Jeff and Mikki Martin know a thing or two about helping kids develop strong mental health. The two founded CrossFit Kids in 2004 together, and currently own The Brand X Method, the world leader in youth fitness.
For 20 years, the Martins ran a brick and mortar gym, but closed it in 2018.
“We wanted to focus on the broader goal," said Jeff.
That goal was to affect as many kids’ and teens’ lives as possible. And the best way to accomplish it was to focus on developing youth coaches.
Fast forward to today. Jeff and Mikki are now educating hundreds of coaches about working with youth. They also help them build successful youth fitness programs, such as their Plug & Play Program.
One key focus is helping coaches build financially-profitable programs, as this is what is required for long-term success.
“Because if we don’t help them be sustainable, they won’t be here next year,” said Mikki.
The second focal point involves educating coaches about how to help youth. Not just physically, but also mentally, and a lot of this comes down to building resilience.
“The first word that comes to mind is grit,” said Jeff. “Grit is an outcome of being resilient.”
Mikki added, “It’s the ability to bounce back after setbacks or misfortunes.”
Six Keys to Strong Mental Health in Kids.
1. Define the Locus of Control.
The locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces, have control over the outcome of events in their lives. Defining the locus of control helps kids learn to stop blaming other people or things for their misfortunes or challenges. They then to start to recognize what they can do to change their situation.
Jeff explained that a lot of it comes down to “redefining the language” you use.
For example, a child may believe that climbing a rope is too difficult for them to ever accomplish. In this situation, the strategy is to help them see the practical steps they can take to get there.
Mikki noted that trying to protect kids from failure has become more prevalent. To that, she counters that children actually grow from failure.
“So if we cleanse that from their lives, we’re doing them a terrible disservice,” she said.
This is why CrossFit is so good for youth, she explained. Kids will fail, and they quickly learn that it’s okay, and even a necessary part of the process.
2. Be Specific About a Challenge.
Another key to building strong mental health in youth is helping them be more specific with how they describe themselves.
For example, if a kid isn’t good at jumping, they make generalizations implying they’re not good at other things as well. Or not good at anything.
So it’s important to help them be specific by changing their words. Instead of saying, “I’m not good,” the Martins would encourage something like, “Today, I’m not good at this.”
Jeff said, “Being very specific about the challenge, rather than seeing it as a global challenge helps build resilience.”
The ultimate goal is to prevent one shortcoming from snowballing into a larger, self-perceived shortcoming.
3. Create Flexibility in Problem Solving.
A third key to building strong mental health in youth is to teach them that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. Rather than believing there is only one option, kids are encouraged to think bigger.
Jeff gave an example about a teenager he worked with, whose inner dialogue was, ‘I’m not good at school.’
With some guidance, Jeff helped the teen recognize that it was just math he struggled with. Then one day, the teen told Jeff he fixed his math problem.
“Dude, what turned it around?” Jeff asked.
“Math is just like a workout,” the teen said. He then explained that he started approaching math problems like a long workout.
For example, if the workout was 100 sit-ups, 100 pull-ups and 100 air squats, he couldnt’ do all of that work at once. And it could be overwhelming to look at the big picture.
But once he started breaking it up and chipping away, the challenge suddenly became doable. So he employed the same technique with math. Rather than staring blankly at an overwhelming equation and giving up, he took a different approach. He started doing the parts of the math equation he could do first, then breaking it down and chipping away.
4. Set Realistic Expectations.
Jeff and Mikki reiterated that it’s important to set goals and allow kids go fail. But, they pointed out, it’s also critical to help them set realistic expectations for themselves.
For example, kids sometimes say to them, “I want to win the CrossFit Games.” So the Martins reply with, “Okay, let’s start with being able to do pull-ups.”
And if winning the Games is really the kid’s goal, then Jeff said two things need to happen. First, it’s important to come up with a plan. Second, the kid needs to fully understand what they will need to give up and sacrifice in order to reach the goal.
This helps them recognize what they are, and are not, willing to do to get there. And whether what they thought they wanted is truly a goal they want to go after.
5. Show that Obstacles are Temporary, Not Permanent.
The fifth key to building strong mental health is helping youth recognize that what is true today doesn’t have to be true next week, or next month.
In other words, obstacles, challenges, shortcomings and problems are only temporary, not permanent. And oftentimes, they can be changed if the right plan is in place.
Understanding and embracing this goes a long way in building confidence in youth for their future.
6. Promote a Growth Mindset.
On a similar note, the idea of self-perception, and adopting a growth mindset, is important for building mental resilience.
Without it, kids can go down a road of confirmation bias. For example, Jeff explained that if, for some reason, they’ve been told they’re not athletic, they believe it as the truth.
This self-talk can quickly become “a cycle of doom,” he said. “And we want to get them out of it by pulling them off the path. That’s not what you always have to be. We can move incrementally away from that.”
Putting it in Action.
The Martins once worked with a teen who weighed 245 pounds at 12 years old. He was self-conscious and didn’t think of himself as an athlete.
They worked with him on recognizing the control he had to change his situation. This meant changing the language he used to be more specific than general. They helped him see multiple ways to overcome challenges.
Over time, he started recognizing that who he was today wasn’t who he was going to be in a year. He adopted a growth mindset and slowly started to change the way he saw himself.
By the time he was 18, he weighed 195 pounds. And he had set four state records in powerlifting, deadlifting and squatting over 500 pounds.
“The kid was never going to win the mile,” Jeff said. “But we found something he could be really good at and it changes his opinion of himself.”
Starting a youth coaching program could be one of the most rewarding adventures you could pursue as a gym owner. Helping kids develop strong mental health can have a ripple effect that could change the course of their lives.
Follow the six keys: Define the locus of control and be specific about challenges. Create problem-solving flexibility and set realistic expectations. Show that problems are temporary and promote a growth mindset.
For more information, contact Jeff and Mikki at The Brand X Method to explore options in your own gym today!
This month on the PushPress blog, we’ve been talking about mental health, for you, your staff and your gym community. Check out the full series here: