Sports Psychology for Kids Articles

Manage Anxiety in Youth Athletes

Eli Straw
Manage Anxiety in Youth Athletes

A parent reached out to me to work with their youth athlete because he was getting so anxious before games that he would either not go to the game at all, or if he did go to the game, he wouldn't want to play.

It was frustrating for her and her husband to see him struggle with such severe anxiety.

This isn't a unique case. I have worked with many youth athletes who deal with high levels of sports anxiety before games (and even before practices sometimes).

The good news is, by working on their anxiety, the youth athlete can learn how to let go of their worries and have fun again while playing.

So, what I'm going to do in this article is outline what sports anxiety is, what causes sports anxiety in youth athletes, and three tips you can apply to help your young athlete manage anxiety before games.

Youth Athlete Sports Anxiety Defined

Sports performance anxiety is defined as extreme worries about what may or may not happen in a practice or a game, and is experienced mentally as well as physically.

Mentally, sports anxiety looks like racing thoughts and having the mind fixated on fears and worries about what might happen and what might go wrong.

Physically, it's shaky hands, a rapid heartbeat, and that nervous feeling in your stomach.

Cause of Sports Performance Anxiety in Youth Athletes

Since anxiety is characterized by worries, a young athlete's thinking is where we first want to look when trying to identify the cause of their anxiety.

I was working with a young dancer yesterday who is dealing with a lot of pre performance anxiety. She told me that before going out on stage she thinks about how much she hopes she doesn't mess up and what other people will think of her if she does.

That highlights the main cause of sports performance anxiety in youth athletes: outcome-oriented thinking.

Outcome-oriented thinking involves thinking too much about the future and what might happen.

The young soccer player I mentioned in the introduction had similar thinking before games. Except for him, his thinking was focused on not wanting his coach to get mad.

When a young athlete worries too much about the future, anxiety is developed.

That's going to be the initial cause of the anxiety. And this type of thinking is likely happening subconsciously.

But then there's the reaction to the anxiety itself that can worsen the problem.

Let's say the young athlete notices they're anxious. It's not a very fun or comfortable feeling. Naturally they will focus on that feeling and wish it would go away. But this only worsens the anxiety.

The more attention is given to the anxiety, the worse it gets. Many athletes have told me they end up finding themselves anxious about being anxious.

Knowing outcome-oriented thinking is the main cause of sports anxiety in youth athletes, getting them to let go of these worries, while also learning how to remain present will work to reduce the anxiety they feel.

3 Tips to Help Your Youth Athlete's Sports Anxiety

The three tips outlined below are some of my favorite tools to use when working with youth athletes in one-on-one mental performance coaching to help with their anxiety.

The key though, no matter which tip you begin with, is repetition. The young athlete must practice these tools and use the exercises consistently in order for them to have a strong impact on their anxiety.

Tip #1: Apply the ABC's

The ABC's of sports performance anxiety is a fantastic strategy for managing anxiety in the moment.

If your youth athlete is anxious before or during games, they need something they can use at that moment to reduce the anxiety. Otherwise, the feelings of intense nervousness can overwhelm them and lead to underperforming or not wanting to play at all.

When it comes to a strategy, it's important for it to be simple and easy to remember. Because the anxiety they feel in the moment will be very strong.

That's where the ABC strategy comes in.

A stands for accept. The young athlete first must accept the anxiety they're feeling. Not because they're saying they're an anxious player and that's just the way it is, but because without acceptance there will be resistance.

Resistance to anxiety happens when the young athlete realizes they're nervous or anxious and then begins to wish the feelings weren't there. This only makes the feelings worse.

Therefore, they must first accept that the anxiety is there in order to allow themselves to focus on something else, instead of whatever it is they're worried about.

Acceptance involves the young athlete talking to themselves and saying things like, "It's okay that I'm anxious. I can still play well and have fun even though I'm nervous."

B stands for breathe. Once the young athlete has accepted the anxiety they feel, it's now time to begin reducing it without adding additional resistance. This is done through breathing.

Have your youth athlete take a few deep breaths, counting in as they inhale and counting out as they exhale.

Have them breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of five and do this a few times.

C stands for change your thinking. Sports anxiety is caused by thinking too much about the future. So, to reduce the anxiety they feel, the young athlete needs to change what they're thinking about.

Get them thinking more about reasons why they can play well and focus more on the present moment.

The more present their focus, the less they will be thinking about the outcome.

Tip #2: Focus on Controllables

Sports performance anxiety in youth athletes is caused by worrying about the future. But what happens in the future is out of their control. Yes, they can influence it with their attitude and the way they play, but it's not fully controllable in the present moment.

And the more a youth athlete focuses on things they can't control, the greater the chances are they'll feel anxious.

To reduce their anxiety, they need to focus more on what they can control.

A great exercise your young athlete can do to train themselves to focus on what they can control is to make two lists.

For the first list, have them write down all the worries they have during games.

Then, for the second list, have them write down something they can control that relates to each worry.

For example, let's say a softball pitcher writes that she is worried about walking a batter. A controllable she might write on her second list is to focus on the mit for every pitch.

Once your youth athlete writes down all their controllables, have them review the list each day. Then, before practices and games, have them remind themselves of the controllable parts of their game they need to focus on.

Tip #3: Reframe Mistakes

This third tip is more of a long-term approach to helping your youth athlete manage anxiety.

I've said many times already in this article that sports anxiety is driven by worries about the future. Thinking too much about what may or may not happen.

For the most part, that thinking will be centered around mistakes. Specifically the fear of making mistakes.

This is a common reason young athletes are feeling anxious before games. They don't want to make any mistakes.

But what if mistakes weren't things your young athlete feared so much? Well then, there wouldn't be as much need to worry about making them.

As I said, this is a long-term approach, but over time it will have a powerful impact on their mindset and the way they see mistakes in general.

The goal with reframing mistakes is to take them from something that is only negative, and turn them into something more helpful. And the best way to do so is by seeing mistakes as ways to learn and improve.

As with focusing on controllables, it's best to turn this idea of seeing mistakes as learning experiences into an actionable exercise.

What you can have them do is write down all the mistakes they can make within their sport. Then have them describe how they can learn from each mistake.

After doing this exercise, they will have a better idea of the process of reframing mistakes.

Then, after practices and games, you can have them go back and think of any mistakes they made and describe how they can learn from each mistake.

Yes, this takes time and effort, but it will have an incredibly positive impact on the way your young athlete views mistakes.

Final Thoughts

Sports performance anxiety is a tough mental game challenge. One that can completely take the fun out of the game for your youth athlete.

But just as with any challenge, it can be overcome!

By implementing the three tips outlined above, you can begin helping your young athlete manage their sports anxiety.

However, if you're looking for a more in-depth approach to helping your youth athlete manage their anxiety and build a stronger mental game in general, then you need the Mentally Tough Kid course.

In this course, your youth athlete will be taken through six different modules and interactive exercises to help them build the mental skills they need to succeed within their sport.

Click here to learn more about the Mentally Tough Kid course, or use the contact form below to ask any questions you may have.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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