Exploring sport coaching and psychology
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Exploring sport coaching and psychology

4 A psychologist’s experience of working with teenagers

Here you can see psychologist Bradley Busch [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , who works with teenagers in schools and on the playing fields, talking about some of the implications of teenagers thinking differently to adults.

Activity 2 Bradley Busch explains his work in schools

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Bradley Busch runs workshops in schools with teenagers where he discusses their developing brains in relation to decision-making and judgement. In this video, he is interviewed by The Open University’s Ben Oakley about the main talking points teenagers respond to in those workshops. What are the three main things that engage teenagers?

Download this video clip.Video player: Interview with Bradley Busch (Part 1)
Skip transcript: Interview with Bradley Busch (Part 1)

Transcript: Interview with Bradley Busch (Part 1)

Bradley, you’re a psychologist working in school with teenagers and teachers. Now, we know that physical development finishes between the ages of roughly 15 and 17. When does the brain stop developing?
Well, I guess the brain is always developing. It’s constantly evolving and changing. This is what neuroscientists call ‘neuroplasticity’. I think the biggest change happens in the adolescence year, often peaking at about age 22, 23.
With advancements in technology, I think in the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve been able to learn so much about the brain. And what we now know is this adolescence, this period of change in the brain, happens much longer and into much later in life.
When you’re working with teenagers in your sessions, what are the three things that they talk about most, afterwards?
So the three things I think they find most interesting are, one, areas about self-control, two, about the impact that peers have on your decision-making, and three, how they deal with mistakes and failures. So first of all, if we look at impulse control, they’re fascinated. There’s a really interesting study called the ‘marshmallow experiment’. It happened about 40 years ago.
A researcher gave young students a marshmallow. And they said, if you can wait, when I come back I’ll give you two. So it was basically a test of delayed gratification. Can you put off instant rewards, for long-term success?
Now, for some of the students, as soon as he left the room they ate the first marshmallow, but others were able to wait much longer. In follow-up studies of these same students, they found that those who were able to wait, who were able to delay their gratification, performed much better, not only in school but also later on in life.
Self-control is quite hard to improve. So one of the things we recommend to them is, where possible, avoid the temptation in the first place. In the first study, the students who were able to close their eyes and not look at the marshmallow waited longer. And so we take this as an indication. So, for some students-- say, for doing revision-- much better to have your phone turned off or completely out of the room, so you’re not even tempted by it in the first place.
The second thing that teenagers talk about a lot is the issue of peers on their decision-making. We know that the teenage brain is much more sensitive to social status than adults. We know teenagers seek out and crave the approval of their peers.
To give an example, everyone knows that smoking, in the long run, increases your chance of getting cancer. But the risk for students if they don't do that is they might be socially excluded from the group. And the risk of social exclusion is much more prominent in teenagers than in adults and, as such, often drives their behaviour.
And what practical guidance do you give them, in that scenario?
One of the things we tell them is to ask themselves, would they do these decisions, these behaviours, if they were on their own, as opposed to part of the group. Also, I think if they can go home at the end of the day, look themselves in the eye in the mirror, and say they were happy with how they performed, how they behaved, that's the main aim.
The third thing that students find really interesting is the role and actual importance of mistakes and setbacks. Often students are so driven by not wanting to look bad, not wanting to make a mistake, not wanting to look dumb. Whereas what we actually teach them is that mistakes and failure at some stage are inevitable and actually, if used right, can help them improve.
So we often talk to them about the importance of failing better. One thing that we find quite useful is, after a mistake or after a setback, for them to ask themselves, what would I do differently next time? What would I do differently next time is a really good questions for students to ask, because it shifts the focus away from the past, onto the future. It isn’t a judgement on who they are and their abilities, but it focuses on how they can develop and how can they get better.
Bradley, thank you so much for those useful insights.
No problem at all. Thank you.
End transcript: Interview with Bradley Busch (Part 1)
Interview with Bradley Busch (Part 1)
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The most common topic that teenagers discuss is about their self-control (control of impulses). Bradley talks about people having different approaches to how much they can persist at something for an eventual reward (delayed gratification). Studies have shown that this is a key life skill. Teenagers often identify how they can easily get distracted and give in to impulses. Removing distractions to help them keep on task was one practical tip Bradley raised, and it is clear that sticking at revision or practice over time is an important aspect of those who wanted to progress in education or sport.

The second topic is thinking about how sensitive the teenage brain is to social status and the influence of peer pressure, and how this can often dominate actions. The example of smoking was given in which, if they are alone, teenagers may not make certain decisions, but in the company of their peers they often choose differently: there is a link here to self-control with regards to being distracted from original intentions.

The third topic is handling failure or mistakes. Bradley Busch suggested a tip for schools, and coaches, is to create an environment in which mistakes are not mocked or criticised: a place where it is safe to fail as part of learning and questions such as ‘what would I do differently next time?’ are posed.

This interview could have covered a lot more ground but this infographic (Figure 2) summarises Bradley Busch’s ideas on what coaches/teachers can do when they know how the teenage brain is different. Examine each of these five recommendations.

This image is a poster titled ‘The teenage brain is different, and what you can do about it?’.
Figure 2 Teenage brain is different infographic.

If you want to find out more, read his 2015 Guardian newspaper article: Secrets of the teenage brain: a psychologist’s guide for teachers. You will see Bradley Busch again shortly, as you hear his thoughts on confidence and emotions.


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