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How the Teenage Brain is Different, and What You Can Do About It

A guide to the teenage brain for sports coaches

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Due to advances in technology, we now know more about the teenage brain. This blog looks at why teenagers are more likely to take risks, be sleepy, are poor at reading emotions, are susceptible to peer pressure and have worse self-control. Most importantly, we try our best to offer some suggestions about how sport coaches can help their teenage athletes navigate these challenges.

The Teenage Brain is Different

Taking risks and seeking novelty

Let’s play a game. I will give you £5 for free. You can either keep this money, or you can gamble it for the chance to win more. In a bag in front of you there are blue and red tokens. You don’t know how many of the tokens are blue and how many are red. If you draw out a blue token you double your money. If you draw out a red one, you lose your free £5. Would you do it?

This was essentially the question posed by researchers to teenage and adult participants. They found that when the odds are known, adults and teenagers take similar levels of risks. However, when the odds of success weren’t known (i.e. how many of each colour token was in the bag), teenagers were far more likely to take the risk and gamble their money.

The authors of this review are at pains to point out that many myths about teenagers and risk are simply not supported by the evidence. They say, “adolescents’ greater involvement than adults in risk-taking does not stem from ignorance, irrationality, delusions of invulnerability, or faulty calculations”. Why then do they take more risks?

One of the reasons for this is because in teenagers, the part of their brain called the pre-frontal cortex is still developing, which plays a key role in self-regulation. As this hasn’t fully developed in teenagers, they do not have the self-control to not take risks, even if they know the thing that they are doing is risky.  

Could coaches use this increased risk taking to their advantage? Taking risks and choosing difficult tasks is one of the benefits associated with having a growth mindset. Could we guide their risky behaviour, by encouraging them to take chances (in a safe and secure environment)? This could lead to them challenging themselves and overcoming their fear of failure.

Struggling to get enough sleep

The National Sleep Foundation suggest that teenagers need more sleep (8-10 hours) than adults (7-9 hours). Most adults start to get sleepy at night at about 10pm. This is because there is an increase in the sleep hormone, melatonin, at around this time. However, in teenagers, this increase happens later, meaning they don’t feel tired until late into the night. As many teenage athletes have to get up before 8am to go to school, there is insufficient time to get the necessary hours of sleep in.

Although there may not be enough time for teenagers to get all the sleep they need, this does not absolve them of their sleep responsibilities. It is a good idea to talk to them about the 9 common sleep mistakes and give them tips on how to get a good nights sleep.

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Worse at reading emotions

Fascinating research has found that because their brain is still developing, teenagers rely more on their limbic system (which acts more like a ‘gut reaction’) when it comes to reading emotions. Other research also supports this.

In a test, adults were shown a picture of a person’s face and had to choose whether the emotion expressed was fear, shock or anger. All the adults correctly identified the look of fear, whereas only about half of teenagers got the right answer. One possible reason for this disparity is that a teenager’s limbic system is less accurate than an adult’s pre-frontal cortex. The limbic system also elicits an increased emotional response, so teenagers are more likely to misread an emotion and overact while doing so.

No quick solution exists to overcome this. Time and patience are required. Where possible, be explicitly clear about what you mean.

More susceptible to peer pressure

Teenagers are more likely to take risks. Teenagers are definitely more likely to take risks if they are in the presence of other teenagers.

In a fascinating study, researchers divided participants into three groups; adolescents, young adults and adults. Each participant had to complete a driving simulation game. On their own, young adults took more risks and were involved in more crashes. However, when they had to complete the tasks with one of their peers in the room, teenagers took far more risks and were involved in far more crashes.

Clearly, adolescents are far more susceptible to peer-pressure. When the group culture is that of ‘trying is not cool’, this increased peer-pressure results in other athletes not working hard. This is why it is so important to create a good team around athletes. The challenge is to help athletes develop a culture where effort is valued. For more on this, check out our blog ,’How to Create a Good Team Culture’.

Worse self-control

Maturation has been described as extending the delay period between thought and action. When working with teenagers, it can easily feel like they have no filter. If they think it, they say it (or act on it).  Research suggests that, when compared to adults, this reduced self-control is most pronounced in heated situations.

This reduced self-control is not only down to their developing pre-frontal cortex (which is associated with impulse control), but also due to enhanced activity in the part of the brain critical for seeking out novelty and rewards.

To help combat this, one option would be to limit the possible distractions during times when concentration and memory are important. This is something we have blogged previously about in our post, ‘6 Reasons to Put Your Phone Away’.  Distractions come in many forms, not just mobile phones. The more we can talk to our athletes about what distracts them when they are actually competing, the more we can help them to navigate the challenges of having worse self-control.

Final thoughts

Being a teenager is hard. You face life altering exams at a time when your brain is going through huge changes. These brain changes do not absolve teenagers of their responsibility towards managing their own behaviour. However, by understanding the changes and challenges that they face, it can perhaps guide our practice to ensure we help them navigate this time of their lives as happily and successfully as possible.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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