Ask The Experts
Balloons and Breathing: Helping kids conquer competition anxiety
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
The fear of striking out, missing a shot or dropping the ball hits all athletes at some point in their participation.
And for young athletes those doubts and fears, combined with wanting to succeed, can lead to competition anxiety.
If kids aren’t taught how to handle it their ability to perform can be crippled and their enjoyment for participating often fades away.
We spoke with Dr. Andrea Corn, a leading psychologist and co-author of Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports, about competition anxiety, its effects, and helping young athletes conquer it.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What is competition anxiety?
DR. CORN: First, let’s look at what anxiety is. Anxiety is about having a lot of fear and worry. As humans and children, we are hardwired to experience anxiety since it is one of the core emotions, along with anger, fear, happiness and surprise. Anxiety puts your body on alert and the fight or flight reactions come into play. Between the ages of 5 to 9, when children first enter organized sports, they are excited and having fun with their friends. Around 10 to 12 years of age is the time kids start to develop, and start putting pressure on themselves, and competition anxiety is a heightened awareness. Young athletes are keyed in to their body. They may start to feel a knot in their stomach, their mouth is dry, or their palms are sweaty. The fear of not being good enough and not wanting to make mistakes are all characteristics of competition anxiety.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How common is competition anxiety in youth sports?
DR. CORN: Competition anxiety is more common than we realize. Children dismiss or try to hide their feelings, or ignore them because they don’t like it. Rather than dismiss or ignore these feelings, it’s important to help children see it as a signal or a type of communication. Our mind and body and thoughts are alerting us that there is something to worry about. Chances are in sports it’s more of a fear of failure. Negative thinking can lead a child to do the very thing they do not want to do.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can parents and coaches help kids handle it?
DR. CORN: One, breathing exercises. If the child is anxious, a coach or parent can help the child breathe in slowly and out slowly. No one has to know they are anxious and they can do this at any point in time, like on the bench, at the plate, on the way to the game, or in the locker room. Additionally, if a child is able to recall the difference in how his or her body feels during practice versus the competitive game, then slow and rhythmic breathing may also help calm the child’s body and mind down to better perform.
Two, visualization. A child can breathe in and breathe out and as they are breathing out, act like they are breathing into a balloon, and filling that balloon up with all their worries and thoughts, and then watch it fly away.
Three, reminding the child to stay present minded. Don’t think about the final score. Stay focused on the here and now. When kids are anxious, they are thinking about past mistakes, leading them to start worrying and contemplating all the “what-if’s" that might happen in the future. The only thing they can control is being in the present.
Finally, children should focus on learning and being patient and kind with themselves, even if they make a mistake. Remind the young athletes that professional athletes still make errors, fouls, or are charged with penalties. No one can always perform to their greatest potential. We make mistakes because that is how you learn. Parents and coaches should always express positive support, but also be realistic.
Dr. Andrea Corn
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