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Are you putting too much pressure on your child during sports? Experts have thoughts

Watching Challengers I’ve felt a lot of things, including how the pressure of being a child athlete won’t permanently affect someone for the rest of their life. It’s hard enough being a kid, but imagine being a kid who is really good at sports. What might that pressure actually feel like?

According to Dr. Cara Damiano Goodwin, psychologist and founder of the Parenting Translator, child athletes often feel overwhelming pressure from others – especially their parents – to reach a certain level in athletics. In fact, Goodwin says, they can feel this pressure “whether the expectations are expressed by others or not.”

Additionally, Goodwin tells Scary Mommy that children who are athletes may also experience fear of failure or a preoccupation with the worst-case scenario, as well as unrealistic expectations due to their lack of experience. “Their fear of performance can actually be counterproductive, preventing them from actually performing worse because they expect it,” Goodwin adds. ‘They may also be unable to concentrate on the game or experience physical symptoms of anxiety that make it difficult to play the sport.’

This is where fear of failure comes into play.

Suddenly your child, who once loved sports, complains of stomach ache because he no longer wants to play. Or, when it comes to the big game, they get stuck and can’t perform as well as they used to.

“Performance anxiety presents as unusually strong worry or anxiety around activities that involve performance,” Mary Ann Little, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of Narcissism in Children: Strategies for Parenting Selfless, Disenfranchised, and Empathetic, tell us. “It can be experienced in many areas ranging from public speaking to athletic performance, from academics to sexuality, from test-taking to interviewing.”

Little says the causes of fear of failure are varied, but the process is the same. “The threat of failure or reduced performance is so disturbing that emotional peace is disturbed,” she explains. That anxiety disrupts regulated stable functioning, and the resulting anxiety can compromise performance. Ironically, the fear of poor performance can lead to symptoms that can compromise high performance.”

If you suspect your athletic child has performance anxiety, here’s what to do to identify the symptoms and how to provide reassurance and support.

What are some symptoms of performance anxiety in child athletes?

Children often experience physical signs of anxiety, such as stomach aches, headaches, shaking, or a racing heart, Goodwin explains. They may seem nervous or simply be more irritable than normal. “This can cause them to seem more energetic and active, or withdrawn and quieter than normal,” she says. “They may also show changes in their sleep or appetite (sleeping or eating too much or too little) and/or changes in digestion or constipation.”

Little adds that these physical symptoms can also be accompanied by rumination around the fear of failure and/or the negative consequences associated with failure, including thinking, “I’ll never get a scholarship if I don’t do well.” or, “If I don’t do well, If I play bad sports, the whole school/my coach/parents won’t like me.”

“Behavior patterns can vary widely, especially in children,” says Little. “Some children may become obsessed with practice, studying, or repetition, while other children may become task-avoidant, put off homework or competitions, or exhibit an ‘I don’t care’ attitude.”

How can you tell if your child has a fear of failure?

If you suspect your child has test anxiety, Little says to carefully observe your child’s behavior and attitude. She recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does my child seem overly concerned or anxious about performance issues?
  • Does my child show excessive performance concerns, such as staying up all night to study, not being able to sleep because he is worried about an exam or a competitive event, or refusing to see friends to prepare or study?
  • Paradoxically, does my child avoid performance activities or act like he doesn’t care?

If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, Goodwin suggests normalizing your feelings of anxiety before asking your child about it. For example, parents might say, “As a child, I was often nervous before big games. Do you feel this way or do you notice something in your body that feels ‘off’?’

How can parents help their children deal with this?

Of course, every child will respond differently, but Goodwin suggests the following strategies:

  • Validate and normalize the feeling of fear of failure, that is, “I understand why you’re nervous about this game. It can be scary with so many people watching you.”
  • Show how you deal with it with it yourself. For example, talk about a work presentation or public speaking event that you were nervous about and how you handled it.
  • Notice it and praise it their effort and process rather than the outcome. For example: “It was so great how you rushed to get the ball across the field.”
  • Be careful not to get too involved in your children’s sports, as this could convey to them that they are more important than they need to be.

What can children do to deal with their fear of failure?

Being proactive about your child’s test anxiety can help reduce symptoms. According to Little, these general strategies can include:

  • Prepare in advance. “Practicing, training and rehearsing skills builds confidence over time and is certainly required to perform well,” she says.
  • Participate in daily exercises as an anti-stress activity.
  • Develop pre-performance strategies to build trust. For example, Little says athletes can cross-train to improve their skills.
  • Visualize the task with successful results. “Encourage your kids to practice imagining a solid performance,” she says.
  • Use self-sedativessuch as meditation or mindfulness, to stay calm.
  • Learn breathing exercises and practice other rituals before the performance.
  • Talk to a therapist. If the above doesn’t work, Little suggests therapy. “Treatment strategies include cognitive behavioral therapy, more general therapy that develops specific tools to manage anxiety and performance, or strategies that help people feel more powerful and in control,” says Little.

What should parents know about raising child athletes?

Goodwin says it’s crucial that parents focus on sportsmanship rather than performance, and teach children to be gracious winners and avoid being sore losers.

“Parents need to know that children can often feel our emotions even if we don’t communicate to them that it is important to us that they perform in a certain way; they can tell if we are stressed or disappointed,” she explains. “Parents should try to understand and learn to regulate their own emotions related to their children’s performance so that they do not unintentionally put pressure on their children. Some types of pressure parents can put on their children include being better than their friends, making their parents proud, or using athletics to gain admission or financial aid for college.”

Little adds that parents shouldn’t forget that competition is fearsome from the start. “Anyone who plays a sport or participates in a professional activity is aware of the risks associated with performance outcomes,” she says. “Parents need to realize that their job is not to put more pressure on their child, but rather to take the pressure off them. This is done primarily through unconditional love that remains constant over time.” She says you can do this by reassuring your child with things like:

  • “I love you no matter what the outcome.”
  • “I will help you in any way I can as you try to achieve your goal.”
  • “Your worth never changes in my eyes, and my affection for you never diminishes.”

It’s not a bad thing that you would like your child to be the next Serena Williams or Tiger Woods. Make sure your child understands that no matter who wins the big game, he or she is always your number 1.