8 Ways To Help Calm Anxious Young Athletes
(By guest contributor and Performance Psychologist Dr. Sam Maniar)
It’s not uncommon for some of the best athletes in the world to get so nervous and anxious before a game or performance that they can barely function. In fact, as a sport psychologist, the most common reason athletes work with me is because of their difficulty performing under pressure. But before enlisting the help of a professional to help your child calm their nerves, here are 8 “anxiety hacks” you can try first.
8 Anxiety Hacks To Calm Your Child’s Nerves
FIRST ASK YOURSELF IF YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM
A first step is to honestly assess whether you, as the parent or coach, are part of the problem. If so, there are some great resources on this site to help you.
Help your child slow down their breathing. This helps for two reasons. First, slowing one’s breathing slows the heart rate. When our heart is beating slower, we typically don’t label our emotion as anxiety or nervousness. Second, breathing can center an individual, or bring them to the present. When people are overly nervous, they are usually focused on the past (which can’t be changed) or the future (which hasn’t happened yet).
This is just a fancy psychology term for looking at something in a completely different way. For example, ask your child how they feel physiologically when excited. They may say their heart beats faster, their breathing speeds up, they perspire, and/or they get butterflies in their stomach. Now ask them how they feel when they are nervous. You will find that the answer will be very similar. In fact, researchers have found that excitement and anxiety are the EXACT SAME emotion. The only difference is that we label one as positive and one as negative. So, help your child reframe their anxiety as excitement.
HAVE A PLAN
Sometimes anxiety can be fear of the unknown. Have your child make a list of the things that they are worried about, and then help them come up with a solution or strategy for each concern.
PRACTICE UNDER PRESSURE
You can’t expect an athlete of any age or ability to perform well under pressure if they do not practice under pressure. Shooting free throws or penalty kicks in a completely calm state with nothing on the line doesn’t prepare us for the real thing. This is why so many golfers are great on the driving range and then terrible on the course.
HAVE A CONSISTENT PRE GAME ROUTINE
Routines provide consistency and can serve as trigger to remind our brains to let go. They can range from using the same warm-up routine or stretches to listening to the same music.
FOCUS ON WHAT CAN BE CONTROLLED
Pressure is often the result of trying to control something that we cannot control. We can’t fully control outcomes of games, so trying to do so is not only futile, but it will also lead to more pressure. Help your athlete focus on things that are in their control, such as tactics (quick passes or getting to the end line), effort, or attitude. Focusing on mechanics is usually a bad idea, since it typically worsens performance.
HAVE A GROWTH MINDSET
Help your athlete learn from mistakes or losses. This is the only way to get better! By seeing mistakes as learning opportunities, you can remove a lot of the anxiety surrounding losing. (For more on the growth mindset, see my previous column.)
If after trying all of these strategies your child is still struggling, you might want to consider visiting with a sport psychologist.
Sam Maniar, Ph.D. is a Sport Psychologist and Founder of the Center for Peak Performance, LLC where he works with athletes, teams, and businesses. He holds a doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Sport Psychology. His favorite two “athletes” are his ten-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. To learn more about Dr. Maniar, visit his website at www.CenterForPeakPerformance.com or follow him on Twitter at @sam_maniar