How to Help your Child Excel in Sports

By Elizabeth Ernest, LMSW, S-MFT

Sports provide opportunities for growth, learning, and social interactions for children and teens. At times though, sports can also cause feelings of anxiety to arise in children. It is normal for one to become nervous, anxious, or even scared before or during a practice or game. However, these emotions can sometimes impact a player’s performance or motivation to play the sport. 

I played competitive tennis as a teenager and collegiate tennis for three years. During this time I experienced the anxiety, stress, and nervousness of being a highly competitive athlete for many years. I was not taught mindfulness techniques to calm my anxiety on the court. I struggled with nervous feelings at the start of matches causing me to not perform to my best ability. My legs felt shaky, I sometimes cried, and had stomach aches. I remember wishing my coaches could help me overcome my anxiety. Thankfully I had an athletic trainer in college who helped me find relaxation techniques, deep breathing, meditation, and music, to help manage my anxiety. 

How often do you hear your child’s coach say things like, “focus, get your head in the game, calm down, or breathe?” 

What has your coach done to teach your child how to do these things?

With up to 90% of the game being mental, and no instructions given on how to do this, you can only imagine how confusing this is for your child.

Teams spend several hours a week practicing the sport, and often ask kids to get private lessons for hitting, pitching, shooting, speed and agility, etc on top of the regular practices; but, they do not ask them to do anything to train their brains. You spend thousands of dollars and endless hours for your child to play sports and receive all of this physical training; yet, you are not asked to pay a dime for any mental training. Coaches demand mental toughness but they provide no mental toughness training.

It was previously thought that the mind automatically benefits from physical and tactical training; but, that is not the case. Muscle memory is not a substitute for mental practice. There is ample evidence that psychological factors are the primary cause of day-to-day fluctuations in athletic performance. Therefore there needs to be an emphasis on the mental training component in addition to the physical training.

There are hundreds of clinical articles on mindfulness in sports, and hundreds of collegiate and professional teams and athletes that use mindfulness for sports performance enhancement.

Since the 1980’s athletes have incorporated mindfulness into their training programs. Many of the top professional athletes and teams have practiced mindfulness, including LeBron James, Derek Jeter, and Kobe Bryant. When the Seattle Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl, head coach Pete Carroll informed the world that meditation was one of the tools that got them there. Carroll hired a sports psychologist to teach mindfulness and help his athletes learn more about meditation so they could be “in the zone” and perform under high-stakes situations. One of the senior psychologists for the US Olympic Committee stated that mindfulness is his “guiding paradigm” in helping athletes train for and cope with the stress of performing in the Olympic Games.

Benefits of Mindfulness for Athletes

  • Improved focus and the ability to sustain attention
  • Better able to regulate emotions and therefore make better decisions on the field
  • Play in the “zone” at their peak performance level
  • Increased team cohesion and communication among players and between coaches and players
  • Reduced levels of the stress hormone, cortisol
  • Reduced fatigue and negative thoughts
  • Enhanced immune and cardiovascular functioning 
  • Decreases in inflammation and pain resulting in faster recovery time from injury
  • Injured or sick athletes can still train mentally and stay connected with their team

If you’re feeling worried about your child’s mental health related to sports, here are a few things that you can do to help your child right away:

  • Set aside time to sit with your child to discuss how feeling anxious, worried, or nervous is normal.
  • Ask them if there is anything you can do to help manage their anxiety.
  • Teach your child how to take slow, deep breaths to calm their nervous system.
  • Talk to the coach(es) to discuss or make a plan for what to do if your child does become anxious during practice or games.
  • Explain to your child that while telling others about their emotions may be embarrassing or shameful, by telling trusted friends and family members they can better understand what your child is going through and provide support.
  • Help your child connect with others who are experiencing similar feelings.

For a more in-depth program that your child can participate in with peers, we offer evidence-based Mindful Sports Performance Enhancement (MSPE) courses for teams and individuals. These courses have been researched and found to be effective in significantly improving athletes’ sports performance. They are taught by a trained MSPE instructor, and give your child the mental training that they need to perform at their best. For more information about MSPE, please complete this form.

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