Sheryl Roberts, MA, LPCC
Sports and your growing child. Sports are a great way to build self-esteem, develop friendships, find a place within a community, belong with others, learn how to handle both success and failure and grow as a person. However, sports can become a source of pain and trauma for children, adolescents and adults.
There is a growing problem in the sports world which has recently gotten more attention. This problem is called Repetitive Sports Performance Problems (RSPP’s). This can be a crippling condition of anxiety for many athletes on all levels. In professional sports, it is often silently labeled “the yips”. Though most of our athletes will not compete at professional levels often sports anxieties start to form with very young athletes.
Often sports anxieties seem to emerge with no triggering factors. The onset never makes sense to athletes, coaches, parents or fans. All efforts to fix the problem lead to more anxiety as the athlete is frustrated and finds his problems deepening. As they continue to fail to fix the problem, they get labeled as “head cases”, “chokers”, or “unmotivated”. These labels are far from the truth for the athlete but they could have crippling effects. My goal is to challenge you as parents and coaches to head sports anxiety off at the pass with your young athletes.
Here are some of my thoughts:
- Good coaches and parents remember that child athletes are people first and athletes second. Good coaches foster the whole person of the child. They genuinely care about all aspects of the child’s life and not just about their athletic abilities. Good coaches and parents want success for their athletes in all arenas of life.
- Good coaches and parents refrain from labeling sports games and athletes with military terms. When defining sports with terms like “the battle”, “success of the mission”, a “life and death struggle”, which then passes down to the athletes that they need to be “tough”, “brave”, “hardened” and that they must “sacrifice” for their sport. This kind of verbiage is not healthy for children athletes to internalize. Athletes do not live in combat and are not armed warriors. Playing under these conditions become dehumanizing and depletes the fun.
- Good coaches and parents set goals for motivation not for pressure. Goals cannot be equated with expectations. Once goals come onto the playing field as expectations, athletes feel a sense of inherent pressure and a sense of urgency to perform in unrealistic ways. Their internal dialogue is loaded with, “I must”, “I have to”, “What if I don’t?” This pressurized self-talk tightens athletes’ muscles, undermines their self-confidence, and distracts them from the tasks at hand.
- Parents cannot be more invested in the sport than their young athlete. It is imperative that coaches and parents remain in touch with the athletes’ reasons for competing. They stay in tune with athlete’s goals and are careful to not impose their own goals on their children. When parents give their young athletes this psychological space and control, the athletes stay happier and more relaxed.
It is my hope that as your athletes grow and develop into healthy persons, and that we are sensitive, patient, empathetic and remain focused on the athletes own goals and motivations. Creating this safe environment will nurture our young athletes and help them develop into well-rounded adults.
Peace of Jesus,
Goldberg, Alan & Grand, David, This is your brain on sports. Dog Ear Publishing, 2011.