One common frustration many sports parents and coaches share is watching kids fail to live up to their athletic potential because of fear. Examples of common fears kids experience in sports include blocking and tackling, getting hit by a ball, falling down, and even the embarrassment of failing in front of teammates. In all of these examples the fear kids experience can, and often does, take away from their otherwise natural athletic talents and abilities.
Qualifying sports fear
In sports there are two types of fear commonly witnessed: rational and irrational fear. With rational fear, the anxieties kids feel are rooted in the fact that sometimes sport contact really does hurt! For example, kids typically do feel a sting being hit by a wild pitch in baseball, or pain getting the wind knocked out of them being tackled on a football field. The reality is that when kids play contact sports, there will always be the chance that they may experience pain, discomfort, and injury.
While there may not be much you can do to soften the pain associated with sports contact, there are things you can do to help with the second — and often more prevalent — type of fear that we call irrational fear. These kinds of fears include embarrassment and fear that has no real basis (like worrying about a missed grounder in little league and how that could result in a loss of future college scholarship). In fact, many kids experience irrational sports fear around contact that may hurt a little, but not nearly as much as kids worry about before it actually occurs. An example of this might be a kid worrying about the pain associated with getting hit by a pitch in baseball — often the fear builds up to a high-stress level until the kid actually gets hit by a pitch and realizes the sting is quite minor, and only momentary.
What you can do to help
It is important for parents and coaches to talk to kids about sports fear, and normalize the fact that having some anxieties around getting hurt is quite natural. Have a serious conversation about how and where pain could be experienced in sports, and steer clear of using humiliation tactics and insults when talking about kids struggling to overcome their personal fears. Some additional considerations include the following:
- Talk in factual language. The reality is that each year some young athletes do, in fact, experience horrible sports injuries. The good news is these are very rare cases, and in most instances kids only experience bumps & bruises and short-term pain that quickly passes.
- Some injuries do hurt. Again, it doesn’t make a lot of sense trying to fool kids into thinking that getting slammed to the ground might not hurt a little — it does! A better approach is to acknowledge that sports can be rough at times, but kids who are mentally prepared and focused greatly reduce the chances for big injuries (and pain) to occur.
- Teach pre-game and pre-play routines. Since it is impossible for human beings to think of two different things at the same exact time, it makes sens to help kids develop pre-game and pre-play mental routines that include positive self-talk, imagery, and deep breathing. Not only do these techniques help with diverting focus away from potential pain, they also help with arousal regulation and better mind-body synchrony — resulting in better athletic performance.
- Respond to pain in positive ways. When kids do get hurt in sports it is important to validate their emotions and not go the route of belittling, humiliating, or saying anything that makes the kid feel as though he or she is weak. Instead, offer comfort, support, and encouragement in the moment, and afterwards provide positive reinforcement for successfully working through a painful situation.
It is not uncommon for kids to experience fear while competing in sports, and not all of their fear is irrational. Parents and coaches need to understand that teasing and embarrassing kids about their anxieties rarely helps the situation, but validating their concerns and helping them through their struggles will often lead to positive emotional growth. Do your part to help kids discern between real and irrational fear, teaching them skills to help offset their anxieties that take away from their natural athletic talents and abilities.