“She does so well in practice, but when she gets in games it’s like she’s a completely different person out there”
The line above is a comment frequently heard at my office from bewildered parents who have watched their kid perform well in practices, but then get into games and appear to play well below capabilities. These parents struggle with confusion in trying to understand what could be so different in games that negatively impacts their child’s athletic abilities when it’s the same field, ball, and game?? Nothing is different from practices to games, right? Perhaps on the surface everything seems to be exactly the same, but delve deeper and you will quickly see how pressure can take an otherwise talented athletes and turn them into athletes who looks like they have never played the sport before.
What is ‘pressure?’
Defining pressure in sports is somewhat challenging as it isn’t something I can place on the table in front of you and define with precise terms. We aren’t talking about an x-ray of a broken bone, or a brain image showing signs of CTE. There is nothing tangible about pressure, aside from the symptoms that often occur when an athlete feels pressured. Some of these symptoms include stomach butterflies, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, unusual perspiration, and distorted thinking. While these signs are observable, the “pressure” an athlete experiences is anything but observable — instead, pressure is experienced by athletes in very unique ways, and the challenges to overcome pressure vary by individual.
In the most basic sense, sports pressure occurs when an athlete (and his/her coaches and teammates) focus on expectations and goals that get in the athlete’s head and create fear and self-doubt. For example, even though an basketball player might be a great shooter in practice (where there’s generally not high expectations, if any at all) when he/she gets into a game and begins to think about personal, team, and even community expectations things can change in a hurry. Instead of solely focusing on getting in good positions to take good shots, the athlete ends up battling his or her insecurities tied to questions around what will happen if he/she fails? As this self-doubt creeps in from self-induced pressure, the body responds with muscle tightening, as well as thoughts of worry rather than thoughts rooted in confidence. That seemingly little difference, brought on by pressure, is enough to make your child look like a completely different person in games than she is in practice.
Tips to help
The good news is if your child struggles with sport anxiety and pressure, there are things you can do to immediately help:
- Remind kids of the control they have over the situation. One big problem when helping kids overcome pressure is to begin by stating the fact that they are not helpless to their situation, but can instead learn to master mental toughness just the same as they can learn to master other sport skills. This is an important, big first step to future success as it takes away any thoughts of being helpless to genetics and instead empowers kids to gain confidence knowing they can overcome sports anxiety.
- Human perception is key. “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure” is a great saying that drives this point home — when kids perceive big games as healthy challenges rather than fearful events just that one, single change in thinking can lead to a host of positive outcomes. When kids think “I am going to win” instead of “Please don’t lose,” their bodies respond in completely different and positive ways. Thinking positive thoughts leads to synchrony between mind and body, allowing for better muscle memory and greater chances for on-field success.
- Learn anxiety-reducing techniques. Kids who struggle with sports anxiety should also learn the importance of proven sport psychology skills designed to help, including deep breathing, positive self-talk, and imagery (click here to learn more).
Practicing with no pressure or expectations can be a very different experience compared to playing in real games where there are fans, an opposing team, and a scoreboard. While you might think there shouldn’t be any difference, the moment an athlete turns his or her focus away from their specific role and toward worries around what coaches, teammates, and fans might think if they fail, the experience becomes very different. “Pressure” is a very real concern for many athletes, and often the single variable that keeps them back from reaching their full athletic potential, making it an important aspect of sport competition that warrants attention and training.