Pro athletes occasionally cite heightened nerves as an asset in competition, identifying experiences of manageable, naturally occurring anxiety under pressure as they play. Persistent and excessive anxiety, however, can have withering effects on any aspect of life—and it can be particularly devastating in the wide, public arena of sports, whether at Rangers Ballpark or on local municipal playing fields.
Adult and young athletes share a common ground in that each is susceptible to “performance anxiety.” This common psychological condition, characterized by exhaustive preoccupations with failure and negative outcomes, doesn’t discriminate with age, gender, or sport. It can have severe, debilitating consequences in performance, enjoyment of competition, and overall sense of well-being. Undue levels of performance anxiety are particularly taxing on children ages 9 to 17, who oftentimes lack the awareness and cognitive tools to mitigate negative thought patterns that can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Thus, the principal object of youth sports as fun, constructive, and recreational becomes distorted and intimidating once ordinary nerves spiral into a pattern of performance anxiety and its psychological vortex of fear and negativity.
Overall, afflicted young athletes dwell in chronic fear of making mistakes during play—mishandling a groundball, dropping a pass, or missing a jump shot, for instance—thereby unleashing subsequent critical social and self evaluation. The overarching fear is of disappointing the important figures in their lives: parents, coaches, and peers.
These intrusive and pervasive fears often feed on themselves, causing players to not only fear negative outcomes but also the fear itself. This becomes the dominant focus instead of the more important aspects of participating in youth sports, such as personal mechanics, execution, situational awareness, and—most significantly—enjoyment of healthy competition and peer interaction.
Performance anxiety can further resound into other areas of the child’s life, and the toll can be considerable, said Tim Zeddies, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in private practice in Austin. “(Commonly), the child’s overall functioning begins to suffer. Their grades drop, they withdraw from friends, they express disinterest in their sport, and their self-confidence and self-efficacy plunges,” explained Zeddies.
Interestingly, the condition is not necessarily due to an intrinsic psychological predisposition to anxiety but regularly stems from external pressure imposed by adults. “In my experience,” said Zeddies, “the young athlete’s anxiety can almost always be traced to the reactions of important adults in their lives—parents, coaches, trainers, other family members—who are overly invested in the athlete’s performance, in a manner that places undue pressure on the athlete to achieve a certain level of success.” Whether parents are conscious of this pressure to succeed or not makes no difference in the child’s perception: “When the athlete does not reach this level, he or she often feels bad, believing that they have disappointed someone they love or who is important to them.”
Although some parents and coaches may breed performance anxiety, these important adults can also be agents of change and support, helping their young athletes overcome anxiety, realize potentials, and enjoy their chosen sport. Davey Schmidt, 41, a parent of three young athletes and a youth baseball coach with Western Hills Little League in Austin, has experience in dealing with youngsters coping with performance anxiety. “The kids have higher expectations for themselves than we do as coaches,” said Schmidt. “So, if we think they’re struggling, they definitely think they’re struggling. Once we catch on, we engage the player about it—always privately—so they know we can talk about it and work on it. Pretending there isn’t a problem doesn’t help anything.”
Fundamentally, parents and coaches perform the same roles—they’re a combination of detective and rehabilitator when it comes to helping young athletes battle performance anxiety. According to Dr. Zeddies, having a frank, judgment-free conversation is always the first and best action to take. “Listen closely to your child athletes…not only to what they say, but what they do,” he advised. “Studies tell us that over 80 percent of human communication is nonverbal, and this percentage is even higher for kids, who don’t have the verbal facility or command of the language that adults do. As a result, the best indicator of how a child is doing emotionally is their behavior.”
What are some of the behaviors that can indicate performance anxiety? Marked apathy and a sudden disinterest in beloved activities are prime indicators of a problem. But parents and coaches should also be on the lookout for telltale physical cues, such as labored breathing, nausea and vomiting, excessive sweating, stomach irritation, tension, impaired focus, and fatigue. (These are just some of the physiological symptoms that performance anxiety can elicit; for more information about the symptoms of anxiety disorders in children, visit kidshealth.org.nz/anxiety.)
Fortunately, there are numerous ways to calm such responses. A child with performance anxiety can learn an array of relaxation techniques that can then be used on command. First, however, the player must be taught to identify his or her unhealthy and destructive thoughts that produce and exacerbate anxiety. Then, those negative, self-defeating narratives can be replaced with positive ones, and a fresh, optimistic, and rejuvenating perspective can be established. Parents and coaches can further engineer this paradigm shift by focusing on what their young athlete does well—a practice known as “positive-reinforcement.”
Though the stakes of each athletic season escalate as T-ballers become Little Leaguers who then advance into competitive leagues and on to high school teams, young athletes suffering from performance anxiety essentially need help reacquainting with the simple truths about sports and performance. Any given sport is meant, on a basic level, to be an enriching, rewarding, and fun activity where the playing field always starts off level in the areas of effort and the willingness to learn. Parents and coaches need to work together to help those kids who struggle with anxiety issues rediscover these simple truths while embracing what they can control—and relinquishing fear.
“[I] stress to the kids that there are only two things you can control as a player,” said Schmidt, “Your effort—at both practice and in the games—and your attention. We hold them responsible for these two things.”