Team Setting

The mentorship program that goes along with a youth sports program can vary in formality, depending on the coach’s time and commitment to making a solid structure for the program, but in general, these mentoring programs will probably be rather informal. The main focus of the team, after all, is sport, and the kids involved will need the majority of the time they have with their coach and teammates mastering their athletic skills. Mentoring programs will probably be best suited for teams that include high schoolers so that potential mentors will have some maturity on their side to be able to help their younger counterparts along. Dr. Karcher suggests mentors should be at least two years older than mentees.

Being a mentor should be reserved for athletes who have already demonstrated their ability to manage themselves and the tasks given by coaches with appropriate ease and maturity. According to the Positive Coaching Alliance, before a coach considers an athlete to be mentor material they should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is this athlete coachable toward growth him/herself?
  • Does this athlete give maximum effort at practice and during games?
  • Does this athlete have a great mental game by demonstrating visualization, positive self-talk and resiliency?
  • Does this athlete make goals, track progress and make adjustments when they face setbacks?
  • Is this a 24-hour athlete who avoids high-risk behaviors and manages themselves off the field with a healthy diet and good hydration to optimize performance?

When a young athlete has successfully taken the steps to make themselves better, they can move into becoming a leader who makes their teammates better and that, along with a continuous respect for the game, creates a player who can truly have an impact – as a better athlete and a better person. Since not every athlete will reach these standards, it’s okay to only have a small handful of mentors. A peer-to-peer mentorship program within a sports program should function in accordance with the team’s needs and make-up.

Mentorship Matching

 Part of the success of a good mentoring program is making successful matches. Coaches should use their knowledge of each player to set up pairs that might already have compatibility like common interests or similar personalities ( Let mentors and mentees know what’s expected of their roles, but also explain the boundaries of their new roles. Coaches can explain that it’s their job to fill in where mentors’ boundaries cease, like in the case of disciplining. This conversation should be simple – each mentor or mentee has four or five focuses with an overall goal of being a good friend to one another.

Give the athletes an opportunity to get to know each other through a few different activities, including drills, ice breakers, team parties and others. Keep expectations focused on role fulfillment rather than any particular performance outcome. Throughout the season, coaches should see players develop empathy for each other. Players should learn to manage and resolve conflicts; they should display improved communication, improved relationship building and excellent teamwork.  While the students might not recognize these outcomes for what they are, hopefully they’ll recognize a harmonious team.

When developing better people is part of a coach’s goal, a mentor program is worth a try. Its benefits are abundant, especially when a coach has reasonable expectations about what athlete-to-athlete mentoring should look like and has an easy plan to incorporate mentoring into their program. When young athletes are ready, let them step up to mentorship and leadership and watch the team flourish.