Overcoming Performance Anxiety in Youth Sports

Overcoming Performance Anxiety in Youth Sports

“Can you help? There seems to be a gap between where my kid is athletically and what he is capable of. I think he has performance anxiety.”

Last week I received two separate messages addressing the same rising problem in youth sports: how do we help our young athletes overcome performance anxiety? There are a plethora of reasons why today’s athletes are experiencing anxiety in sports. So, how do we move forward in this area? Much of what I have read about the topic focuses on helping young athletes overcome performance anxiety in order to achieve peak performance.

That’s not a primary concern of mine.

My heart in what follows is to help young athletes thrive holistically. And that means development physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. As a Christian, I am also addressing this from a Biblical worldview—even if most of the “plays” don’t feel religious in any sense. I think a byproduct of what I recommend will best position young athletes toward peak performance. But that can’t be the finish line that’s driving our parental race. Our obsession with helping youth athletes become elite is one of the reasons they have anxiety problems.

We (the adults) have placed a high school or college model of athletic success on our young athletes—and it’s not working.

We need some new plays in our playbook to help our kids overcome their performance anxiety, not so they become the best athlete we all think they can be, but so they can thrive as kids. In their journey from adolescence to adulthood, sports play a pivotal role in character development or detriment. So, what plays can we utilize? Here are 9 tips to help youth athletes overcome performance anxiety.

Understand the difference between anxiety versus nerves

I’m not sure if there is a clinical difference separating anxiety and nerves, but within the context of sports, I think the distinction is this: nervousness in sports is a fear of the unknown, and anxiety in sports is a fear of failure.

Listen, nerves are good. Being nervous before a competition is natural—and even helpful. They alert our mind and body that something is coming up that requires more energy and exertion than we are used to experiencing.

Is your child just nervous about the upcoming competition or are they fearful of failure? You can explore your way into that conversation, but at some point, you need to help them work through the end point of their fears. And the best thing you can do with them in this area is to connect with them, not coach them. They don’t need a quick fix, they need to know you understand what’s going on and that you are in it with them.

Encourage them that it’s ok to be nervous. You used to be nervous too. Tell them that. You don’t need to give them all of the answers at that moment, just let them know that you understand.

This past winter my nephew was nervous about his upcoming wrestling match. He told me on the car ride to the match that “this kid was bigger and stronger. I’m afraid he is going to hurt me.” How do you respond to that as a parent? If we put a high school/college model on the situation, we respond by motivating and hyping them up. “You got this! You’ve trained for this. Don’t give in to negative self-talk.”

But remember, they are still kids. So, what did I say?

“I completely get that. That dude was huge. I think I would be a little nervous today too. I’m proud that you are choosing to conquer some of that fear and face him again today though.”

Now, he still lost. But the goal of that conversation was not to help him win the match. It was to help him understand that you can still be afraid and nervous and move forward.

That’s nerves. What about anxiety? I think most kids struggling in this area are experiencing real anxiety because they are afraid they will fail. If you think your kid falls into that category, hopefully, the tips that follow will prove helpful.

Leverage the power of choice

In his book, Do Hard Things, Steve Magness talks about how our body responds when we view a pending situation as a threat. He says “When we see a stressful situation as something that could cause physical or psychological harm, we’re more likely to experience a threat response—a rush of cortisol and a shift toward defending and protecting. We take fewer risks, playing to not lose instead of playing to win.”

This is fascinating. When we perceive the upcoming competition as a threat, our bodies and mind respond appropriately.

He goes on to talk about the other side of the equation: “If we see the stressor as an opportunity for growth or gain, as something that is difficult but that we can handle, we’re more likely to experience a challenge response.”

And amazingly, the body responds by releasing testosterone and adrenaline, both of which are very helpful hormones that elevate our athletic ability.

What does this have to do with your athlete facing performance anxiety? If they are fearing failure, they are viewing the competition as a threat—instead of an opportunity. Obviously, we can’t just flip the switch for them and help them see the bigger picture. Their reality is their reality.

But we can give them a choice. Choices empower.

What if, before the next competition, we asked our young athletes if they even wanted to play today? What if we gave them an out? Not as a pending punishment or a threat, but as a loving gesture that communicates grace and care.

Here’s what I think would happen, most of the time.

I think our kids would work through their fears and insecurities and choose to play. They would verbalize “I want to play.” And verbalizing that desire to play may help position their mind to view the competition as an opportunity instead of a threat.

Celebrate failure

Sport is a beautiful combination of teamwork, skill, hard work, and creativity. As athletes learn and grow, they need the freedom to try new things. They are going to fail. That’s part of the process of getting better.

Now, I’m not saying we should continually champion bad habits and losing mentalities. I’m just saying we cut our kids some slack when they screw up.

Think of a young child who is just learning to walk. What happens? Step. Fall. Step, step. Fall. Step. Fall. And then one day, step, step, step, step. As parents, when our kid falls when trying to walk, we don’t throw our hands up in exasperation. “What are you doing?! Keep walking!”

Of course not.

When they fall, we respond with cheering because of the step they took before the fall. When we become overly critical (or over-coach) of our kids after every mistake, they begin to play this tape in their head “When I screw up, mom or dad or coach (or both), get frustrated with me. So I will try my best to not mess up.” That’s a tragic mentality to enter the minds of our kids. But it is so prevalent today.

One of the ways out of performance anxiety is by helping them realize that it’s ok to not be perfect.

Speaking of perfection…

Play is the goal, not perfection

When the primary goals of youth sports are winning and making the next elite team, there is going to be performance anxiety. Kids are not built mentally to handle that type of pressure. Nor should they.

A few years ago, I was coaching my son’s basketball team. He was in 4th grade at the time. Before practice, the team was just being kids. They were throwing half-court shots and causing chaos.

As a coach, I was not happy. This is what was going on in my head: They shouldn’t be doing this. They need to get in their lay-up lines and practice the right way. They are never going to get better by goofing off like this.

My goal was different than theirs. They wanted to have fun. And I think most kids fit in that category. Instead of them adjusting to me, I decided to adjust to them. Yes, we still practiced “the right way” later on. But for the first part of practice, we just chucked up half-court shots and laughed as we almost hit kids in the head who were rebounding.

That year I got the best feedback from parents that I have ever received: “My kid wants to play again next year if you are coaching.”

It was a paradigm shift for me and it’s become my goal of coaching every year. Yes, I want to teach them to play the right way and yes, I want to win. But the number one goal every year for me is simply this: that the kids I coach would have some much fun that they want to play again next year.

As we get older and older, sports will move from fun to serious, to business. Let’s keep it fun for our kids as long as we possibly can. Let’s allow laughter to permeate our practices and tolerate occasional silliness in competition.

Teach them perspective

A contributing factor to performance anxiety in young athletes is that they put an inordinate amount of significance on that particular competition. Their worldview and perspective shrink, leaving them sport and nothing else. And when sport is all you have, you realize that failing at it has identity-level consequences. A loss is no longer just a loss, it means you are a loser. A missed opportunity is no longer just a missed opportunity, it means you are a choke artist.

Our kids need perspective. They need to know that a game is just a game—and at this point in their life, it holds NO weight on anything in the future.

Parents, we need to hear this too. There is a growing amount of evidence showing there is not a direct link between young athlete success and adult athlete success. The Little League World Series started in 1947 and it’s still going on today. Out of the thousands of kids who have participated in this elite event, can you guess how many have made it to the major leagues?

64. That’s it.

Let’s get some perspective and then model that perspective to our kids. Ok, so how do we do this? One simple way is to frame the practice or competition against everything else you have going on that day. On Saturday, my daughter will be playing her last soccer game of the season. Instead of giving her a speech letting her know that we need to make this count and give it your all and no regrets and blah blah blah, I’m going to hopefully give her some perspective. I’ll say, “Hey we have your last game at 10:30 today. After that, we’re going home and having some lunch. We might go swimming at Sweany’s house in the early afternoon and then we have church in the evening. After that, we’ll have a family movie night with pizza.”

Soccer is a part of our day on Saturday. But our world can’t revolve around it. Getting her to understand that will hopefully alleviate any unhealthy pressure she feels going into the game.

Have consistent pre-game rhythms

Full disclosure: We don’t do this with our kids. Part of it is that we are just too busy at this stage of life to care about it. But the evidence seems to be building that consistent pre-game routines help lessen anxiety leading up to the competition. This is not about superstition. It’s about training your mind to relax and focus so you’re in control, not your emotions and fears.

What are pre-game rhythms worth implementing? Here are a few options:

  • Develop a mantra that they can say to you before you leave the house. Even something as cheesy as “Today I will play and have fun” or “I know that whatever happens, Mom and Dad love me.”

  • Use the same water bottle

  • Eat the same breakfast

  • Memorize and recite the same Bible verse

It doesn’t have to be extravagant. It’s just a way to help put the brain on autopilot and have it communicate to the rest of the body that “This is ok. We’ve done this before. This isn’t a threat, it’s another opportunity. It’s time to get ready.”

The body really does respond.

It’s probably too much information than you intended, but to this day, my wife and I will still need to run to the porta-potties whenever we attend a local road race. Our brains automatically remember our times running in high school and college and the atmosphere tells our bodies that it’s “time to race.” And time to race means emptying everything out of your system first!

Give them a focal point

“Telling people to relax doesn’t work unless you’ve taught people how to actually relax. You have to teach the skill before it can be applied.” This was another simple but profound insight from the book Do Hard Things.

One of the skills we have taught college athletes for the last few decades with Athletes in Action is the idea of a focal point.

A focal point is something that an athlete can look at in practice or competition and allow it to refocus on that particular moment. For Christian athletes, we encourage them to think of an identity that God has given to the in the Bible (i.e. I am loved. I am worthy. I am significant. I am forgiven. I am accepted.) and then when they see that focal point, they are reminded of that particular truth.

A focal point can be anything. A wristband. A watch. Writing on a shoe. Even part of the surface you compete on, like a field goal or a net.

Have your athlete pick something that they will see pretty regularly and then give them a truth you want them to claim internally every time they see it.

For athletes struggling with performance anxiety, here are a couple options. Every time you see your focal point, say to yourself:

  • I am safe

  • I am loved

  • This is just a game

  • Smile

  • Have fun

Focal points are a practical way for athletes at any age to “snap out of it” and remind themselves of a truer reality than they may be currently experiencing.

You can even get creative and make focal points for your whole family or your kid’s entire team.

Practice delayed cheering/encouragement

Take a deep breath before reading the rest of this. I think one of the reasons our kids are so anxious in sport is because of our “cheering.” I’m serious. I’ve become more and more convicted that when I am at a sporting event, my job (if I am not a coach) is to just sit, watch and enjoy. For the most part, I try to be silent.

In my restraint, this is what I hear all around me. “Go! Go! Get it! Shoot! Pass! Run! Come on! Bad call! What?! Yes! No!” Literally all game. And these are screamed at the young athletes.

Here’s another exercise we have done with college athletes at our Ultimate Training Camps in the summer. We have them compete in complete silence. No cheering. No encouraging. No talking to the refs.

And the response we get from most athletes, besides it being weird and an entirely new experience, is that it is freeing.

Parents, even though we may have the best intentions in our cheering, the words we use, the decibel level we choose, and the tone we layer it with add pressure to our kids. Our constant cheering, coaching, and correction is one of the root causes of performance anxiety. They don’t want to let us down and our words/tone often communicate that this competition is a big deal to us.

Don’t believe me? Next time you are at your kid’s sporting event, try not to say anything and just take inventory of what happens in the stands or sidelines. Seriously, it’s a healthy exercise to try.

I don’t think complete silence is the answer. Sports are fun, in part, because people cheer and create an exciting environment. What I am suggesting is this: Let your young athlete be fully in the moment without hearing your voice constantly yelling unhelpful, anxiety-producing words. When they are running to the ball, let them run without you yelling at them to run. When the play is finished, clap and say great hustle. Watch, let them play and figure it out, and when the play is complete, encourage them, cheer for them and love them. And repeat.

Pray with them and for them

When dealing with performance anxiety in our kids, our playbook can include more than prayer, but certainly not less.

Prayer is a gift given to us by God to talk to Him, enjoy Him and make intercession to Him on behalf of other people.

And He listens.

We know from God’s own heart that He desires for us to live free from anxiety (Philippians 4:6-7).

Here is a prayer you could use moving forward as part of your pre-game rhythms:

God thank you for giving Hudson the skill to play this sport. God, you love Hudson deeply. We love him deeply too. In the moments today when he feels anxious, for whatever reason, would you remind Him that he is loved. Maybe even use his focal point today to remind him! God, you promise your peace to those who ask for it. So we ask for it now. Give Hudson peace that transcends all understanding today. He does not need to prove anything to anyone, we love him just as he is. Amen.

Nerves are ok. Leverage the power of choice. Celebrate failures. Prioritize play over performance. Have and teach perspective. Incorporate pre-game rhythms. Use focal points. Practice delayed cheering. And don’t forget to pray.

These won’t guarantee an anxiety-free sport experience, but applying some of them will best position your kid—and you, to thrive as you navigate the increasingly crazy world that is youth sports.