On the Sidelines: Turn Anxieties Into Positive Actions

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Though it’s not pleasant to think about, anxiety is a necessary part of any competitive situation; however, it doesn’t need to get the best of us. A major difference between successful athletes and those who may not be as successful is how they handle the symptoms of anxiety. While the best athletes can interpret feelings of nervousness as excitement, less confident athletes may turn those same feelings into doubt and tension, leading to negative thoughts and less enjoyment of the sport.

There are several ways parents can help their young ones decrease anxiety levels in performance or competitive situations. Here are just a few of them:

• Differentiate between playing well and winning. Don’t focus only on outcome.  Focusing on outcome increases pressure and can contribute to a fear of making mistakes.  Encourage your athlete to focus on the things that they know they need to do to perform well. Focusing on the small things can create better outcomes.

• Encourage them to prepare properly. The fear of being unprepared can contribute significantly to anxiety. If they know that they have taken practice seriously and have consistently given their best effort, you can provide additional encouragement that will allow them to “trust the training.”  

• Help them to set realistic goals to improve specific skills. Goals should be measurable, challenging and attainable. Helping them set and achieve goals will serve to increase their confidence, which can decrease overwhelming performance anxiety.

• Encourage positive self-talk. You may be surprised to learn how quickly we start speaking negatively to ourselves after making a mistake. Don’t allow your child to develop the habit of overly critical self-talk. 

• Remind them to breathe. This simple strategy is often overlooked. Taking a deep breath during competition or before certain moments – at the free throw line or before the race begins – can help them refocus. It’s also a useful strategy for stressful moments outside of sports. 

Some degree of performance anxiety is a necessary and helpful component of competition. If you can help young athletes turn that worry and anxiety into positive action, it will increase their chances of success and build skills for life.

Nyaka NiiLampti, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of psychology at Queens University of Charlotte, and co-director of Mind Over Body, a sport performance program at Southeast Psych.