Mentoring and Athletes


"In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him".

Ralph Waldo Emerson hit the nail on the head - everyone has something they can teach us.

Learning that there is knowledge and wisdom to be found everywhere is something that seems to come with age; a fact which can be very frustrating when working with young people who often don't want to listen - no matter how important or useful the information you're trying to convey!

As a 'wise-old' ex-footballer now working with high-aspiring young athletes, I often come across young people who could do with an injection of useful knowledge and wisdom to help fix a few of their shortcomings.

I also regularly meet many teachers, coaches and parents (especially parents) who are, metaphorically, banging their heads against a wall with frustration, as their pupils, athletes or children aren't listening to them.

And here lies the problem - borrowing from another literary genius - "It ain't what we don't know that gets us into trouble, it's what we know for sure that just ain't so." Mark Twain is spot on - it's hard to give someone advice when they think they already have all the answers.

Young people live in a world where they have access to just about any information they could need - all at the press of a button. However, they are missing a crucial piece of the puzzle - the piece that actually makes information useful... Wisdom.

While they often see themselves as experts in their own right, we see the reality, a reality which results in misinformed decisions and inaccurate beliefs. At the risk of overindulging in quotes, I stumbled on this one recently by Roy H. Williams - the author and marketing consultant - "A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes the mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man, and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether."

Dr Tim Elmore, an expert on Millennials and author of Generation iY: Secrets to connecting with Today's Teens and Young Adults in the Digital Age, writes:

"Students used to seek out order to learn. Now they're seeking more time with peers and watching video on web sites, getting guidance from the unprepared."

Dr Elmore, through his work with and research on the different generations, has found that kids born after 1990 - the iY Generation as he calls them - have had both the blessings and the burdens of modern technology placed upon them without the tools to understand how to best utilise and cope with them. One of the consequences of having constant access to information is they now don't feel the need to ask as many questions of adults as we once did.

In addition, research has found that young people these days actually spend less time per day with parents and adults than previous generations - another missed opportunity to pass down experience and wisdom...

So, what to do if your students, players or kids need more guidance and advice but they just aren't listening to you?

How about finding them a suitable mentor? Someone who is a few, or perhaps many, years ahead of them on the journey they're about to undertake. If an athlete in your U16s team aspires to be the next big thing in soccer, introduce them to a student athlete from a local college/university who plays to hear about the things they do to make sure they’re prepared to perform at a high level.

If your 18 year old talented son or daughter has been at the top of their peer group for a while and perhaps thinks they've already made it, see if you can get them to talk to a pro soccer player so they can hear it first hand: 'You haven't made it until you've actually made it, so keep working hard.’

Finding mentors for young people doesn't have to be just for aspiring young athletes either. Perhaps your kid dreams to make it as a professional musician; creating an opportunity for them to talk to a professional musician about their journey, about the things they've had to learn the hard way and things they'd do differently when they were younger could be the most valuable advice your child hears in regards to their future career.

If I look back over my eleven years with the Richmond Tigers in the AFL, the people who had the most influence on both my career and my development as a person weren't always my coaches. There were a few past team-mates who had since retired but who I stayed in touch with who were invaluable in helping me keep the right perspective when I was struggling. There were a couple of non-sporting people who offered perspectives and advice at crucial times in my career - both at the start when I was young and naive, and toward the end when I was old and worn-out. Of course I also had the advantage of being in an elite environment, surrounded by great minds all the time, and yet I still found value in sourcing my own mentors - people who I felt could help me in my own ways.  

Take a moment to think about who has had a profound influence on your career, or your development as a person over the years... Maybe you'll say it was your parents - but remember, young people these days aren't always as engaged with adults as we once were. But maybe it was an older mentor who helped guide you through challenges or tough decisions, or who gave you the opportunity you needed just at the right time. In the corporate world, people are constantly encouraged to find mentors to help them through their careers, so why not start that process earlier?

You might be wondering how you would go about finding or making contact with the right people? Simple, just ask. Whether it's through extended networks, on LinkedIn or over Twitter - it might have to be a numbers game, or maybe you'll have to lower your standards from Lebron James to someone a little less known (!) but don't be afraid to ask for something that comes from all the right places - helping a young person.

There is an online platform that I am aware of that is being built around the concept of linking 'experts and influences' with whoever is seeking their wisdom, Get Charly - - so keep an eye on that in case the right people are on there.

Lastly, if you think, or find, that your young person isn't interested in meeting with someone interesting who's already been and done what they're aspiring to do I'll give you a hard truth: they aren't likely to make it... I'm yet to meet an elite-performing individual who has had sustained success at the top of their game who hasn't had the attitude that Ralph Waldo Emerson had, that "every man is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him..."

Good luck and please do share any mentoring success stories of your own or of your young people's - we'd love to hear them!

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.
Dan Jackson