Today’s Topic: How to Stop the Tears at Competition
Hi everyone. I’m coach Rebecca Smith with Complete Performance Coaching and the PerformHappy community. I’m here to answer your questions that will help you break through mental blocks and fear, build your confidence, and start competing confidently.
Our question today is from a gymnast. I love this question because it’s something I hear a lot. Here’s what she said:
Q: In competition, if I don’t do well or I’m disappointed in my score, sometimes I get frustrated and can’t hold back the tears. How do I stay positive and not cry?
I get this question from athletes and from their parents. “How do I stop the tears?” Maybe you’re disappointed in practice, maybe you’re disappointed in competition, either way, tears are not typically encouraged, especially in high-level youth sports. A lot of coaches will kick you out of the gym for crying, not that I condone that, but crying seems to be an issue.
When I was younger, I was an easy crier, and once it started, I could not get it to turn off. So here’s my take on how to stop the competition tears. You can also apply it to practice.
Spoiler alert, I’m not actually going to tell you how to stop the tears. The answer I always give is not about how to stop the tears, it’s how do we prevent them? Because once they start, it’s hard to turn them off. You can’t just breathe your way back into composure. Well, you can, but it’s way easier to prevent them than to stop them. The first thing I want to do is take you back three steps.
Preventing the Meltdown
You never want to be stuck in the how to stop the meltdown, you want to prevent the meltdown. You want to figure out the cause of the meltdown. Typically, you’ve created a really big deal, or you have decided that it is a very big deal, Whatever it is that’s happening, and if it goes wrong, that’s not acceptable.
The first thing to check in with is pressure. Are you putting a lot of pressure on yourself? Probably. Is there a coach, parent, or other authority figure putting a lot of pressure or perceived pressure on you? You might think there’s a lot of pressure there when really there isn’t.
I’ve talked to so many parents who said, “I don’t care how she does on meet day, I just want her to be happy. I don’t want her to be in tears out there. It’s fine if she gets eighth place, I’m just so thrilled that she’s trying and working hard”
Of course, there are other parents who will give them the talking to in the car on the way home and that’s a whole nother issue. You can feel free to download that free report here – The Five Things to Never Say to Your Athlete After Competition. That will give you, parents, some insight into if you are saying the wrong thing. That can help to reduce the tears.
Let’s say that the parents are totally supportive, the coaches are not that stressful, and it’s just this kid who cares so much and doesn’t want to disappoint. At that point, it’s worth having a conversation with your parents and saying, “You know, mom, I am so scared that I’m going to let you down.”
Talking it Through
I know for every 11, 12, and 13-year-old athlete out there is thinking that’s a terrifying conversation, but if you could talk to your parents and say, “What would happen if I did really bad?” This is one of my favorite things to do with kids is talking it through. I’ll ask, “Let’s say you fall five times on every event… then what? Will your parents kick you out of the house? No. Will you get kicked off the team? Probably not. If so, it’s maybe not the right team for you. Will your parents feed you dinner that night? Are they going to let you sleep in your own bed? Will your siblings to love you? How about your grandparents? Will you still get to go to school on Monday? Will you be able to come back into the gym and keep practicing?”
The answer is always yes. When they look at it in that perspective and go, “Okay, if I ‘fail’, the things that are most important to me will still be there so it’s okay. I like to call it legalizing failure. You’re allowed to fail. To the parents out there, if you have an athlete who is particularly prone to overly stressing, getting nervous, and wanting to please, then make it a policy that you get ice cream after every competition.
When I used to play soccer, I was a really great defender but not a good forward, so I never scored any goals. My little brother was a forward and he would always score goals and we’d get to go to ice cream because Andy scored a goal. I never once in my soccer career scored a goal because I was a really good defender, so I had this idea of “I’m not good because I don’t score points for my team.”
What if everybody gets ice cream after every game because you showed up and you tried? I know that’s similar to “here’s your A for effort”, but you know what? That’s important. We’re dealing with young athletes with their self-esteem is on the line, so if you can make a commitment that even if your athlete completely blows it, they’ll get ice cream because they showed up and did their best. If they didn’t do their best, that’s another conversation. But if they did, they earned the ice cream as far as I’m concerned.
Athletes, talk to those authority figures who you feel like you’re really going to disappoint. Talk to your coach. Ask them, “If I make a mistake at the meet, will you still like me?” It seems kind of ridiculous to ask that, but if you’re really worried and you’re really stressed, talk to them. If these people care about you, which I’m pretty sure they do, they’ll let you know it’s okay to fail.
Mistakes Make You a Better Athlete
It’s okay to make mistakes, and then you learn from them. Part of failure is to know that if you make a mistake, you have the ability to reflect. You can go, “All right coach, let’s talk about what happened.” Then the coach will say, “These are the couple things that I saw that you can work on.” Then you work your butt off at practice to make those things better and you move on. That’s it. You don’t have to carry this guilty burden of having failed because there’s really no such thing as failure. If you have the right mindset, it’s just the learning road and the stepping stones to success. You make a mistake, you fix it, you get better. You make another mistake, you fix it, you get better.
Over-Identifying with Your Sport
If you can make it not so much of a big deal and just say, “Hey, this is the best I got for today. Let’s see how it goes,” that will make it so that you’re not so emotionally involved. Also, do you feel like you are your sport? Do you tell people “I’m a gymnast,” or “I’m a swimmer,” or “I’m a pole vaulter”? If that’s how you define yourself, then if there’s a problem with the way you’re performing, a lot of the time you’ll internalize that and make it feel like there’s a problem with you. You’ll think, “If my sport is not going well, I am not okay.” I’ve even heard girls say, “I’m such a bad person. I can’t believe I made that mistake,” and I’ll say, “For heaven’s sake, you are not a bad person. You are a person who tried, who made a mistake. Let’s learn from it. Let’s move forward.”
Once you can take the weight of the world off your shoulders, you can breathe, and that’s where you can calm yourself down. If you feel like if you make a mistake that you’re not okay, that’s a big risk every time you set out on the competition floor.
What Else Makes You, You
If you’re over-identifying with your sport, you have to have other things that are you. I am a person who does a sport. I am not just that athlete. I’m more than that. I’m a sister and a mother and a friend. Figure out what else you are, what else can you do, and what else makes you okay. Really what makes you okay is that you’re you, and that’s enough, even if you’re totally screwing up, you’re okay.
Stress is feeling like you don’t have what it takes to get through something difficult, so if you don’t have enough coping skills, if you feel like you will not survive if you fail, then you’re going to fall apart. But if your thought process is, “If I fail, this is how I’m going to handle it. If I make this mistake, this is what I’m going to do next. If this goes wrong, I will handle it in this way,” you have a little toolbox full of bounceback routines or coping skills.
This can be great for golfers. “If I have a bad hit about hole, then I’m going to stomp it out. I’m going to be really mad for 10 steps and then I’m going to drop my club in my bag, exhale and let it go, and then I’m going to have a clean slate for the next hole.” If you don’t plan for things to go wrong, then they go wrong and you get sidetracked and all out of out of whack.
Here are some tips if you know that you are really sensitive to falling apart. If you make a mistake at a competition, then the next move is you cheer your teammates on or walk to the bathroom to be really upset. Think about what you’d like to do differently while you’re in the stall and then walk back to your team. By the time you get back, you’ve left it in the bathroom and here you are ready to cheer on your teammates.
If you have a plan, then you don’t have to get so messed up when things don’t go well.
Legalizing failure is really important, but also focusing on excellence rather than perfection. Instead of saying, “I want to do perfectly today. I want to make all my routines and I want to hit all my skills. I’m going to take off for all my jumps.” Whatever it is, make sure that instead of saying “all”, it’s “excellent”, “I want to be excellent,” which gives a little bit of humanity.
You’re going to make mistakes. I always say this and then I get corrected in the comments. Yes, it is possible to get a perfect score in gymnastics, but that’s so rare. People don’t do that. You’re not going to be perfect, so be excellent instead. If you aim for that, it’s a lot more achievable.
The Tears Come Anyway
If the crying has already started, here are some things you can do:
Breathe. I like to inhale for four seconds, hold, and exhale for four. Do it four times, and every time you exhale, especially if you exhale through your mouth, a really complete exhale, it triggers the relaxation response in your brain so it actually sends a little chemical to your body that says, relax.
It also sends a message to your brain that there is no major threat. If you were standing face to face with a hungry tiger, you wouldn’t be taking nice deep breaths, so when your body starts to do that, your brain goes, “Oh, there must not be anything terribly wrong going on so we can allow the body to relax.”
Take nice deep breaths in through your nose, out through your mouth, four counts. It’s a really quick, easy way to get any anxiety or anger or stress or sadness, any kind of overwhelming emotion to just go on down a notch. Counting is great. Counting to four, counting to 10, counting the beat, getting into numbers, doing math in your head even bec9ikause it turns on a different part of your brain that kind of wakes you back up into reality.
Another one that I really like is imagery. This you can do one of two ways. You can see an image in your mind of your happy place, your favorite place to go, something that always puts a smile on your face. Your doggy, your vacation to Hawaii, whatever makes your heart feel happy. Just take a second and go to your happy place. You can also imagine yourself being successful so you can redo it. If you just made a mistake, then you can go, “Okay, I’m going to go redo it. Zip, zip! I just made a really great beam routine in my mind. Now let’s go to bars.”
If that’s going to stress you out, then you’re better off just breathing and thinking of something that makes you happy. For some people, getting the success feeling back in their body can be really useful.
Take a Break
Finally – take a break. Take a walk, get a drink, and when you’re done, let it go. Another thing you can do is clench your fists and just squeeze really, really tight and then physically let it go. Breathe out, let your hands go. Again, send that relaxation response going through your body.
Ultimately, tears are always easier to prevent. Go three steps ahead. Don’t think about when you’re in crisis. Let’s prevent the crisis by having a really healthy outlook on it that this is for fun. We’re doing the best we can. You’ve done all the prep that you could now go, have a good time, see how it goes, and then learn and get better.
If you have questions, you can send them to me at Rebecca@performhappy.com. Again, if you want the five things to never say to your kid after a competition, you can download that for free by clicking here.
I will see you again soon. Thanks for tuning in!