7 Ways to Manage Sports Anxiety in Children

By Dr. Cheryl Andaya

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SPORTS ANXIETY IN CHILDREN

In the middle of the game 🏀, I see my son’s frustration build. He is trying his hardest to make a basket but as his frustration grows, his shots become unsteady and he causes a turnover. He isn’t playing his best. He’s feeling pressured (I can see it on his face), he’s throwing all kinds of shots and making bad passes. Then, he falls, and although he isn’t too hurt (he’s had worse falls without so much as a flinch), the waterworks start. He needs to sit out the quarter and he misses play time as he works on calming himself. Is this considered sports anxiety? How important is it to address sports anxiety?

Recognizing Sports Anxiety in Children

Another big concern was the way he became winded during games. At practice he ran laps in the intense, hot sun with sweat dripping down his face, but he managed to get through it with little difficulty. WTHeckos (my kid’s term)?!!!! And yet, it never failed, at games he was bogging within the first few minutes of the first quarter! We worked on building his stamina and it seemed to be working…until game time and POOF 💨! He was huffing and puffing😓 in the first quarter. Coaches commented and lightheartedly joked about him getting winded. Why was he having such a hard time at games but he was okay at practice🤔? Then, it hit me. DUH 🤦🏻‍♀️! This kid was getting anxious during games. Sports anxiety!!!

I was soo shame! Hellerrrr! A child psychologist…and I missed it. D’oh🙇🏻‍♀️!!!  Womp womp. My kiddo was emotionally working himself up. It made sense because when his team was up, he would play excellent and relaxed. Then there was that time he was SUPER tired from a class trip to the Big Island and he went straight from the airport to his game. He was super tired BUT managed to sink a 3-point buzzer beater!

What is Sports Anxiety?

Sports anxiety is a common reaction in competition (they even have assessment scales to help measure this – find it on my resources page here) as athletes feel the pressure to perform. Being unable to manage the sports anxiety results when we see athletes choke. Sports anxiety is not the typical anxiety most people think of (otherwise known as trait anxiety); rather it’s a situational response, the reaction of wanting to do well and the physiological response of the body and mind when we place pressure on ourselves to excel. Self-doubt can flood the brain and senses, resulting in a collision of frustration and poor play.

Attacking Sports Anxiety

After understanding the problem, I jumped on attacking the sports anxiety and working towards getting him in a more relaxed frame of mind before games. We worked on visualization, clearing his head, using positive self-talk, and changing the way we talk to him before and after games. We also empowered him. We let him know that it’s okay to make mistakes and take risks. We did not expect him to be perfect (he places that expectation on himself) and we constantly need to remind him of that. We taught him to accept constructive feedback while we also recognized that the delivery of feedback was important. We praised his efforts and continued to tell him that we loved him no matter what…even if he was to be the worst player on the court. Our love was NOT conditional! On the other hand, we did want him to always try his best, because he deserves to do that for himself.

It’s a work in progress but we’ve seen progress! He began to take more risks during the game and became more aggressive. He trusted himself more. He was no longer looking in our direction each time. He was immersing himself in the game. He wasn’t winded anymore and his coaches noticed. His game improved and one coach even asked me about it. Another coach, the one who joked about him getting winded, went up to him before a game they were to play against my son. He told my son to take it easy on their team. Wow! Talk about a change!

Mental Strength in Game Play to Combat Sports Anxiety

They say playing a sport is 90% mental; yet, there is still more emphasis on the physical aspect of sports 🤷🏻‍♀️ (hmmmm 🤔 that makes sense…NOT!), especially at the younger age levels. Professional athletes and Olympians are starting to incorporate more of the mental discipline and psychological exercises to the same degree as they do with physical training. Teaching your young athlete ways to manage sports anxiety will place him ahead of the curve. One study (Clarey, 2014), found that use of interventions such as positive self-talk helped to improve athletes’ game!

Similarly, we continue to work with my son on using these psychological tools. As children, they still need to be children. They are going to slack at times (expect it…some more than others). They are going to play around. They are going to miss taking initiative (read more in increasing taking initiative here). That means we need to remind them of their goals. They chose their goals (to be better at their chosen sport) and our job as parents is to help provide them opportunities to keep moving closer to that goal. I frequently check in to see if my son’s goals changed or if he’s still on the same goal, I let him tell me what he feels he needs to do to reach that goal and how I can help him. I support him.

In the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey (see below) talks about the his own efforts at helping his son with his football career through the use of relaxation methods. He also mentioned Dr. Charles Garfield who did studies on peak performers and found that visualization was used by successful athletes and businessmen (Covey, 1989). There is also an article by the New York Times about the way Olympians use imagery as mental training (Clarey, 2014).

In Coaching the Mental Game: Philosophies and Strategies for Peak Performance in Sports – and Everyday Life (Dorfman, 2003) (see below), the author describes the result of hyperventilation and physiological effects of anxiety with muscles tensing: The hyperventilation (shortness of breath) has mental causes and physiological effects. Muscles tense up; the arm does not have a fluid function. The delivery breaks down: coordination, range of motion, balance, timing, power and accuracy are adversely affected. 

Anger in Competitive Play

Along with sports anxiety, anger is also often manifested in competitive sports. Ever wonder why some athletes are able to manage their anger better than others? If you think about it, anxiety and anger are closely related. It’s the fight or flight response but with boys, men, warriors (this includes females), being worried/afraid is not an option. They are conditioned to be tough so what do they do, they use anger as a secondary emotion. Anger is the more acceptable emotion. However, if they are unable to control that emotion, then similar processes to sports anxiety occurs. The emotion takes over their ability to think, their actions become uncontrolled, and they are no longer able to maintain focus.

On the other hand, others, like my son, actually performs better when angry. His focus sharpens, he reacts more without hesitation and becomes more aggressive in his play. In his case, as he usually overthinks things, anger actually strengthens and removes self-doubt; it becomes a tool. Dorfman states, “…some athletes…like being angry…these fellows are most often sensitive, nonassertive, inhibited and self-doubting, who finally explode, externally or internally…the anger frees them from their self-consciousness.” It’s when the athlete becomes angry and overwhelmed that the anger then turns against him. Finding and recognizing that fine line is key.

Yeah, so incorporating mental fortitude is key!!!! ☝️Okay so let’s get on with it.

Mental Strength in Game Play to Combat Sports Anxiety

Here are a few tips to help with your little athlete. First thing is to recognize that your child is experiencing sports anxiety or emotional overload.

1. Recognize the signs of sports anxiety:

  • Stomachaches, headaches (particularly before game play). My husband admitted that he would actually vomit 🤮 before games when he was younger! Fortunately, he didn’t let this stop him from playing. He would vomit and then get on with it, feeling better.
  • Fear – one patient actually started to avoid going to practices because he was so overwhelmed by sports anxiety
  • Panic (making hasty decisions during the game). I hear it all the time from coaches, telling their players to calm down and stop just throwing the ball away.
  • Getting overly emotional during the game. Athletes getting in their opponents faces and causing drama, cursing at refs, getting pissed off at their own teammates.
  • Quickly winded due to shallow breathing. Expending unnecessary energy and seeming to tire quickly.

Excitement is closely related to anxiety. They can have the same physiological reactions; however, anxiety prevents you from performing your best, whereas excitement actually may enhance your performance…if you’re able to manage that excitement in a productive manner during performance. Sometimes it just takes a matter of cognitive re-frame, which is a fancy way of saying to have a different viewpoint of the same situation.

2. Teach Calming Techniques

These methods could be used in any anxiety-provoking situation (giving a speech, meeting new people, taking tests). That’s one of the many things I love about sports; it really provides opportunity for life lessons. Here are a few calming techniques:

Diaphragmatic Breathing

  • Diaphragmatic breathing (aka deep breathing). This involves using the diaphragm to maximize the intake and use of oxygen and gives your athlete an advantage if done correctly. On their website (freeletics.com/en/blog/posts/breathing-sports-technique/), they explain that “…abdominal breathing involves significantly fewer muscles…is less exhausting…more energy is made available to the rest of the body.” Using this method of breathing also prevents shallow breathing.

Have your child practice by lying down first and placing a hand on their belly. When they breathe in, have them try to push your hand up with their inhale and drop when they exhale. (see video below)☝️Practice a few times until they get it then have them try it sitting and standing. Remind them to use this type of breathing when you see them getting worked up to slow down their breathing, address the physiological reaction of anxiety/excitement and distracts them from by having them focus on their breath. You want them to become re-centered.

Dorfman states, “…proper breathing at times of heightened arousal during competition is essential…yet some (athletes) tend to forget everything they know in the heat of battle. It only seems to happen when the relaxation technique is most required…during periods of tension.”(Dorfman, 2003)

Visualization

  • Visualization. As stated above, using visualization (or imagery as it is referred to in sports psychology) can do wonders. Imagery is used to help decrease sports anxiety as they visualize and take deep-breaths to lessen their anxious reactions. To help control “competitive anxiety” and improve self-confidence, imagery can be used (Vadoa, Hall, & Moritz, 1995). You want to make the imagery as vivid as possible to train the mind in achieving whatever goal you’re trying to achieve.

I recommended using visualization/imagery with a patient of mine who played high school football. He told me about his struggle with forgetting plays when on the field. He studied his plays endlessly, which I believed because he was a pretty smart kid and at one session he brought in his playbook and asked me to quiz him. Yep, he had it memorized pretty well. He explained that the problem occurred whenever he set foot on the field. His coach would put him in the play and he would walk onto the field and blank out. His pattern of forgetting was making him nervous and he was afraid of it happening again. Not only was this pattern of thinking increasing his anxiety, but it was preventing him from wanting to get back on the field.

He used visualization to help prepare him for practice and games. I instructed him to close his eyes and visualize himself on the field running the play. Going to practice early or staying later to help immerse himself in the image would also help. He said he would try it. A few weeks later, I asked him whether he was still having problems with his plays. He shook his head and said no. He stated that his coach told him to visualize himself running the play. Ha! Good job coach! Visualization worked!

Meditation

  • Meditation and mindfulness is increasing in popularity with athletes and entrepreneurs in business because it helps to quiet the mind. There are various beliefs of the way meditation should be done, whether one needs to clear their mind or if it’s okay to simply be aware of one’s thoughts without placing judgements on the thought. Given that meta-cognition (awareness of one’s thoughts) is difficult for young children, you may want to stick to guided meditation where they can follow an audio. They have awesome apps now like Headspace to help with meditation. Some schools have also started to incorporate meditation as part of their curricula. It’s become a household term for us and when my son starts feeling overwhelmed and stressed he tells us he’s going to his room to meditate for a while. It’s awesome!

Positive Self-Talk

  • Positive self-talk. You remember Saturday Night Live with Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmations? Okay, this kinda falls along those lines. It seems corny but you’d be surprised how the use of positive-talk helps to get your child in the right frame of mind and eliminate self-doubt. Seriously, with children, we are constantly correcting them and letting them know what they are doing wrong. We should be doing the same with recognizing what they are doing right. Why? Because this helps to build resilience, self-esteem and increase their motivation to do the right thing. I remind my boys they are stronger than they think. We have times when they are able to talk about their successes and, as I listen, I show genuine interest and admiration. It’s their effort that matters. This is something they can control and having that sense of control helps to decrease the anxiety related to the elements that they can’t control.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation 💪🏼. This is the systematic tensing and relaxing all the muscles in your body. It helps to bring awareness to your various body parts and teaches you to have control over the muscles, which then helps to relax when tension arises. When professional athletes prepare for competition, they try to relax all parts of their body in preparation. This helps them with focus and concentration. How many times do we find ourselves clenching our shoulders as we type and then remind ourselves to relax as we drop our shoulders. With this act, we feel more relax as the tension is released, which makes for better game play.

3. Refrain from too many “reminders” before games.

Children who get worked up tend to do so because they have things bottled up. As parents, we usually make it a habit of reminding them of corrections, things to not do before the game, skills they learned during the week, the attitude they need to have, and so on, and so on. These reminders, plus their own thoughts and self-doubt can be overwhelming. Children want to please their parents and coaches to make them proud. They put pressure on themselves, especially if they are at that level where scores are being kept. If you feel you need to, pick one or two “reminders” and that’s it. Say it once before the game and that’s it. The other reminders can wait for practice time when there is less pressure about winning the game. I am a firm believer in practicing at game speed, which most athletic trainers emphasize.

4. Keep reminders positive.

When you decide on the reminders you want to focus on, make sure you’re presenting it in a positive statement. I’ll be writing more about the use of positive corrections and statements in an upcoming post (subscribe so you won’t miss it). Framing the reminder in a positive statement makes it easier for your child to accept as it is different from scoldings AND, more importantly, it helps put them in a positive mind-frame, which helps to decrease sports anxiety and negative thinking.

  • What it look like:

    • 👎 Don’t be lazy

    • 👍 Be aggressive by going for loose balls.

    • 👎 Don’t trail behind the ball handler if you’re on defense 

    • 👍 Get on defense quick and try to get ahead of the ball.

  • Even better, ask your child what they would like to focus on during the game. Our son will tell us one thing he would like to do during the game and if he does it, then it’s a win for him. Personal skill development should always be at the forefront. Even when playing against non-competitive teams and walking away with a win. If they haven’t accomplished their personal goal for that game and did not improve on a personal level, can they really call it a win? This is what we focus on. Not the wins or losses. The wins are just bonuses.

5. Tone of reminder.

Now that you picked the reminder and thought about phrasing it in a positive statement, the next step is to make it better received by your child is the delivery. It’s important to take your child’s temperament into consideration. Some kids get more motivated when you take a commanding tone with them. Some children need a more calm, nurturing tone. If one way doesn’t seem to be working, try another way. For our son, because he tends to place so much pressure on himself as it is, we use the nurturing tone. HOWEVER, when he is with a team where there are more beginner players, he feels he can cruise so we need to use that commanding tone to drop some reality on him. Before games we usually try to keep it short and firm, and I throw in the “and have fun” at the end. If they stopped enjoying the game, then they tend to lose their passion.

6. Internalizing the positive.

For many, they have the tendency to overly focus on the negative thoughts. This is helpful because it reminds them of things they need to work on and pushes them to work on improving the skill. It’s not helpful when those negative thoughts stay in their head during game time as it feeds self-doubt. Players become so worked up during the game they can’t move past the mistakes and it holds them back from bouncing back into the game. To help your child learn balance, have them tell you about the positive statements coaches and other players have told them. Remind them of their strengths.

They have areas that may need a little more attention; but, their mistakes and challenges do not define them. If they are worried about a skill, the awesome part is that they can work to improve it. What you don’t want is the self-doubt to control them, particularly when they are feeling vulnerable. Teach them that when they find themselves thinking negative, use the positive self-talk to calm themselves and re-center.

7. Practice like it’s the real thing.

We are still working with our kid with this one. If he practices like it’s a game, the breathing and intensity would be familiar; thus, decreasing anxious reactions. We use this method for his piano recitals. I pushed him to feel that uncomfortable feeling during practices. I video-recorded him, lined up his brother’s plushies as the audience, and did dry runs. I had him pause and visualize to deepen the experience.

These are a few examples of things that can help your child with addressing sports related anxiety. I’m working on putting together a course that incorporates a few of these practices in a webinar format. If you sign up now, you can get it at discounted rate. Just complete the form in Contacts here and put “sign up for sports anxiety course.” I’ll email you details and instructions to secure your copy. If you subscribe (here), you can receive alerts on upcoming posts, events, and specials.

Thanks so much for reading. As always, please free to provide feedback/comments below. It helps me narrow the topics I research and write about and lets me know that this information is helpful. Aloha🤙

Works Cited

Clarey, C. (2014, February 22). Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training. Retrieved from The New York Times: mobile.nytimes.com

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press.

Dorfman, H. (2003). Coaching the Mental Game: Leadership Philosopies and Strategies for Peak Performance in Sports – and Everyday Life. First Lyons Press.

Vadoa, E. A., Hall, C. R., & Moritz, S. E. (1995, August 8). The relationship between competitive anxiety and imagery use. Retrieved from tandfonline.com: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10413209708406485

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Dr. Cheryl Andaya

Clinical Psychologist

I’m a mother and a Clinical Psychologist who works with children and their families as well as individuals reaching for their goals. Born and raised in Hawaii, I embrace diversity and help individuals find their strengths.

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