Sports Psychology Tips: How to Help Kids Overcome Performance Anxiety
Channelling nerves is possible
Many children can get very fearful and uptight before they play competitively in their sport. So much so that they dread playing, they may be very irritable with you the parent on the journey in the car, they may even be sick or in some cases they refuse to play. Faking injury is also something I’ve come across a number of times.
These children get so overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions that it is impossible for them to enjoy the experience, let alone play to the best of their ability as they often do when they practice.
I’ll share an example of an initial email that I receive from a parent, as an example and then touch on how we turned things around.
“I’m hoping you may be able to help with my son and his football. Freddy is 11 and very keen on football and plays at a decent level. Unfortunately, Freddy has been unable to get much game time this season due to suffering from pre-match nerves. He appears fine at training, however when it comes to match day he is unable to go through with it and can’t bring himself to even get out of the car. He’s been attending recent matches purely as a spectator.
I haven’t pushed him to do it and his coach has been very understanding, allowing him as much time as he needs to sort out his nerves. Freddy is keen to conquer his nerves as he is wants to resume his football next season. He has asked if he could speak to someone about it.”
How can we help children like Freddy who experience such strong feelings and emotions?
One thing for sure is that it is possible to change this, Freddy is living proof as he now treats matches as though they are training sessions, playing with a smile on his face and understands how to get “in the zone” so that he can perform at his best.
- We checked on his expectations of himself and others and unsurprisingly found a big mis-match and went to work to change this so he was more realistic in his approach.
- Freddy was better equipped to understand what he could control on and off the pitch and what was out of his control. This has helped him not waste too much time and energy on pointless things.
- We discussed under pressure how to change brain frequencies so that he could remain calm and composed. We used a straightforward yet effective approach, a breathing technique to control his heart rate and the part of the brain, the amygdala, that’s in charge of the “fight or flight” response which prompts such anxieties.
Freddy was shown how to breathe in through his nose for five seconds, then exhale through his mouth as if he was blowing out candles on a birthday cake —for six seconds. After repeating this a few times he instantly felt calmer. We also used a series of grounding exercises where he placed his attention in his feet to centre himself and quieten his mind.
- We practiced ways to help Freddy be kinder to himself and cut himself some slack as he was incredibly hard on himself using tools associated with compassionate focused therapy.
- Visualisation techniques were also a highlight of our work to embed the ideas that we had discussed in session and help him access “the zone”.
One of our main goals was to help Freddy get away from over-thinking, which is a problem we all can get stuck in doing and is a big mental game no-no.
By putting into practice these 5 strategies Freddy now focuses on the right things, he has nerves but he channels them in the right way. He is much calmer and is able to relax his mind and body when required, so he is eager to show off his skills when he plays. As well, accessing positive memories and past experiences he is able to do easily, so that he can now trust his instincts and react intuitively to what is going on around him.
If you’d like to learn more tips about how to help children control performance anxieties, build their confidence and perform at their very best please do listen to our podcast.
Or take a look at our blogs created especially for parents and those invested in youth sport.
Also, here is what Freddy’s dad had to say about our support.
“Freddy is really making progress, a huge amount of which is down to you David, thank you. He appears to have his pre-match nerves under control. He played his first league game for on Saturday, which they won 6-5, with Freddy scoring 5 of the goals. So he was really proud of himself. I am so happy for him and can’t thank you enough David.”
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Sport Psychologist located near Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK and willing to travel Internationally. Managing Director – Inspiring Sporting Excellence. With over 10 years experience supporting athletes, coaches, parents and teams to achieve their goals, quickly.
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