Some children love sports, get pumped for a little competition, and thrive under pressure on the field or court. Others experience negative thinking, fear of failing, and the overwhelming need to be perfect. Indeed, game-day stress can make kids feel anxious—even debilitating those who don’t know how to deal with the emotions they are experiencing.
If your child experiences sweaty palms, trembling, headaches, a racing heart, or even vomiting before or during the game, it may be more than just “a bad case of nerves.” They may have sports performance anxiety (SPA).
What is SPA?
Anxiety is the intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. But SPA occurs when someone is anxious, nervous, or too frightened to perform freely during competition. The person often has an irrational embarrassment or fear about not performing well or losing the game or match. SPA has a lot to do with the fear of failing.
Children with SPA often think to themselves, “I am terrible at this sport,” or “I can’t play under this pressure,” or “I am a terrible teammate,” or “I hurt my team more than I help.” This negative thinking and self-talk can destroy confidence and interfere with or inhibit their ability to compete in the sport.
How Should You Handle It?
You might think the smartest (or easiest) solution would be to have your child stop playing the sport altogether, right? Not necessarily, says Dr. Paul Harris, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Virginia, who works with African-American male student-athletes on college and career readiness.
“Participating in sports is such a useful medium for so many life lessons, which is why I hesitate on saying don’t play the sport anymore, as opposed to learning how to work within,” he explains. “SPA is treatable and manageable. There are enough interventions to disrupt the narrative that is causing the anxiety so that the child can enjoy the sport.”
If playing the sport creates what Dr. Harris calls “an unyielding” amount of stress, interfering with a child’s performance, disrupting their daily living or social functioning, or even bringing about some perceived threat of being physically hurt during competition, that’s more than the pre-game jitters. It’s grounds to consider removing them from the activity.
But if your child is experiencing SPA, how can you help them combat it and build up their composure and resiliency? The key is to get rid of negative and irrational thoughts and control emotions. Here are seven strategies for doing so.
Turn down the volume on stress
You may be the type of parent who is passionate about the game and gets a tad bit loud when it comes to cheering or jeering. If so, make sure anything you’re saying comes from a place of love. Sports can be stressful enough without a parent yelling out critiques or causing scenes. “It’s usually not intentional. However, you have to ask, ‘What if what I’m doing is making it worse for my child?” Dr. Harris explains. “For example, unsolicited advice on the field or the court may seem like a little thing. But they are little big things.”
Jacques Louis, Director of Outreach at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication (CPTC) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) has two teenage sons, ages 15 and 16, who play sports. He remembers realizing a time he’d been a little loud while yelling encouraging words at one of his son’s games. Afterward he explained, “I’m doing that to let you know that I’m your main cheerleader. I’m trying to build you up from a distance,” says Louis. “I think explaining that to your kids is helpful. And if it lands bad, you can say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t want me to yell like that. I’ll relax next time.’”
Keep an open dialogue
Honest conversations help keep SPA at bay. Help your child become comfortable enough to share their feelings about sports with you. A constant and open dialogue can help anxious children get matters off their chest and help you get in touch with their thoughts to be aware of nervousness that may actually turn into a problem. “If the student-athlete can communicate, ‘This is what triggers me,” or ‘This is where I am, and this is what would help me,’ that is going to be very beneficial,” says Dr. Harris.
Create pre- and post-game rituals
Louis and his wife try their best to comfort their sons. “We let them know -win or lose- we love you. We start and finish with that. Their mom is always there for that hug, and I am there to give them that high five to mitigate anxiety,” he says. He also lets his sons choose their own “hype music” to get psyched for competition. “We let the car be their space before the game. But on the way back, we talk, we debrief.” Don’t have a car? Let your teen put on their headphones so they can listen to music on the train, bus, or walk to the game. Afterward, chat about the game like Louis does.
Practice centering techniques
Helping your child create and memorize mottos they can repeat before each game can be effective. Dr. Harris says these memorized statements may help counter the irrational stories children may tell themselves and build resiliency. “Self-talk can really be useful. Every time those negative thoughts or feelings come up, the athlete has something prepared to help with the anxiety,” says Dr. Harris.
Other centering methods that can combat the jitters include deep breathing, mediation, yoga, and visualization. “The student-athlete is visualizing themselves successfully doing the sport and doing it with ease,” says Dr. Harris. “A lot of sports psychologists use this very deliberate and intentional technique because it really helps the athlete once they are in competition.” So tell your child to close their eyes before a game and see themselves winning the race, the ball easily going into the basket, or the effortless touchdown being made.
Reconsider high-level sports
Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) organizations, Select Teams, and travel squads are not for every child. These elite leagues often involve rigorous schedules, tough competition, and stressful cultures – a surefire recipe for unease and frayed nerves. If your athletes participate in this type of advanced competition, make sure they are emotionally and physically ready for the constant pressure to succeed.
Before you even expose your child to these teams, ask whether they want to participate in high-level sports. If your child is already playing at this advanced level, check in often to see if they’re having fun, engaged, and want to continue. If not, close that chapter and move on, perhaps finding an intramural team or a local league that isn’t as intense.
Seek professional help
Obtaining the help of a mental health professional is an act of strength. If you’ve followed the techniques above and your child is still exhibiting SPA, turn to a licensed mental health counselor specializing in children or adolescents and can help challenge the irrational beliefs SPA causes. Ask your child’s pediatrician to recommend a reputable practitioner or check out Psychology Today to find a therapist near you.
When your child is feeling anxious or nervous, it’s natural as a parent to worry or be concerned about their well-being. The key is to stay calm for the sake of your child. They are watching your every move, so try to show confidence, and they will follow your lead. Be patient and trust that over time and with some of the strategies mentioned above, your child’s SPA will decrease, and they will be just fine.