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Competitive Sports: Helping Kids Play it Cool

Sports are a great way for kids to have fun, stay fit, improve skills, and make friends. But it's not always fun and games out on the field or court. The pressure to succeed can be overwhelming — and that can lead to a lot of frustration and tears.

In some cases, sports pressure is self-inflicted. Some kids are natural perfectionists and are just too hard on themselves when things don't go their way. But more often than not, the pressure is external: Kids try to satisfy the demands of a parent, coach, or other authority figure and end up feeling like winning is the only way to gain the approval of the adults they respect.

Either way, how kids learn to cope with sports pressure — and what the adults in their lives teach them about it, either directly or indirectly — not only affects their performance and enjoyment of the sport, but can have a lasting impact on how they deal with similar challenges throughout life.

How Stress Affects Performance

Stress is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it prepares the body to rise to a challenge with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness. On the other hand, too much of it can exhaust a kid's energy and drive, leading to sports burnout.

Events that provoke stress are called stressors, and they can be positive (such as trying to impress a college scout out on the sidelines) or negative (trying to play a game after the sudden death of a friend or loved one).

  • Positive stress comes from taking part in something that's enjoyable yet challenging. This type of stress provides energy and pumps us up and keeps us on our toes, providing a healthy spark for the tasks we undertake.
  • Negative stress comes from having to face too many unwanted demands. If your child had a fight with a close friend, missed the bus, and forgot his or her homework, it can be pretty hard to get in the right frame of mind for the afternoon tennis match.

How to Help

Parents can probably spot the difference between their child's good and bad stress simply by noticing kids' game-time interactions. For example, is your child focused and ready for action or is nervous energy getting the best of him or her? How does your child handle mistakes? Is he or she a good sport or do emotions get out of control? Of course, some of this has to do with your child's personality. Like adults, some kids are naturally more adept at remaining calm under pressure.

What may be a little harder to spot, though, is the role you and other trusted adults might play in your child's handling of stressful situations. For example, parents who place a lot of weight on their kids' sports accomplishments run the risk of adding to a child's stress.

Of course it's good for your kids to see you taking an interest in their activities, but there's a fine line between encouraging a child and pushing too hard. Overzealous parents tend to overreact to mistakes, game losses, and skipped practices, which often causes kids to do the same. And when kids beat themselves up over mistakes, they're missing an important opportunity to learn how to correct problems and develop resiliency.

Similarly, check your sideline behaviors. Words have incredible power, so use them carefully, especially when you disagree with coaches and umpires. Praise specific good efforts by your child and other players, even after a loss, and offer criticism constructively and not in the heat of the moment. Make sure your child knows you understand that a game is just a game.

Playing sports can impart many wonderful life lessons — valuing teamwork, overcoming challenges, controlling emotions, taking pride in accomplishments — but only if you stay out of the way and let your kids learn them. In fact, by taking a step back, you're showing your kids that you trust them to handle situations on their own.

Kid-Friendly Stress Management

Teach your child to use these relaxation techniques when the demands of competition start to heat up:

  • Deep breathing: Find a quiet place to sit down and inhale slowly through the nose, drawing air deep into the lungs. Hold the breath there for about 5 seconds, then release it slowly. Repeat the exercise five times.
  • Muscle relaxation: Contract (flex) a group of muscles tightly. Keep them tensed for about 5 seconds, then release. Repeat the exercise five times, selecting different muscle groups.
  • Visualization: Eyes closed, picture a peaceful place or event. While recalling the beautiful sights and happy sounds, imagine stress flowing away from the body.

    Or visualize success. People who advise competitive players often recommend that they imagine themselves completing a pass, making a shot, or scoring a goal over and over. On game day, recalling those stored images can help calm nerves and boost self-confidence.
  • Mindfulness: Focus on the present instead of worrying about the future, and stop negative thinking by focusing on the positives. Whether preparing for a competition or coping with a defeat, repeat positive affirmations: "I learn from my mistakes!" "I'm in control of my feelings!" "I can make this goal!"

Other things kids can do to keep stress in check:

  • Do a body good. It's important to eat well and get a good night's sleep, especially before games where the pressure's on.
  • Do something fun. Encourage your child to engage in some type of activity other than the sport he or she is involved in. Suggest taking a walk, riding a bike, seeing a movie, or hanging with friends to get completely away from the sport that's causing stress.
  • Avoid perfectionist thinking. Don't try to be perfect — and don't expect it in teammates either. Everyone flubs a shot or messes up from time to time. Teach your child to forgive himself or herself and move on.

It's possible that some anxiety stems only from uncertainty. Encourage your child to meet privately with the coach or instructor and ask for clarification if expectations seem vague or inconsistent. Most instructors do a good job of fostering athletes' physical and mental development, but some might need to work on it. And sometimes kids might need to be the ones to open the lines of communication.

Stress Overload: What to Do

A child who is so nervous that he or she feels physically unwell before a game or begins to have trouble sleeping at night or concentrating at school may be over-stressed. This can lead to health problems, so it's important to discuss it and find ways to help. Simply sharing these feelings can ease anxiety. When talking, let your child know that you won't pass judgment or look down on him or her for revealing these feelings.

Sometimes kids don't want to play a sport but don't know how to tell their parents. So ask if your child really wants to play or is just doing it to please you or someone else. Remember, while things like college scholarships are a nice reward for hard work, they may not be worth the risk of physical injury or long-term stress on kids.

If your child wants to continue playing, perhaps a hectic schedule is part of the problem. Many kids are involved in so many teams and activities that there's no time left over for schoolwork, hobbies, or just kicking back with friends. Exhaustion can sap enthusiasm, even for a sport a child seems to love.

If a too-full plate is the problem, discuss the options together. Perhaps it's time to let a sport go or to choose one that's less demanding. When looking for something new, encourage your child to try a variety of activities and choose the one that is the most enjoyable.

Once a decision is made, respect it and give your child credit for recognizing the need to steer out of a stressful situation. This is a sign of courage, wisdom, and maturity.

Sports are about enhancing self-esteem, building social skills, and developing a sense of community. And above all, whether kids play on the varsity team or at a weekend pick-up game, the point is to have fun. By keeping that as the priority, you can help your child learn to ride the highs and lows that are a natural part of competition.

Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: March 2011