A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
Anxiety-busting techniques for young players
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
Most athletes experience some type of nervousness before a game.
Upset stomachs, racing heartbeats and sweaty palms are common.
But problems arise when those nerves and pre-game anxiety escalate, taking over and interfering with a young athlete’s ability to perform.
Dr. Erin Hatch, sports psychologist for the University of Southern Maine athletics department, authored a fascinating piece in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action based on her dissertation that describes a pilot study of 12 youth recreation coaches who were trained to share methods for combatting pre-game anxiety in ways that don't call attention to youngsters who are shy or anxious.
So instead of pulling kids away from the team and coaching them individually, for example, Hatch encourages coaches to share anxiety-busting techniques with the team as a whole and to let kids know that they use these skills themselves.
"The idea is to make these interventions part of the culture of the team so it's not this weird, strange thing that's being given to one person because they are struggling," Hatch explains.
Sports performance anxiety is complex, so the more well-versed coaches are the better prepared they’ll be to help their young athletes handle it and not allow it to suffocate their performances throughout the season.
“Sports performance anxiety is made up of two different things, competitive trait anxiety and competitive state anxiety,” says Hatch. “Competitive trait anxiety is a more stable characteristic of how athletes interpret situations. They can interpret competitive situations as threatening based on fear of failure or evaluation by the ones that matter most to them like family, coaches and teammates. Competitive state anxiety is competitive situations like pre-competition or during the game anxiety. These are moments during the game that cause an athlete to have anxiety.”
The symptoms of anxiety are made up of three components: Cognitive, which is the thought process; somatic, which happens inside the body; and behavioral avoidance, when an athlete has a negative perception of how they will perform.
“Other symptoms an athlete might have include a racing heartbeat, having an upset stomach, or asking a teammate to go in so they can try to avoid playing time,” Hatch says.
There are endless causes of anxiety. And it can strike any player at any time.
“Some people are born pre-disposed to be more anxious,” says Hatch. “Others have just had bad experiences.”
For example, players who constantly receive negative feedback from a coach may develop those dreaded pre-game anxiety attacks because now they’ve become fearful of making mistakes and being criticized in front of everyone on game days for them.
It is important for coaches and parents to support young athletes who are dealing with anxiety.
“Having empathy and understanding what the athlete is going through in that moment is a great way to show support,” Hatch says.
Being kind and asking simple questions like, “What are you thinking about?” can help an athlete overcome the anxiety they are feeling in that moment. Instead of chastising, the message should be focused on kids trying their best.
“Thoughts are just thoughts and often based on emotions,” Hatch says. “Thoughts and emotions are not always rational. If an athlete is complaining of a stomach ache, teaching skills like deep breathing is a quick coping skill.”
UNDERSTANDING PLAYERS, RECOGNIZING PROBLEMS
Being aware of how an athlete is presenting themselves is a good way to know if they are experiencing performance anxiety.
“Athletes won’t come up to you and say, ‘I’m feeling really nervous’ unless you have a very good relationship with them,” Hatch says.
Common signs include fidgeting, not engaging with the team during the game like they would in practice and complaints of having an upset stomach.
“Imagery is a standard intervention for sports performance anxiety,” Hatch says. “Having an athlete go through the performance in their mind as clearly as possible and feel their body doing the movements helps to increase their self confidence.”
Approaching performance anxiety as a team will help athletes be more open with their struggles.
“If the whole team is made aware, athletes won’t feel ostracized,” Hatch says. “Teaching skills in a group setting is more normalized, and makes anxiety a lot easier for an athlete to talk about.”
Sending kids home after practice with positive messages fuels confidence and passion for the sport. See how Tulsa football coach Philip Montgomery makes it happen with his team and adopt his approach to benefit your players, too
Troy Calhoun, the head football coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy, on helping young athletes learn, improve and savor competing
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