A young athlete's success depends much more on a good attitude than on physical prowess, concludes a recent survey of youth sport coaches. In a study presented at last year's annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Shari Young Kuchenbecker of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles reported that "coaches describe young athletes' positive psychological adjustment--not physical gifts--as the most important underpinning of athletic success."

Kuchenbecker surveyed 658 coaches of males and females ages 3 to 22 who participated in 43 sports, including soccer, baseball, basketball, softball, swimming, martial arts and diving. She asked them to "describe a young athlete who is a real winner" by picking five attributes from a checklist that included 64 physical and 64 psychological characteristics. Overwhelmingly, the coaches selected psychological qualities.

The most frequently mentioned attributes were: "loves to play" (43 percent), "positive attitude" (32.7 percent), "coachable" (29.8 percent), "self-motivated" (27.4 percent) and "team player" (25.7 percent). The other qualities rounding out the top 10 were "strives to improve" (21.1 percent), "dedicated" (20.8 percent), "gives best effort always" (18.5 percent), "good sportsmanship" (16.3 percent) and "encourages/praises others" (14.6 percent).

Surprisingly, physical skills rated low. The first physical characteristic mentioned--"natural physical athlete"--came in 19th on the list of top qualities and was selected by just 10.9 percent of coaches. "Physically pushes self" was 20th on the list, cited by 9.7 percent of coaches; "good eye-hand coordination" was 21st, mentioned by 8.8 percent; and "physically gifted" was 24th, mentioned by 5.8 percent.

The coaches placed the strongest emphasis on psychological aspects when describing "a real winner."

"Coaches also cited two top damaging forces to developing young athletes--criticism and pressure," said Kuchenbecker, who noted that male and female coaches had similar responses. Parents who want their children to succeed in sports--and in life--should encourage and support these positive psychological attributes, says Kuchenbecker. Instead of asking a child, "Did you win?" she recommends asking a young athlete, "How did you play?" This question isn't about the outcome--winning or losing--which may be beyond a youngster's control, she says. It's about the much more important, and controllable, aspect of the game--a youngster's thoughts and feelings about his or her sport experience.

"A parent's role is to listen and support the positive," says Kuchenbecker, who elaborates on different scenarios, from the disaster to the triumph, in her book "Raising Winners: A Parent's Guide to Helping Players Succeed On and Off the Field," to be published in the spring by Times Random House. "Your role as a parent is critically important, yet ideally, you're invisible. Many parents think the best way to get their children ahead is to talk to the coach, but that's not the place you need to be. Your work is with your child, to be there when they need support."

Many of sport's most important lessons occur off the field, notes Kuchenbecker, who has three children--two in college and one in high school--who all played sports. "Kids need to learn that sometimes you play, and sometimes you don't play," she says. "Riding the bench, yet still having a good attitude, is an important life skill."

Often a parent's biggest contribution, she says, "is listening. You can serve as a balance that helps the child sort things out. . . . The important thing is that you're there for your child."