101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent
By Joel H. Fish, Ph.D., Susan Magee, M.F.A.
Give your child permission to be nervous
Tiger Woods said in an interview that he's always nervous when he's playing golf. Kids need to know that even professional players who look calm on the outside get butterflies in their stomachs before and during competition. Children lack the experience to know that most people get nervous before they have to perform. That's why Mom and Dad need to provide the bigger picture. You can do this by taking the following steps:
Explain that pregame jitters are totally normal. Letting kids know that anticipatory anxiety is a normal response to a performance situation eases their stress and tension. Kids worry that they are somehow different or not as good as the other kids. Feeling nervous, stressed out, or panicky can be frightening feelings for kids. Those feelings often provide the proof that they are in fact different or not as good as their peers. When they don't know how to manage their stressful feelings, the stress can build to a point where their ability to perform is impaired. Muscles tighten or concentration is shattered by disturbing thoughts, such as "If I screw this up, everyone will think I'm stupid" or "I can't do this," and suddenly they can't perform. Your child needs to understand that the challenge of all athletes is to work through the fear, nervousness, and anxiety, and trust that when the game starts, "I'll be fine." Let your boy or girl know that many athletes find that those uncomfortable sensations of competitive stress, like dry mouth, shaking legs, and sweating palms, can actually enhance performance and help them go that extra mile.
Personalize the experience. Use examples from your own experience, whether they're sports-related or not, to soothe your child's fears. You can say, "I don't play soccer, but I had to get up in front of a whole room full of people once and tell them about a project I'm working on. I was so nervous. My mouth got dry and my palms were sweating. But I took a few deep breaths, reminded myself that I was prepared, and guess what? As soon as I started talking, I felt better. I got through it and so will you." Personalizing the experience will show that you really do understand what he's feeling and give him hope that he can get through it too.
Reassure him that he can deal with it. When you have a positive attitude about competitive stress your child will come to have one too. Let him know that you will help him find a way to deal with it-no matter how long it takes. Once kids understand that those wobbling legs, headaches, dread, and dry mouths are common to all athletes they feel normal. Your empathy and reassurance show her that there are ways of handling her uncomfortable feelings.
Describe "competitive stress" as "competitive excitement" instead. We experience many of the same physical sensations when we're excited as when we're nervous, like shallow breathing, pounding hearts, and shaky legs. Thinking of those symptoms as "excitement" rather than "stress" helps put a positive spin on the experience.
Watch for the warning signs of competitive stress
Your son or daughter may be able to tell you, "Mom, I feel like I'm going to throw up when I'm at bat," but many kids, especially kids under the age of twelve, will often need help naming what they're feeling and understanding why they feel it. Some kids won't tell you they need help if they think you might be upset with them. As one eleven-year-old put it, "I hate telling my dad stuff when I think he's going to yell at me or tell me to act like a man. I'm just a kid."
That's why moms and dads need to be on the lookout for the signs and symptoms of competitive stress. Kids who need help dealing with competitive stress in sports will often express themselves through their nonverbal communication. Here are some of the most common ways that kids will let you know they need help managing their feelings and emotions generated by sports competition:
Physical Issues. A healthy child will suddenly tell you he or she is sick when it's time to go to practice or a game. Before, during, or after a game or practice, your child complains of headaches, dizziness, stomach upset, hot flashes, and other sudden physical complaints.
Performance Difficulties. A child who plays consistently well in practice but who plays poorly during a game or competition may be experiencing competitive stress.
Personality Changes. A child who is normally even tempered throws a bat during practice if he or she strikes out. The calm child strikes another teammate or an opponent during a game. The outgoing child with-draws or the shy child curses when participating in sports activities.
Behavioral Changes. You notice that your child is suddenly eating less, eating more than usual, or having trouble falling asleep. A change in your child's usual behavior patterns is a sign that she's suffering from competitive stress. Some behavioral changes occur on the field and some occur off the field.
Emotional Upset. Your child shows signs of nervousness, anxiety, anger, or sadness, especially when on the way to practice, during a game, or after playing the sport. Your child dwells on mistakes or blows them out of proportion.
If you notice any of the above warning signs, don't panic. All sports-playing kids will occasionally have a tantrum, cry, or get an upset stomach before a big game. Remember, pressure is built into performance. You can't change that about sports. The feelings that competition creates can be uncomfortable, but they are unavoidable and to be expected. Some kids handle the stress of competition better than others. A lot of it has to do with your child's athletic ability, self-esteem, and confidence levels at the time.
If your child exhibits unusual or troubling behavior now and then, or once or twice, even if it's unsettling, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Kids have phases of behavior that they cycle in and out of. It's the pattern of frequent and/or persistent behavior that you need to address.
Though not an absolute rule, "frequent" or "persistent" means that the behavior occurs around four or five times within a short period of rime, whether it's a thrown bar at four games in a row or crying in the car on the way home after five lost games. That's a pattern. The pattern lets you know that your child is most likely stressed out and needs to learn How to manage her stress.