How To Calm An Anxious Young Athlete

No matter how good your child is or isn’t at playing sports, according to a survey conducted over 30 years by two coaches and athletic administrators what young athletes want to hear most from their parents after a sporting event is,
“I love to watch you play.”

I have been a therapist for a while now. I have been a mother for a much longer while. 🙂 Approximately five years ago, my last born dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of becoming a hockey mom. Yes, I was the one doing the kicking and screaming. This world unearthed so much passion in me as both a mother and a human that I added Sports Psychologist to my repertoire.

It is quite common for elite athletes in extreme sports to have one of “us” on their team. The competitive nature of their lives makes it necessary. Throughout my life as a mom, and a hockey parent, I have started seeing a trend. The frustration, anxiety, tears, anger and ultimately young players leaving the sport. Most of these are just children. We need to do better so these children can enjoy the sport they fell in love with.

I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work with some amazing kids, and their families. To get them back on track, loving their sport and accelerating their confidence.

Here are some things you can do to help your nervous or anxious child athlete when it’s game time.

BREATHING

Help your child slow down their breathing. This helps for two reasons. First, slowing one’s breathing slows the heart rate. When our heart is beating slower, we typically don’t label our emotion as anxiety or nervousness. Second, breathing can center an individual, or bring them to the present. When people are overly nervous, they are usually focused on the past (which can’t be changed) or the future (which hasn’t happened yet).

REFRAMING

This is just a fancy psychology term for looking at something in a completely different way. For example, ask your child how they feel physiologically when excited. They may say their heart beats faster, their breathing speeds up, they perspire, and/or they get butterflies in their stomach. Now ask them how they feel when they are nervous. You will find that the answer will be very similar. In fact, researchers have found that excitement and anxiety are the EXACT SAME emotion. The only difference is that we label one as positive and one as negative. So, help your child reframe their anxiety as excitement.

HAVE A PLAN

Sometimes anxiety can be fear of the unknown. Have your child make a list of the things that they are worried about, and then help them come up with a solution or strategy for each concern.

PRACTICE UNDER PRESSURE

You can’t expect an athlete of any age or ability to perform well under pressure if they do not practice under pressure. Shooting free throws or penalty kicks in a completely calm state with nothing on the line doesn’t prepare us for the real thing. This is why so many golfers are great on the driving range and then terrible on the course.

HAVE A CONSISTENT PRE GAME ROUTINE

Routines provide consistency and can serve as trigger to remind our brains to let go. They can range from using the same warm-up routine or stretches to listening to the same music.

FOCUS ON WHAT CAN BE CONTROLLED

Pressure is often the result of trying to control something that we cannot control. We can’t fully control outcomes of games, so trying to do so is not only futile, but it will also lead to more pressure. Help your athlete focus on things that are in their control, such as tactics (quick passes or getting to the end line), effort, or attitude. Focusing on mechanics is usually a bad idea, since it typically worsens performance.

HAVE A GROWTH MINDSET 

Help your athlete learn from mistakes or losses. This is the only way to get better! By seeing mistakes as learning opportunities, you can remove a lot of the anxiety surrounding losing.

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