Competitiveness in Youth Sports
Do a quick search of “toxic culture in youth sports” and you’ll find lots of good articles, like this one from US News and World Report.
Our modern society that promotes growth and achievement at all costs continues to push its unhealthy competitive values onto our kids. Not only do we see this in academic settings, but also in social settings and even more so in youth sports, including figure skating.
Just as weight bearing exercise makes our bones stronger, so does a small amount of competition strengthen character. Too much stress, though, and both our bones and souls can end up broken.
Healthy competition fosters creativity and excitement, teaches grit, and can boost confidence.
But when the pressure is so high that parents, coaches, and athletes focus on achievement and winning over fostering true friendships, loving the game, and enjoying the growth process, then everyone loses—most of all, our kids.
This is not new information. Especially since COVID, athletes and coaches have been speaking out about the harms of toxic competitive culture on our mental and physical health.
Nevertheless, the problem is as rampant as ever.
Just this week a football coach friend posted a picture of national basketball rankings for 4th graders. And today I saw this article about nationally ranked 2nd grade twins and their personal brand as basketball stars.
What does this have to do with figure skating?
Figure skating was a trailblazer of the current youth sports industry. Most of its biggest female stars throughout history have been young teenagers. 3-time Olympic champ and 10-time world champ Sonja Henie competed in her first Olympics at age 11 in 1924 and won her first Olympics at age 15 in 1928.
And while figure skating no longer holds “national championships” for skaters at the developmental levels of Juvenile and Intermediate, it still ranks skaters by posting their competition scores highest to lowest. All skaters in a national series—Excel, Solo Dance, and National Qualifying Series—are ranked in this way. Some are as young as 7 and 8 years old.
National events in figure skating—where certain regions have fewer rinks and lower numbers of participation—are important for the development of our sport, so I’m not arguing that the series rankings should be abolished. If there is a qualifying event or series, then transparency is absolutely crucial to the integrity of our sport.
It’s what parents, coaches, and skater do with the ranking information that matters.
Toxic Culture in Figure Skating
If you have seen either of the skating movies from figure skating’s heyday--The Cutting Edge or Ice Castles—or any of the more modern equivalents, you will see cut-throat competitiveness and ego-driven behaviors that harm young athlete
Or maybe you vaguely remember the Salt Lake City Olympic judging scandal that led to the development of the International Judging System?
There was also the infamous Nancy/Tonya saga—where trauma, socioeconomic differences, hyper competitiveness, media bias, greed, poor sportsmanship, and terrible guidance came to a head with Tonya Harding and her then-husband hiring someone to physically assault Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 US national championships.
US Figure Skating pretends that the assault of Nancy Kerrigan was an anomaly—and indeed, many characteristics of the attack are unique to the rivalry between Nancy and Tonya and the era in which it happened.
Some pertinent factors in the Nancy/Tonya saga are widespread in skating, though: unchecked desire to win at all costs, public derision of those who are different, and the quiet, yet deeply embedded politics of a sport that refuses to accept newcomers or anyone that thinks or acts outside the box.
When I was skating in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was advised to never leave my skates unattended. Some of my friends had seen evidence of rivals attaching slivers of scotch tape on the blades of their competitors—a hidden, dangerous way to sabotage a competitor.
Yet another example of fear-driven competitiveness was the Professional Skaters Association’s long-standing rule that forbade solicitation of another coach’s students. In some facilities, you could be reported to the PSA for even saying hello to a skater that wasn’t your student!
This rule was drilled into coaches for decades with the intention of protecting coaches from unscrupulous, greedy rivals, but only served to create an industry of rugged individualism, self-importance, arrogance, secrecy, and jealousy.
At the same time, it instilled a total lack of confidence as well as a sense of isolation and fear among many coaches. As a result, there was little team teaching, little information sharing, much pettiness, many cliques, and frequent backstabbing among coaches.
The athletes lost out and were taught negative thought processes and harmful behaviors. It was pretty much a world where only the extra tough or the favorites could thrive.
Just thinking about that environment brings back dark memories and gives me heart palpitations.
Several years ago, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that such a policy violated anti-trust regulations and determined that the PSA must change its code of ethics to allow its members to solicit business, advertise their services, and compete on the basis of price.
Since the FTC ruling, figure skating has gradually shifted to include more collaboration and information sharing, particularly through social media. In addition, coaches are now much more inclined to team teach, which benefits everyone—coaches, parents, and skaters alike.
Unfortunately, negativity persists in the sport because negativity persists in society.
So, to stay in the sport we love, we must gain control over our responses to toxic situations and negative people through our own mindset work and our own attitudes. In other words, we must develop a new form of mental toughness.
Can Mental Toughness Be Developed
Sports psychologists and performance specialists specialize in teaching techniques that help athletes better handle competitive situations. Athletes are also facing issues outside of sports performance, though, and must tackle their overall mental health first.
Current best practice for collegiate athletic programs is to have three different types of mental health professionals on staff—a counselor or licensed therapist, sports performance specialist, and academic success specialist.
Some armchair experts will argue that athletes should work towards being tougher in the traditional sense—pushing themselves at all costs and being single-minded to the point of obsessing over the goal. As I stated in a previous blog post, obsessiveness and masochism do help athletes reach high levels, but also make them more susceptible to serious mental health challenges in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong—grit is important, but it’s more important to be able to focus and have enough self-discipline and self-compassion to practice appropriately and smartly without self-harm. Setting achievable goals, implementing positive self-talk, and learning to redirect our thoughts and actions when necessary are crucial to long-term physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
I highly recommend all humans work with a mental health professional, but whether you choose to or not, the tenets of yoga can be applied to help your mental health as well as your sports performance.
How Does Yoga Fit Into the Mental Toughness Picture
The vagus nerve is the longest, most complex cranial nerve in the body. It connects the parasympathetic nervous system to every organ in the body.
Information from all around us—the temperature, the energy in a room, sounds, sights, etc.—is taken in through our spinal nerves and sent to the brain, which quickly interprets that information and in turn sends signals back out to the body. This two-way communication continues is constant.
Trauma and/or stressful situations can impede vagus nerve function and interrupt or hijack these signals. So can diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse, infection, and even poor posture, among other factors.
Vagus nerve stimulation has been scientifically proven to help with a myriad of health issues, from epilepsy to depression, PTSD, and autoimmune disorders.
Yoga works, in part, by stimulating the vagus nerve through breathing practices, helping to rebalance the nervous system, bringing it back into homeostasis. A balanced nervous system allows for all body systems to function more effectively.
Mental health and performance mindset are much more complicated than just breathing while doing some asana, though.
The brain is quite complex and even has a region dedicated solely to processing and remembering fearful events. The amygdala is responsible for attaching emotional meaning to our experiences and is key to forming new memories related specifically to fear. Therefore, it plays a key role in PTSD, and researchers also believe that the amygdala is involved in anxiety in learning situations.
And we have already established that anxiety levels are high in youth sports.
So, figure skating needs need more than just physical yoga practice. We need an overhaul of the way we look at sports, too!
Yoga is More Than a Physical Practice
It is important to remember that yoga was always about mastering the mind and nervous system to reach a higher connection with ourselves, the world around us, and ultimately, with our own personal understanding of God.
Ancient yogis contemplated human issues and wrote their ancient wisdom to teach people throughout the ages—to help us live with less suffering.
As with any belief system, humans often turn these teachings into dogma ruled by fear, and indeed, some periods of yoga history involved just that.
There is learning to be found everywhere, though.
Through his Yoga Sutras, the ancient sage Patanjali teaches us that the physical practices of breathwork, asana, and meditation are foundational to developing mastery of the mind and, as such, key to our journey on this Earth.
Patanjali also offers us many philosophical keys to right living.
Mental Training for Figure Skating and the Positive Thought Cycle
One sutra is especially pertinent to the conversation around youth sports culture, competitiveness, mental toughness, mental health.
In fact, this sutra is so important that my yoga teacher calls it the “key to mental peace.”
In Yoga Sutra 1.33 from Patanjali says: maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
What does this mean?
Everyone knows that the mind bounces around between different thoughts all the time—in yoga this is called “the monkey mind”. Thoughts create emotions, which are inextricably linked to the body, which further responds to the emotion. The body then sends signals back to the brain, which either perpetuates these emotions, or if we take an action to change our circumstances, it can change the emotion. This, in turn, can lead to another thought, and the cycle continues.
We cannot easily change our brain or the physical structure of the nervous system, but we certainly can improve the mind-body communication and balance of the nervous system through practices such as meditation, movement, breathwork, diet, hydration, sleep hygiene, reducing stress levels, and more.
How do we apply the positive thought cycle to figure skating mental training?
First, we must normalize our emotions. Sometimes in preaching good sportsmanship we inadvertently promote toxic positivity and fail to accept the true feelings an athlete might have.
Figure skaters are supposed to act poised and can be penalized for showing authentic emotion. Emotion as art during performances is encouraged, but real live emotions are frowned upon.
“Leave them out the door”, coaches often tell their skaters.
As Brene Brown teachers us, it is important to normalize all feelings so we aren’t ashamed of them or try to ignore them. Nothing good comes from shame, and ignoring our feelings leads to chronic sress, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and mental health problems.
Feelings can be conflicting—you can be happy and sad or proud and a little embarrassed at the same time. You can be happy for your friend but sad for yourself, or vice versa.
When we begin to accept the AND of our emotions, we can be true and complete… and only then we can be genuine in our friendliness to others in the face of our own defeat.
Second, we must recognize that we are not our thoughts. We are simply human beings experiencing the thoughts. Our thoughts change all the time, according to all sorts of circumstances, including mental illness and neurodivergence. Meditation teaches us to imagine our thoughts as passing clouds and not to identify with them.
Third, when you notice yourself having a rough day, commit to taking one small, positive action. Put the phone down, go for a walk, practice gratitude, drink a cup of tea, take 5 deep breaths, or write yourself a nice note. This action may be enough to change the sensations your body feels to allow yourself to think positive thoughts.
Here’s an example: Many years ago when I was going through a difficult time personally and professionally someone said to me, “change the conversation in your head.”
To do this, I wrote post-it notes of positive quotes and affirmations and put them up all around my house—on all the mirrors, the walls by my desk, my laptop, my kitchen cabinets, and so on. Not only does writing things down help you remember them, but so does reading those things over and over.
Every day for weeks I read amazing things about myself until slowly I started to notice physical changes in my mood and my body. To be clear—Post-its were not the only solution to all my problems at the time (most likely they won’t be for anyone), but this Post-it process got the ball rolling and allowed me to begin feeling better, so I could think confidently enough to make some much needed changes in my life.
Once we acknowledge these three things, we can really begin to practice the Positive Thought Cycle (also called The Cognitive Triangle) I describe above.
Figure Skaters Can Develop Mental Toughness Through Yoga
Patanjali and the ancient yogis knew about this cycle even if they didn’t call it by the same name. This is the foundation of how yoga works—cultivate certain attitudes to live rightly, practice asana to help master the mind, and practice breath to stimulate the vagus nerve to help with all of it.
In simple terms, Patanjali is saying that there are four attitudes we must practice in order to have mental peace:
Friendliness towards the happy
In life we may experience misfortunes while those around us experience moments of great joy. After all, there is only one winner at each sporting event. A great skating example of this is when two friends take the same skills test and only one of them passes. It is normal for the skater, parent and maybe even the coach to be disappointed, sad, and maybe even feel a twinge of envy or embarrassment.
Our experience in skating is about the journey, the friendships, the lessons, and the love for sport and growth. We must cheer for and respect the good work of all athletes and their support teams—even those we may not particularly like. Envy never helped anyone be happy!
Daily opportunities abound for this practice—your friend lands a difficult jump, an acquaintance passes a difficult test, a rival wins a competition.
As with anything, the more we practice, the better we get at it.
The next time you feel envious of someone who has succeeded in something you are still striving for or wanting, practice saying something genuine and kind to them and to yourself. Maybe give them a high five or a fist pump or a round of applause.
Remember, a positive action can lead to a positive feeling, which can lead to a positive thought.
That person—whether your friend or not—may remember your kind action and words in the future and reciprocate when the tables are turned. And your training environment and our sport will be the better for it.
Compassion for the unhappy
Just as there are daily opportunities for us to practice friendliness towards fellow skaters’ achievements, so there are opportunities to show compassion to those who are struggling…
maybe a rival keeps falling on a jump or gets a bad grade in school, an acquaintance has a poor skate at a competition or forgets their gloves on a really cold day, or a friend doesn’t pass the same test that we do.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person struggling—we have all been there and will be there again—and take a positive action. An encouraging word, a nice note or text, asking if they are ok after a fall, offering a hug, lending a pair of gloves or just a helpful ear, or muting the outward celebration of our own successes can all change the course of the day for someone.
Or maybe the person struggling is you and you need to practice self-compassion.
Compassion and genuine respect toward competitors are part of good sportsmanship, and it is what we need in our sport. But it takes practice—one small word or action at a time.
I grew up in a skating environment that felt like the antithesis to this, and it has taken me many, many years to recover.
Let’s practice our way towards a positive sports culture.
Delight in the virtuous
Philosophers and writers throughout history have understood the truth in this advice. Indeed, the Bible is full of verses that express the same idea.
If you want to build habits that help your skating journey advance more smoothly, surround yourself with good examples and people who are practicing good habits.
When you struggle to make good training decisions or to follow through on a habit or action that you know to be helpful, don’t criticize or envy those who are succeeding on the stricter path. Instead, respect their efforts and appreciate their steadfastness, dedication, and discipline.
Ask questions, observe, reflect, and adopt what is appropriate for you. Everyone must follow their own journey, and we can learn from everyone.
Disregard toward the wicked
Of the four attitudes that Patanjali says we should cultivate, this one is perhaps the hardest, even if it has the most pithy sayings to go with it.
Why is this one the hardest?
Because the human brain is hardwired biologically for negativity—our survival as a species depended on it. (This may be why humans are drawn to drama!)
Furthermore, research shows in order to change our thinking and habits we need positive thoughts and experiences to counter negative ones at a ratio of 5:1.
And finally, sometimes we are working very hard practicing friendliness, compassion and delight for others, but certain others are not reciprocating. Maybe they are envious of our successes or afraid of losing their status, so they take their feelings out on us.
This hurts, and it is easy to let ourselves get beaten down by others who seem to succeed despite doing harm.
(Obviously we must report abuse and speak up against harmful behaviors when appropriate, but there is a wide range of harmful speech and behavior that doesn’t equal what legally defines abuse. It is these non-abusive yet toxic behaviors I am addressing here)
Athletes, parents, and coaches that do harm are part of the human journey just like everyone else and have their own personal blocks, past teachings, and traumas that make them behave the way the do.
Therefore, we should continue to model good habits and practice good sportsmanship (friendliness and compassion), while setting very clear boundaries to avoid putting ourselves in harm’s way.
(As I told a student many years ago, you can be friendly with someone and not be their BFF)
Even with boundaries, though, sometimes words and situations can hurt our feelings. In this case, recognize and observe the emotion, speak out if necessary, and do your best to shake it off.
Sometimes “shaking it off” means walking away and taking a drink of water, taking a few deep breaths, saying some positive affirmations to yourself, dancing it out, or practicing any other redirecting tactic that can put you in a good mood.
This is another example of the positive thought cycle—one positive action can lead to a positive feeling, which can lead to a positive thought, and so on. While it will take many positive actions to ultimately change a mindset or an ingrained belief, the practice is certainly worth the payoff.
In short, if you change the conversation in your head—beginning with either your thoughts or your actions—you can hijack the cognitive triangle and slowly begin to change the information your body receives. Little by little with consistent practice you can change your habits and your mindset, and ultimately, build your own happiness.
Isn’t this the most valuable measure of mental toughness?
Let’s cultivate Patanjali’s attitudes and build a healthier sport.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.