Helping Young Athletes Calm Nerves Before a Game
Does your young athlete get overly nervous before a game? Is this keeping them from playing freely and confidently?
Maybe you've noticed that they play completely differently during practices than games. When this occurs, it's because of mental blocks keeping them from performing well in games, like they do in practice.
And one of the main mental blocks that causes that to happen is getting too nervous and worried before a game.
And when they start each game really nervous, and this leads to them underperforming, it's going to quickly take all the fun out of their sport for them.
To help, I'm going to go over a few tips you can use to help calm your young athlete's nerves before a game.
The Main Reason Young Athletes Get Overly Nervous Before a Game
When I say a young athlete is getting really nervous before a game, we can also say they're experiencing some sports performance anxiety.
So before the game, if your athlete is really nervous, the reason is going to have to do with their thoughts. What they're thinking about is driving their anxiety.
A great example of this is a swimmer I worked with. He was nine when we began working together, and was experiencing a lot of nerves before races. So much so, that he was swimming stiff and his times were increasing.
During our first session together, I asked him what he thought about before the race began. He went on to tell me how much he thought about wanting to lower his time, and especially how much he didn't want to increase his time.
These were easy thoughts for him to have, given the amount of waiting he had to do. Sometimes he would wait for hours between races, only growing more and more anxious by the minute.
It was clear that the reason he was feeling nervous and anxious before each race had to do with his thoughts. The way I put it to him was that he was thinking about the race being over before even giving himself the opportunity to swim.
In other words, he was thinking about the future.
That's where we find the main reason young athletes (and all athletes, for that matter) experience intense nerves before competing. They are thinking too much about the future.
This is known as outcome-oriented thinking.
The more they think about what may or may not happen, the more they worry. Since they cannot control the future, the only thing they can do is worry about it. And that's where we see extreme nerves and anxiety form before games.
Tips to Help Your Young Athlete Reduce Nerves Before a Game
The more nervous and anxious the young athlete feels before a game, typically the worse they will perform. But also, the less fun they will have.
They may even find themselves growing anxious about being anxious, since they know how terrible the feelings are in the first place.
So what you can do to help, is teach them not only how to reframe their thinking before games, but also use sport psychology techniques to calm their minds and center their attention on the present.
Tip #1: Help Them to Stay Present
Having their mind wander into the future is the main cause of the young athlete growing anxious before a game. So, you want to help them keep their thoughts centered on the present moment.
There are a few ways this can be done. One is by keeping their mind off performing before the game starts.
Going back to the example I mentioned earlier, what I had the young swimmer do was talk to his friends to keep his mind off the upcoming race.
By talking with friends and having a good time, the young athlete's mind is kept from worrying too much about what's going to happen.
Another way you can help them stay more present is by setting objectives based on the process. This works especially well as the game is beginning.
When they're thinking about the future, their thoughts are on the outcome. Instead, their thoughts need to be placed on the process.
It is the process of their performance that leads to the outcome they want in the first place. So not only will focusing on the process reduce nerves and anxiety, but it will also give the young athlete a better chance of succeeding.
Aim for them to set one to two simple objectives. Here are a few objectives I've used with young athletes:
- Watch the ball hit the bat.
- Swim efficiently and strong.
- Move my feet.
- Let the ball travel.
- Watch the ball all the way into my hands.
- Focus on my follow through.
These are simple objectives that are part of the process. By focusing on them, the young athlete keeps their attention off the outcome.
Tip #2: Reframe Nerves to Excitement
As soon as a young athlete feels nerves, they're likely to worry even more. Since in the past when they've felt nervous, they've underperformed, they will worry about that happening again.
What you can do to help is have them reframe these feelings of nervousness to excitement.
I used this idea with a young basketball player I worked with, and it helped him out a lot.
When sitting on the bench getting ready to go in, he would grow very anxious. To the point where he sometimes told the coach he did not want to go in. I had him reframe these feelings to excitement, and it completely changed the way he perceived his nerves.
All the young athlete needs to do is begin telling themselves how excited they are to play and how much they can't wait to get out there. This form of self-talk will help change the way they're looking at the nerves.
By seeing them as feelings of excitement, they are no longer perceived as something to fear.
Tip #3: Use Breath Work
Along with reframing the way they view nerves, and also altering their thoughts and focus before and during a game, another way to reduce nerves for young athletes is to tackle the symptoms they are feeling in the moment.
If they are experiencing nervousness, this is going to result in a racing heart beat, shallow breaths, and maybe even racing thoughts. Our goal is to help them slow everything down.
We can do that by getting the young athlete to practice breath work before the game and also during the game.
The type of breath work I prefer for reducing nerves and anxiety going into a game is count breathing.
Have the young athlete breathe in for a certain count and out for a certain count. A couple examples include, breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of four, and breathing in for a count of five and out for a count of ten.
By taking slow, deep breaths, the young athlete will work to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety they are experiencing. But the counting also helps to take their attention off the outcome, forcing them to be more present.
Tip #4: Get Them to Focus on What They Want
Earlier I mentioned that anxiety is caused by thinking about the future — outcome-oriented thinking. Well, for the most part, what kinds of outcome based thoughts is the young athlete going to have?
Thoughts about what they don't want to have happen.
A good example of this is a baseball player I worked with who was getting anxious before each pitch while playing defense.
The reason he was feeling anxious was because he was thinking about making an error (or better put — he was thinking about not wanting to make an error).
The more he thought about what he didn't want to have happen, the more anxious he became. And in all honesty, the more he raised his chances of actually making an error.
So, we worked on getting him to stop thinking about what he didn't want to have happen, and think more about what he did want to have happen. I did this by getting him to briefly imagine himself making a nice play between each pitch.
For your young athlete, you can do something similar. Talk to them about the importance of focusing on what they want to have happen instead of what they fear.
Further Resources for Managing Nerves & Anxiety in Young Athletes
The four tips I just outlined will be of great help in getting your young athlete to reduce the nerves and anxiety they experience going into a game.
But, if you're interested in a more in-depth approach to helping them manage their nerves, and overall build stronger mental toughness, then there are two resources we offer.
One is The Young Athletes' Mental Toughness Course. This course includes six modules that will teach your young athlete the fundamentals of building a strong mental game (including reducing nerves and anxiety).
The other resource is one-on-one mental coaching. With mental coaching, I will work with your young athlete on identifying the main cause of their anxiety, and then create a mental coaching plan personalized to them.
The coaching takes place during 50-minute virtual sessions each week.
Whether you apply the tips outlined in this article, or choose to use one of the two resources we offer, the important thing is you're taking steps to help your young athlete manage nerves and anxiety before a game.
Because the less anxiety they experience, the better they'll play, and most importantly...the more fun they'll have.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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