Performance Anxiety in Children's Sports

Game-Day Jitters? Here's How to Help Kids With Sports Performance Anxiety.

Performance anxiety in children - boy on bench in gym
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Yes: Performance anxiety in children is very real. Kids often start to feel pre-game pressure as they move into more competitive levels of youth sports, or begin to compete solo. (They also might feel anxious about other things, like speaking in front of a group.)

Your child may be able to express his fears and say that he feels worried about an upcoming game or competition. Or he may have trouble connecting his anxious feelings to his sports performance.

Either way, parents can step in to offer reassurance and help.

Identifying Performance Anxiety in Children

Many kids won't come out and say what they're nervous about. They may not even realize they are anxious. Instead, they might be irritable or have trouble sleeping. They might talk about wanting to quit a formerly beloved sport or activity. They might pretend to be sick or injured to avoid participating, or even develop some physical symptoms (say, a stomach ache) that actually stem from anxiety.

So how can parents figure out what's going on? Sometimes it helps to approach the subject obliquely. You might tell your child 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 the same age your child is now. Or invoke the example of an athletic hero: "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. 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.

How Kids and Teens Can Cope with Performance Anxiety

Every child will respond differently, but these strategies for managing anxiety may be helpful. Talk through them together, then encourage your child to try a few to see what works best for him.

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 can 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 nail 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.

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!

What Parents Can Do When Kids Feel Anxious

Aside from coaching your child through the techniques above, you can also help by setting the stage for a lower-stress experience.

Offer reassurance and unconditional love. 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, and most importantly, that you love her very much no matter what happens. You can also remind her that some things are just out of everyone's control: the weather, for example, or a judge's whims. But never discount or brush off your child's worries.

Do your part. 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 everything is packed early and allow enough travel time to get to events. Rushing to a game or tournament in a panic is a rough way to start out.

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