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By Laura Chackes, Psy.D.

Young athletes often feel an immense amount of pressure to succeed. At the same time, anxiety and worry about athletic performance are among the biggest predictors of individual variations in performance. What does this mean for young athletes? Worrying about performance actually makes them more likely to perform poorly. 

It may seem like the solution is simple – just stop worrying! However, tell that to any person with anxiety and you will quickly find that it is not easy at all. In fact, the more they try to stop worrying, the more deeply embedded in an endless cycle of worry they will become.

While some degree of performance anxiety helps motivate athletes to train hard to achieve their goals, anxiety becomes problematic when it reduces the athlete’s confidence, mood, and/or athletic performance. For the rest of this article, the terms anxiety and performance anxiety will refer to this problematic level of anxiety.

Are you a young athlete, or do you have a young athlete in your life? These are a few signs to look out for to spot performance anxiety:

  • Playing much better in practice than in games or competitions
  • Experiencing physical symptoms like nausea, decreased appetite, headaches, chest pains, or difficulty breathing before or during athletic events
  • Difficulties with focus or concentration during games
  • Seeming to freeze up or “choke” when the pressure is high
  • Making excuses to avoid playing the sport, or asking to stay on the bench or sub out more often than normal
  • Becoming very emotional or beating themselves up after they make a mistake
  • Overly focused on their performance
  • Excessive concern about judgment or disapproval from others
  • Reporting that they don’t like their sport anymore

Often athletes aren’t aware that what they are experiencing is anxiety, or if they are they don’t want to admit it because they don’t want to seem “weak.” However, if not addressed, performance anxiety can not only lead to decreased performance, but also depression and even suicide. It’s important to identify and address performance anxiety, and here are some ideas you can try today.

6 Tips for Helping Young Athletes with Performance Anxiety:

  1. Focus on effort rather than performance. Some athletes with performance anxiety are experiencing actual pressure from parents, coaches, other close family members, while others sense pressure from them even though it doesn’t exist. Either way, if your young athlete is experiencing anxiety, it’s best for you to focus on their effort rather than how well they perform. You can do this by saying things like, “I love how hard you worked out there today.”
  1. Manage your own anxiety. Many parents of anxious children experience anxiety themselves. You may be anxious about things unrelated to their performance, or you may be overly invested yourself in how well your child performs. It’s important to notice if you have any anxiety that may be contributing to your child’s anxiety, and if so, work on managing your own anxiety so that you can be the best support for your child.
  1. Focus on the big picture. Often, when athletes are anxious, their perspective narrows so much that they believe that every mistake they make is a big deal. Help them see the big picture by reminding them that there are hundreds of plays in each game, and several games in a season, so no one play is going to dictate success or failure. You can also focus on the performance of the team as a whole to help widen their focus.
  1. Identify and challenge anxious thoughts. Help the child to identify their anxious thoughts by asking what is going through their head before, during, or after a sports event. If they struggle to put it into words, you can ask them what they are most afraid will happen, and what the worst part of that would be. Then help them challenge those thoughts by asking how likely it is that the worst case scenario will occur. If what they are afraid of is likely to occur, such as a soccer goalie worried about a goal being scored on them, then ask them how bad it will be if that happens. You can also ask them if they’ve experienced similar things in the past, and how they’ve handled those situations. Rather than challenging the thoughts for the child, let them come up with the challenges so that they will be believable and helpful for your child.
  1. Soften the inner critic with self-compassion. Everyone has an inner critic – a voice in our head that points out things we do wrong or could have done better. People with anxiety tend to have a very loud, expressive inner critic. Self-compassion is simply treating yourself the way you treat a good friend. Help your child tap into this self-compassion by having them write a letter to themselves as if they were a compassionate friend, specifically addressing the things that they tend to beat themselves up about related to their sports performance.
  1. Practice mindfulness to reduce anxiety and improve athletic performance. There is considerable research connecting a regular mindfulness practice to a reduction in anxiety. Mindfulness is exercise for your brain that involves bringing your full attention to the present moment, through a focus on your breath, body, or one of your five senses. You can practice this by listening to guided mindful meditations, which you can find on apps like Insight Timer and Headspace. Another way to practice is by noticing one or more of your five senses while doing any routine activity like brushing your teeth, washing your hands, or petting your dog or cat. Whether you use meditation or one of these informal practices, the goal is to gently guide your attention back to the meditation or one of your five senses every time it wanders. Over time with daily practice these mindfulness exercises will strengthen your ability to manage difficult emotions like anxiety.

A particular mindfulness program called Mindful Sports Performance Enhancement (MSPE) has been found to not only reduce anxiety in athletes, but also improve their athletic performance. This program teaches athletes how to manage emotions through breathing exercises, meditations, and specific mindfulness practices geared towards the athlete’s sport of choice. I’ve received specialized training in MSPE, and have developed programs at The Center for Mindfulness & CBT for athletes to learn this approach. 

Next month we will be offering a 3-hour mental training for athletes ages 14-20. This Mindfulness Workshop for Athletes is enrolling now, so make sure to grab a spot for your athlete before they all fill. If you have a younger athlete interested in a mindfulness workshop, please email Elizabeth@mindfulstl.com to be added to the waitlist.

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