How to help a child with sports anxiety

Sports anxiety is something every sport family experiences at one point or another.

When the pressure increases, kids get nervous.

Some athletes switch into “go” mode and get excited to go out there and do their best. Other athletes get worried and tense up. They might turn negative, withdraw, or give up before they’ve started.

No matter how many private lessons or pep talks, you never know if your kid will end up in tears or glowing with success. And you don’t know what they need from you.

Should you try to analyze it with them? Give them tough love? Back off and let them figure it out? Are you helping or just making it worse?

There’s nothing worse than a drive home in silent disappointment.

Sports anxiety is one of the key predictors of longevity of participation and enjoyment in sport (Gould, Greenleaf, & Krane, 2002). In order for your child to have a long and enjoyable sport career, it’s critical that they learn to cope with the pressure of competition. I’ll let you in on what the sport psychology research says about anxiety. I’ll also help you to determine if your child’s nerves are helpful or harmful. Then, I’ll show you what causes it, and what you need to know to help your child through it.

What is sports anxiety?

Sports anxiety is a tendency to view competitive situations as threatening and to respond to these situations with apprehension and tension (Martens, Vealey, & Burton, 1990).

When under pressure, motor skills that are usually automatic become impaired by additional tension. Athletes “choke” while attempting well-learned tasks (Baumeister, 1984). Even highly-skilled athletes fall into the downward spiral of making “stupid mistakes” on skills they have been practicing for years. They get obsessed with the fear that it will happen again.  This makes them even more tense and likely to mess up again.

Dimensions of anxiety

There are mental, physical and behavioral components to sports anxiety. The physical component (somatic anxiety) includes symptoms like:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Tension
  • Sweating
  • Trembling

The mental component (cognitive anxiety) includes:

  • Worry
  • Negativity
  • Self-doubt

There are also personality factors to consider. Some athletes are more prone to competition anxiety if they have a predisposition toward high anxiety in many situations.

Somatic anxiety was found to predict poor performance under pressure.  This is likely because an athlete’s focus is directed away from what they should be doing, to body sensations that are not conducive to performance (Wang, Marchant, Morris, & Gibbs, 2004).

Cognitive anxiety, which is more common in females and older athletes, also contributes to concentration disruption (Grossbard, Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2009). Athletes who have more anxiety in general are more likely to experience poor performance under pressure (Martens et al., 1990; Wang et al., 2004).

The good news is that there are highly effective coping skills that anyone can learn. Although anxiety is a reality for some kids more than others, most can learn to thrive in competitive situations.

Is anxiety helpful or harmful?

Not all anxiety in sport is harmful. Anxiety can benefit performance through focusing energy and attention on the task at hand (Lazarus, 1984). Other research has shown that negative emotions such as pre-competition anxiety can lead to increased effort (Eysenck et al., 2007). Despite an initial negative interpretation of anxiety, these emotions can be helpful for increasing motivation, effort, and/or focus (Neil et al., 2011).

Harmful anxiety is related to the athlete’s interpretation of the negative emotions (Neil et al., 2011). When an athlete sees anxiety as something that will hurt performance, this can trigger increased physical anxiety, resulting in further negative thoughts (Lazarus, 1998).

When emotions are perceived as detrimental to the upcoming performance, negative feelings intensify and interfere with the athlete’s concentration, affecting their ability to execute necessary tasks (Neil et al., 2011).

If a child has had the experience of “choking,” then they feel their body ramping up with nervous energy, they get more nervous, compounding the negative feelings.  This sets in motion the Sports Anxiety Cycle:

  • They believe that getting nervous will negatively impact their performance
  • They get nervous
  • They believe they will not do well, which makes them more nervous
  • They don’t do well
  • The pattern is further solidified

The Sports Anxiety Cycle by Rebecca Smith, M.A.

What causes sports anxiety?

There two types of stressors that can lead to increased anxiety in athletes: performance stressors and organizational stressors.

  • Performance stressors are related to preparation, risk of injury, expectations, self-consciousness, and rivalry.
  • Organizational stressors are related to the competition environment, an athlete’s perceived responsibility, leadership, and expectations for improvement.

There are lots of factors that determine the way an athlete responds to competition stress (Smith, Smoll, & Schutz, 1990). These factors include:

  • The athlete’s typical sport anxiety level
  • The nature of the competitive situation
  • Personal coping strategies

If an athlete is generally nervous in sport or competitive situations, if they are feeling a lot of pressure, or if they lack coping strategies, he or she is much more likely to lose control.

In order to break the pattern of anxiety, an athlete’s brain must be re-wired for success. Kids need to learn a new reaction to competition. I teach athletes simple cognitive strategies that dissolve the pressure of “big” competitions. Successful athletes have developed a mindset that allows them put their best foot forward every time.

How fear of injury impacts performance

Heil’s psychophysiological model of risk discusses how fear of injury can negatively impact performance and actually increase the athlete’s likelihood of becoming injured. Chase, Magyar, and Drake (2005) studied gymnasts who had been injured previously. These gymnasts’ feelings of apprehension, anxiety, and fear were heavily influenced by the fear of being injured again.

Fear of injury actually increases the likelihood of injury. And of course, injury increases the fear of injury. Thus we have another potentially debilitating mental cycle of fear and stress. Strategies like imagery and confidence building, when done right, can break the cycle.

Other fears that interfere with performance

Sport performance anxiety involves irrational fears of things related to performance and being evaluated. Research shows that fear of failure, not looking good to peers, or disapproval by significant others (like parents and coaches) provide some of the biggest contributors to sport performance anxiety (Smith et. al., 1995; Smith et al., 1990).

Nerves and perfectionism

Perfectionists tend to have more sport anxiety because they are highly self-critical and concerned with how they appear to others.

Many, if not most, high achievers fall into this category. The qualities that make them great (attention to detail, motivation to succeed, dedication) also lead to competition meltdown. Highly self-conscious athletes were more susceptible to choking under pressure. The reason for this is that athletes who have a predominantly internal, critical focus are more sensitive to concerns of performance outcomes and evaluation by others (Wang et al., 2004).

Passer (1983) found that children with higher levels of sport performance anxiety were more afraid of failure and criticism from significant others. They also worried more about making mistakes, playing badly, and losing than those with less overall sport anxiety. Because coaches administer approval and disapproval based on athlete performance, they play an important role in the development and maintenance of performance anxiety (Smith et. al., 1995).

For athletes who fear failure and disapproval, critical or punitive feedback from coaches or parents can lead to an environment that is detrimental to peak performance (Passer, 1988).

Effects of Anxiety on Performance

Regardless of what causes it, perceptions of fear have the ability to interfere with an athlete’s attention and disrupt future performance (Bandura, 1997; Chase et al., 2005).

Selective attention is a key element of sport success. This is the ability to focus on specific things while ignoring others. In an anxious state, selective attention is impaired because of the automatic attentional shifts to internal and external responses to a threat (Wilson, Vine & Wood, 2009).

In other words, It’s natural to become hyperfocused on a threat. This, however, will not allow an athlete to perform well if they are focused on the wrong thing.

Anxiety = the anti-focus

Think of focus like a spotlight. There are only so many things you can light up at once. Typically an athlete can pay attention to just one or two things at a time. If an athlete is consumed by the threat of a competitor, or what people will think of them, it’s impossible to remain focused on execution or other relevant tasks. If they point their flashlight at the other team or to their pounding heart, they can’t see what matters, leaving them wondering why they blew it.

Here’s an example:

A study was done involving soccer players performing a penalty kick. Players who were more anxious spent more time looking at the goalie (the threat) than the corners of the goal, leading to more unsuccessful kicks than those who were less anxious (Wilson et al., 2009). According to Eysenck and colleagues (2007), this is because anxious athletes are less able to control their attention and prevent it from wandering.

When an athlete is anxious, his or her spotlight automatically shines on distractions or threats.   Fortunately, the self-control necessary to maintain focus on what matters in a state of anxiety can be strengthened (Baumeister et al., 2006). Athletes can learn to keep their spotlight pointed on what will help them succeed, rather than what will make them fail.

Anxiety and avoidance

Performance anxiety can also lead to a pattern of avoidance. If an athlete’s negative thoughts and emotions cause them to balk on a skill, without intervention, they will be more likely to avoid the task next time (Chase et al., 2005).

Just like athletes train their skills, they can train their mistakes. The more they have a negative reaction to stress, the more ingrained it becomes. When athletes fail to successfully complete well-learned skills, this can destroy confidence. It also decreases self-trust and the belief that they will be able to overcome the problem (Feltz, 1982).

This can lead to seriously bummed out kids.

How to help a child with sports anxiety

The most important factor in determining whether an athlete will attempt or avoid a task or skill (Chase et al., 2005) is the belief that they can do it (Bandura 1977, 1997). Successfully overcoming sports anxiety is related to the level of confidence an individual has in his or her abilities (Bandura, 1977).

Bottom line – if you don’t believe you can do it… you will prove yourself right. If you believe in yourself, you can overcome performance fears and anxiety.

mindset quote confucius A study done on gymnasts (Chase et al., 2005) revealed that past success, consistency, and communication with significant others had positive impacts on self-belief.

So, talking to your child, highlighting their successes and celebrating their efforts does help build their confidence. When an athlete is struggling with anxiety around a particular event or skill, there are proven ways to get back on track.

Strong belief in an athlete’s ability to perform a specific task will often override performance fears (Chase et al., 2005).

Building self-belief and confidence

Typically an athlete’s confidence is built on a foundation of past success (Chase et al., 2005). By taking baby steps, celebrating effort, and remaining committed to moving forward (Skinner, 1963), athletes can regain a history of success and increase self-belief. This decreases the anxiety associated with a “problem” skill. I have seen this process work time and time again with young athlete clients.

Nicholls, Holt, Polman, and Bloomfield (2006) demonstrated that mental skills like positive self-talk, following a routine, relaxation, and re-defining anxiety increased an athlete’s ability to cope during performance. Peer support, physical preparation, and coaches’ influence also play an important part in helping athletes overcome their fears (Chase et al., 2005).

A study showed that an emphasis on effort and personal improvement, while reducing the pressure to win, resulted in decreases in physical anxiety and worry in participants (Smith, Smoll, & Cumming 2007). Positive reinforcement of effort as opposed to focus on outcome also reduced stress and anxiety by increasing an athlete’s perceptions of control (Folkman, 1984).

Using negative thoughts and anxiety as tools for mental toughness training

Negative emotions may actually be beneficial for an athlete if monitored and framed in a constructive way. Neil and colleagues (2011) recommend that performance coaches monitor athletes’ interpretation of their emotions and help shift them toward a success mindset.

It’s important to determine whether the athlete is still focusing on distracting thoughts or has restructured them to increase motivation, improve concentration and boost effort. I work with kids to identify patterns that serve them and those that don’t. Together, we pick out thoughts that lead to motivation, concentration, and effort. We also seek out patterns that lead to distractions and stress. When we have figured out what is causing their particular brand of sports anxiety, we structure a plan and begin to re-wire the brain for peak performance and maximum enjoyment.

Conclusion

I’ve gone over some of the factors that determine whether higher levels of anxiety help or hurt performance. The way your child views the experience of nerves makes a huge difference in how it affects performance and enjoyment.

When kids allow their attention to shift from the task at hand to negative emotions, if intervention doesn’t happen right away, they start the downward spiral (Chase et al., 2005).

By reframing negative emotions and increasing self-confidence, athletes can override stress and fears, allowing them to perform at their best. This accomplishes our goal: happy, healthy, successful kids.

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