How to decrease performance anxiety in young athletes

Q & A with Dr. Nadia Torres-Eaton, Pediatric Psychologist at CHOC Children’s

Q: What is performance anxiety in sports? Could this have an effect on my child’s physical performance or well being?

A: Performance anxiety is related to what we know as “stage fright.” This is often used to describe the anxiety, fear, or persistent phobia, which may be induced in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of a crowd. In sports, the worry or fear is directly related to being evaluated about his/her performance in competitive sports. Some people describe it as that moment when the athlete freezes. The fear of failure becomes so overwhelming that the skill level of the athlete appears to diminish because they feel nervous or insecure.

It is important to remember that a normal degree of anxiety will be present in children whenever they participate in competitive sports. However, some common causes of sports performance anxiety are being very critical and making comparisons. Overly critical parents and coaches can place extra pressure on the child and lead them to believe that they are not very good. When children hear coaches or parents comparing them to other players it can cause children to feel as if they disapprove of their performance.

Common symptoms include: refusal or fear of participating, low self-esteem, making negative comments about their skills, saying that they don’t belong on the team.

Q: Do girls differ from boys in the way they cope with performance anxiety?

A: Research shows that girls tend to report more anxiety than boys and that they have slightly more elevated sports performance anxiety than boys. These differences tend to be present in older children.

In general, younger children have limited sports skills, make mistakes more often and showcase less worry. However, once they become more aware of other’s skills and they begin to compare themselves then it is possible to begin seeing anxiety symptoms.

Studies have shown that boys tend to seek out information to help them take direct action about how to cope with the stressful event. Girls on the other hand, tend to avoid appraising the situation, which can lead to not doing anything about the situation. If the athlete does not learn coping strategies for these symptoms, regardless of gender, the athlete could experience “burn-out” and may ultimately quit sports.

Q: What advice do you have for parents to help their young athletes cope with performance anxiety?

A: Praising children for the good things they do rather than focusing on the things they do wrong and avoiding comparisons are two common ways to combat performance anxiety. Witnessing the progress they make is invaluable to children and is a self-esteem builder. Encouraging children to have fun and being on a team that has a strong bond and team spirit can also help.

Parents and coaches should also set reasonable expectations and try seeing the game through the eyes of the child. Surveys of kids in all age groups and sports showed that winning was actually the last reason they participated in sports. Keeping this information in mind could help parents maintain their child’s perspective rather than focusing on winning.

If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, or feel that the symptoms mentioned appear to be having a serious effect on your child, speak to your child’s pediatrician, who may refer you to a pediatric psychologist.

To contact CHOC Children’s Psychology Department, please call 714-509-8481.

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