Many kids experience anxiety playing sports as there are countless unknowns to contend with that chip away at mental toughness, including coaching decisions, playing with new teammates, and even worries around potential physical pain that might come with a block or tackle. As human beings we regularly struggle with confidence development and anxiety reduction when it comes to dealing with fear, and fear is often triggered by the unknown. As you might expect, this battle is especially difficult for most kids, especially when it comes to situations they haven’t encountered before.
Unfortunately, when kids get bogged down with anxiety it takes everything away from their athletic potential. Rather than playing with a razor-sharp focus and great confidence, their muscles tighten up, breathing becomes shallow, the heart races, and their thinking becomes negative. When these things occur an otherwise talented athlete turns into an athlete with “potential,” a term that can be especially frustrating for coaches (and the child’s parents!).
Examining sports anxiety
Keep in mind two big points about sports anxiety – first, no two kids are exactly the same, meaning kids will typically experience sport anxiety differently. While one child might feel light-headed and need to use the restroom, another child might feel the pressure in his muscles and “tighten up.” Second, it’s important to be patient when it comes to sports anxiety – while it is true that some kids overcome their sport fears seemingly quickly, others take more time when it comes to extinguishing previously fixed ways of thinking.
It’s easy to become frustrated dealing with a kid who struggles with sports anxiety, but this only exacerbates the condition. Instead, try to help the child normalize the experience by talking about other athletes who have overcome similar anxieties (you might even talk about your own previous struggles). Laughing, making fun, and ridiculing will only make things worse, so be sure to not only keep yourself in check but all team members as well.
Distinguish between rational and irrational fear
Sports anxiety comes from two different stimuli – real, or rational fears (like being physically hurt from a tackle), and irrational fear (the type of fear that occurs when you are not in harms way – like having a coach yell at you). Note that most of the sports anxiety kids deal with is irrational fear — meaning few kids are really worried about the pain they might experience while competing but instead are concerned about the unknown (i.e. how teammates will react if they fail, what the embarrassment will be like if they don’t play well, etc.).
While sports anxiety is not an easy condition to fix, there are a couple things coaches (and parents) can do that can help.
1. Positive self-talk. Teach kids to use positive and facilitative self-talk while playing sports, reminding them that self-talk is something they have 100% under their control. You might help them in this pursuit by developing a cue word (a word, acronym, or phrase associated with something positive) and writing the word in places the child will see throughout the game (like on a baseball glove).
2. Focus on the next play. The old saying in sports is the only play that is important is the next play. Be sure to help kids understand that in sports there isn’t time for being sad or feeling sorry for yourself as the game carries on and the important thing is to be forward-thinking.
3. Reward & reinforce. Be sure to emphatically reward and reinforce with hearty praise whenever you see a child have a small success while battling sports anxiety. By using unconditional positive regard and positive reinforcement you will help shape future behaviors, thereby squashing anxiety and helping positive confidence develop!
Check out our sport performance e-book for more to help with sports anxiety, and our line of sports apps to help kids develop mental toughness!