Performance Anxiety in Children's Sports

Game-day jitters? Here's how to help with sports performance anxiety.

Performance anxiety in children - boy on bench in gym
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Yes, sports performance anxiety in children is very real. Kids feel pre-game pressure especially as they move into more competitive levels of youth sports or begin to compete solo. Your child may say he feels worried about an upcoming game or competition. Or he may have trouble expressing his fears. Either way, you can step in to offer reassurance and help.

Identifying Performance Anxiety in Children

Many kids won't come out and say that they're nervous about performing well in a sporting event.

Instead, they might be irritable or have trouble sleeping. They might talk about wanting to quit a formerly beloved sport or activity. They might even pretend to be sick or injured to avoid participating.

Sometimes it helps to approach the subject obliquely. You might tell them about your own experience feeling nervous before a game or event—either recently, say if you ran a race or played a softball game, or when you were her age. Or invoke the example of one of their athletic heroes or role models: "Do you think Steph Curry ever gets scared before a big game?" Prompts like these can help kids understand and name their feelings.

Try to help your child name the specifics of her worries (similar to step 2 here). Is she worried about forgetting what to do? Letting down her team? Making a mistake? Getting hurt? Once you know, you can help reassure your child, and/or ask her coach to do the same.

You can also problem-solve with her, suggesting some of the techniques below.

Coping with Performance Anxiety

Every child will respond differently, but these strategies may be helpful. Talk through them together and try a few to see what resonates.

Memorize a mantra. Sometimes anxiety stems from negative self-talk: "I can't do this," "I'll never remember my routine," "everyone will hate me if I mess up." A mantra is a positive phrase that an athlete can use to replace those negative ones.

Help your child come up with a phrase that means something to him, like "I am strong" or "I got this." Then he should repeat it to himself often: in practice, at games, or anytime he hears that "can't-do" voice in his head.

Visualize. This can be an extension of the mantra technique. While repeating the mantra, your child can also visualize herself performing well.

Practice, with and without moving. While practicing skills is critically important to success, sometimes mental rehearsal can make a big difference too. Coach your child to walk through his performance, picturing each step in order. He may even want to write everything down and review it. This technique allows your child to practice in the absence of game-like conditions. For example, a gymnast can envision each step of a floor routine even when she's away from the gym.

Set a goal. Talk to your child about what he hopes to achieve at his next performance or game. Help him come up with an aim that is a stretch, but not unreachable.

Instead of taking first place, maybe he wants to beat a certain time or land a particular skill. Focusing on that may take some of the pressure off of the overall event.

Breathe deep. Deep or diaphragmatic breathing can reduce anxiety and help kids feel more relaxed. They can practice at home, on the way to games or meets, in the locker room or on the sidelines.

Offer reassurance. Not every child will believe or accept your words of reassurance, but some will. You can remind your child of how well she's done at past events, how much practice time she's put in, how much faith you and her coach have in her. You can also remind her that some things are just out of everyone's control: the weather, for example, or a judge's whims.

Do your part. As a parent, you can help calm worries by making sure your child gets enough sleep and eats healthy foods. Most kids should be responsible for their own sports equipment, uniforms, water bottles, and so on. But you can make sure the car is packed in plenty of time and you're not rushing to a game or tournament in a panic.

Fake it 'til you make it. Smiling really does help, so tell your athlete to plaster one on—even if he doesn't feel like it!

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