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Help Your Child Cope with Sports Anxiety

Whether you call it game-day jitters or sidelines shyness, here's how to help.

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Gymnastics - girl on low balance beam
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Sports anxiety isn't just for the pros. Kids can feel pre-game pressure too, especially as they move into more competitive levels of youth sports or begin to compete solo. Your child may say he feels worried about an upcoming game or competition. Or he may have trouble expressing his fears. Either way, you can step in to offer reassurance and help.

Identifying Sports Anxiety

Not every child will come out and say that she's nervous about performing well in a sporting event. Instead, she might be irritable or have trouble sleeping. She might talk about wanting to quit a formerly beloved sport or activity. She might even pretend to be sick or injured to avoid participating.

Sometimes it helps to approach the subject obliquely. You might tell her about your own experience feeling nervous before a game or event—either recently, say if you ran a race or played a softball game, or when you were her age. Or invoke the example of one of her athletic heroes or role models: "Do you think Gabby Douglas ever gets scared before a meet?" Prompts like these might help your child understand and name her feelings.

Try to help your child name the specifics of her worries (similar to step 2 here). Is she worried about forgetting what to do? Letting down her team? Making a mistake? Getting hurt? Once you know, you can help reassure your child, and/or ask her coach to do the same. You can also problem-solve with her, suggesting some of the techniques below.

Coping with Sports Anxiety

Every child will respond differently, but these strategies may be helpful. Talk through them together and try a few to see what resonates.

Memorize a mantra. Sometimes anxiety stems from negative self-talk: "I can't do this," "I'll never remember my routine," "everyone will hate me if I mess up." A mantra is a positive phrase that an athlete can use to replace those negative ones. Help your child come up with a phrase that means something to him, like "I am strong" or "I got this." Then he needs to repeat it to himself often: in practice, at games, or anytime he hears that "can't-do" voice in his head.

Visualize. This can be an extension of the mantra technique. While repeating the mantra, your child can also visualize herself performing well.

Practice, with and without moving. While practicing skills is critically important to success, sometimes mental rehearsal can make a big difference too. Coach your child to walk through his performance, picturing each step in order. He may even want to write everything down and review it. This technique allows your child to practice in the absence of game-like conditions. For example, a gymnast can envision each step of a floor routine even when he's away from the gym.

Set a goal. Talk to your child about what she hopes to achieve at her next performance or game. Help her come up with an aim that is a stretch, but not unreachable. Instead of taking first place, maybe she wants to beat a certain time or land a particular skill. Focusing on that may take some of the pressure off of the overall event.

Breathe deep. Deep or diaphragmatic breathing can reduce anxiety and help your child feel more relaxed. He can practice at home, on the way to games or meets, in the locker room or on the sidelines.

Offer reassurance. Not every child will believe or accept your words of reassurance, but some will. You can remind your child of how well she's done at past events, how much practice time she's put in, how much faith you and her coach have in her. You can also remind her that some things are just out of everyone's control: the weather, for example, or a judge's whims.

Do your part. As a parent, you can help calm worries by making sure your child gets enough sleep and eats healthy foods. Most kids should be responsible for their own sports equipment, uniforms, water bottles, and so on. But you can make sure the car is packed in plenty of time and you're not rushing to a game or tournament in a panic.

Fake it 'til you make it. Smiling really does help, so tell your athlete to plaster one on—even if he doesn't feel like it!

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