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Sport Performance Anxiety in Youth Sports

By TrueSport, 10/18/18, 9:45AM CDT

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Sometimes the most harmful stressors aren’t in athletes' bodies but in their heads

Another simple trick to stay relaxed, even in high-pressure moments, is to smile.

Youth sport advice tends to focus on improving athlete nutrition and training. But even in a “fun” league, sometimes the most harmful stressors aren’t in athlete’s bodies but in their heads.

For many kids, sports provide their first taste of anxiety: the stress of taking a game-tying free throw, the tension of running the anchor leg of a relay or just butterflies in the stomach before a big game.

Anyone who has played sports has probably experienced sport performance anxiety, sometimes called ‘choking,’ at one point or another. But with their brains and self-awareness still developing, sports can be particularly stressful on the minds of youth athletes. This also means it can be especially challenging for parents and coaches to try and soothe these nerves.

The most serious sport anxiety can also make kids lose interest in playing sports altogether. Thankfully, the growing field of sport psychology has given parents, coaches and athletes ways to understand and calm the pre-game jitters.

What Causes Sport Performance Anxiety

Mental stress on gameday is typically rooted in at least one of several factors. Many of these have more to do with everything surrounding the game, before and after, than the actual game itself.

  • Having an audience (particularly one that is loving and supportive): Athletes can become overly self-aware of every decision and play they make when they’re on the athletic stage.
  • Fear of disappointing others: Even when a parent or coach is supportive, athletes may be anxious about disappointing them.
  • High expectations: All athletes want to do their best, but internal self-talk might create stress when they set expectations that anything less than a perfect play is failure.
  • Post-game analysis: Whether it is from a coach, parent, teammate or themselves, the postgame analysis weighs on an athlete’s mindset.
  • Recovering from an injury: After athletes get hurt it can take a long time to restore their confidence.

How Youth Athletes Can Cope

Sport anxiety’s kryptonite is preparation. Athletes should arrive early and go through the same warmup routines they do in practice. During warmups, they should try and visualize themselves playing well while taking some deep, slow breaths. This will put their heads in a focused and relaxed place.

During the game, focusing on the next play, rather than the result, will help keep athletes in the moment. Another simple trick to stay relaxed, even in high-pressure moments, is to smile. If you go through the physical motions of having fun, the mind will follow.

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About TrueSport

TrueSport® is a grassroots movement born and powered by the experience and values of USADA–the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The TrueSport® mission is simple and bold: to change the culture of youth sport by providing powerful educational tools to equip young athletes with the resources to build the life skills and core values for lasting success on and off the field.

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