All of our children at some point or another will have ‘butterflies’ in their stomach as they prepare for a particular training session, match or competition. They may also feel it when they are preparing for a concert, school play or indeed a multitude of things they face in their life away from the sports field. Are you aware of how nervous your child feels before their sporting events? Have you ever had this conversation with them?
As adults and parents we know that kept under control these feelings can help aid performance and we often tell our children that this is natural and because they care and are eager to do well. Nerves can often heighten their awareness and benefit their performance through focusing energy and attention on the task at hand.
Physically, many children will experience a raised heart rate, a bit of sweating and some tension in their movements when nervous. Mentally, they may be worrying about the task in hand and having a huge amount of self doubt, this is more difficult to spot.
When this is all kept under reasonable control there is no real issue and is very much a natural process that we all go through.
However, the flip side of this is when these nerves spiral out of control which can lead to tears, tantrums and in some extreme cases, sickness and nausea. None of which are likely to lead to effective performance.
Some of you may well have witnessed your own child or other children shut down in these moments and freeze. Perhaps when a coach has asked them to demonstrate something in front of the whole group or they have a match winning shot to make and the onus is all on them in full view of everyone.
Some of you will have taken your younger children to a sporting activity and they refuse to join in or hit the floor and do everything in their power not to participate.
Some of you may have see older children get so worked up prior to competition that they vomit on a regular basis. There were certainly players who I played with during my sporting career where this was a frequent event particularly on match day.
So , why is that some children are more anxious than others?
According to Vancouver child psychologist Carly Fry, “It’s a complex interplay between three factors,” says Fry. The first is the temperament or personality the child is born with. The second is genetics, 30 to 40 percent of any kind of anxiety is understood to be genetic, and children are more likely to exhibit it.
The third factor is learned behaviours, which can stem from a negative experience the child has had in the past, or messages they’ve received.” These messages could have come from older siblings, parents or coaches.
How can you help as a sporting parent?
Tell your child that these feelings of nerves and butterflies are normal.
Avoid statements such as, ‘don’t worry about it’ or ‘you’ll be fine’ as any comment that we make that smacks of judgement just makes it worse. This type of message can imply to your child that there is something wrong in feeling the way they do.
A better way may is to try and start with some degree of empathy followed by a statement or question that implies the child will be forging ahead anyway, combined with coping strategies. An example of this could be, “Yes, that’s a tricky situation that you’re in. Do you want some help to figure out how you’re going to cope with it?”
Do not let your child avoid or run away from the negative environment that makes them feel so nervous
In your role as a sporting parent you should be helping to try and build the resilience in your child to help them deal with it in the long run, so don’t give them an easy get out. Obviously, if these feelings are really extreme, then other paths may need to be taken.
Try to expose your child to a number of different sports and different environments
This will give you a better understanding of your child and what it may be that is causing all of the anxiety. Be prepared to work through it with your child. In some cases it may require a huge amount of patience.
Focus on the processes rather than the outcomes
This is a really common message that we put out in huge amounts of our content. Here, if you can celebrate the small parts that make up the bigger picture, you are less likely to add to the anxiety by focusing on the outcomes that you may want to see. Highlight successes with your child such as hard work, determination, creativity, self-organisation and decision making as opposed to what the result may be.
Don’t allow your child to create a false narrative
Yesterday has gone, tomorrow is another day. Try not to bring up previous negative experiences in conversation as they will only highlight the issue again to your child that there was a problem. This may well start the cycle off all over again.
Have realistic expectations
Express positive statements to your child as much as possible. There is certainly nothing wrong with your child finding some struggle and having to battle through some adversity. However, if your demands are too daunting to start with then you may be making them anxious without even realising.
All sporting children will suffer at some point from nerves, butterflies, sporting anxiety whatever you wish to call it. It can strike at any point regardless of age, experience or environment.
It is the management of these feelings that allow young people to thrive and grow in the sporting arena. Hopefully, the strategies above give you some practical tips to use as a sporting parent as and when you may need them.