Ask the expertYouth strength and conditioning

Ask the Expert: Dr Darren Britton (Solent University)

Darren is a lecturer in Sport Psychology at Solent University. Darren first graduated with a BSc (Hons) Psychology from Bournemouth University in 2011, before completing an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Brunel University in 2012. Darren then completed a PhD at Bournemouth University, investigating the role of stress reactivity in the development of adolescent athletes. Darren is also an HCPC registered and BPS chartered sport and exercise psychologist, working with several individuals and organisations in the local area, including Talented Athlete Scholarship Schemes at a number of universities.

1)What has led you into youth sport?

When I began practising as atrainee sport psychologist, opportunities naturally emerged working with youthsport clubs and academies. Delivering psychological skills training to athletesat an early age benefit them not just in the present, but for their futurecareers in adulthood. When working with adults, you tend to take in the role ofa reactive fixer, only solving problems when they occur. In youth sport, one’swork tends to be more proactive in nature, preparing young athletes for thepsychological demands they will likely face in the future. Therefore, I seeworking at a youth level potentially far more impactful than working withadults, where one’s work tends to be more reactive in nature.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

The biggest influence in mypractice was probably the clubs and academies who first gave me the opportunityto work with them when I was first starting out as a trainee. They gave me afair amount of free reign to hone my skills, try new things, make mistakes, andlearn about who I was as a practitioner. To this day I am still a big believerin reflective practice. I’m never 100% satisfied with the delivery and impactof my work, which may sound negative. However, I believe it has helped me neverget complacent with what I do.

In terms of some specificindividuals, I had 2 supervisors during my years as a trainee psychologist, DrDan Bishop and Prof Stewart Cotterill. However, just as impactful were fellowtrainees and neophyte practitioners who provided great peer supervision, andstill do, throughout my development. My 2 PhD supervisors, Prof Remco Polmanand Dr Emma Kavanagh, were also instrumental in guiding me through my PhD.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

My broad area of focus is instress, coping, and emotion regulation. My PhD developed a self-report measureof adolescent athletes’ stress reactivity. In other words, how adolescentathletes react to the variety of different stressful situations they experiencein and around sport. This was in order for practitioners such as myself, orcoaches and organisations, to help identify which young athletes are morepredisposed to experiencing stronger and more intense reactions to stress. Thenresources can be more easily allocated towards supporting talented yet‘reactive’ athletes at greater risk of decreased performance and well-being dueto stress.

As a practitioner, I’mparticularly interested in the psychological demands young athletes experiencein and around their sports (such as pressure to perform, injury, fitness,expectations and coaches and family), how they cope with them (effectively orineffectively) and the effect this has on not just their performance, but alsotheir psychological well-being.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Stress reactivity is aparticularly important concept in youth sport, given that our sensitivity tostress is shaped and moulded during early childhood and adolescence. If we areexposed to a high level of stress and adversity during our youth, with littlesupport, we develop a higher level of stress reactivity. Many would then assumethat we should avoid exposing young athletes to any stress at all. However,theory would also suggest that little exposure to any adversity, coupled with ahigh level of support (many would describe this as the ‘cotton wool’ approach)also increases sensitivity to stress. Therefore, the solution for developingappropriate levels of stress reactivity, that aid both performance andwellbeing, is to expose young athletes to moderate levels of challenge, whichare appropriately match with moderate levels of support.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

One of the best pieces of advice Ireceived relating to both my research and practice was the phrase ‘kids aren’tmini adults’. This has always led me to question my assumptions about whether,if something works for adults, does that mean necessarily mean it would workfor children and adolescents? This then guides me towards addressing theoryabout child and adolescent development first before I design any interventionfor young people.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes

Along with the above advice, Iwould recommend that coaches really get to know what their athletes’ individual‘pressure points’ are. In our research into stress reactivity, we found thatthere were distinct individual differences between young athletes in what theyfound most stressful in sport. Some reported social evaluation (being watchedwhen they perform) being what most provoked stress responses, while othersreported failure or social conflict (potential arguments with team-mates orcoaches). All of these different stress domains (or pressure points) can have asignificant impact on a young athlete’s performance and enjoyment of theirsport.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

For a focus more on the psychologyof youth sport, I would thoroughly recommend Sport Psychology for Young Athletes edited by Camilla Knight, Chris Harwood, and Daniel Gould.

For a greater focus on coaching, Psychology in Sports Coaching by Adam Nicholls applies a range of psychological theory, concepts, and research specifically to the practice of coaching.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

People can follow me on twitter at @DrDarrenBritton. I also have a wordpress site,, which I occasionally update from time to time.

A huge thankyou for Darren for giving us his time and insight on such an important topic in Youth Athlete Development!Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.