Young athletes often experience various stressors during their sports careers, including injuries, playing time, parent pressure, and problems with the coach. How kids respond to stress, therefore, is the million-dollar question and often the difference between future success and failure.
A general rule-of-thumb I use when talking to athletes about the stress they experience while competing often summarizes to this:
You can either change your perception (and behaviors), or change the situation.
Drilling deeper, what I mean by this suggestion is that in many of the cases where a kid stresses out in sports it is due to factors in which he or she may have little control. For example, if a more vocal coach worries your child, the odds of that coach softening his approach to coaching to accommodate your child is very unlikely. Your child, however, can modify and adapt skills and strategies to help offset the negative effect of a yelling coach, and can even turn the situation into a positive if he decides to use the coach’s comments in helpful and constructive ways.
Start by reframing…
Changing perception and behaviors is almost always the best way to start when it comes to dealing with stress, and changing situations should only be examined after other stress responses have failed and/or there is a very important and specific reason to change. More simply, I do not recommend kids quit (change the situation) just because they have a loud coach, but instead encourage kids to develop healthy and effective coping responses to help.
The ways in which we frame situations in life — kids or adults — often directly impacts the results we experience. For example, when kids frame sports injuries as mini roadblocks instead of impossible catastrophes they have been victimized from, only then can they develop the motivation and resiliency to move forward and play at a high level again. Viewing situations as healthy challenges rather than dangerous threats makes a huge difference in the ways in which we cope, and ultimately the level of success we experience.
But sometimes a change can be good…
There are, however, situations young athletes will face where changing their situation may, in fact, be their best move. For example, a young athlete who wishes to play multiple sport and engage in other school activities and clubs may need to change gears as it applies to playing competitive, travel sports (because of the time commitment expected with travel sports). In this example, no matter how many different ways the kid thinks about the stress associated with playing travel sports along with other sports and activities, the reality is his schedule will likely always be overloaded attempting to do all of these things, making a situation-change a potentially smart decision.
Similarly, if a child finds herself on the bench and not playing much, she might only last so long if her chances for playing don’t improve (regardless of how many times she self-inspires about the bleak situation). In these examples I don’t believe kids should be branded as “quitters,” but instead quite mature for objectively examining their situations, trying new coping mechanisms, and eventually deciding on taking a new path in life.