As a parent, you can help your child learn how to positively deal with pressure and stress during sports events, teaching them a valuable life skill that will benefit them in other areas of their life, too.
Rather than speak about "dealing with" the pressure, which suggests to a young athlete that engaging in a pressure-filled situation should be viewed as something awful for which she is forced to brace herself, parents can help change a young athlete's mindset and learn to speak about "thriving on" or "embracing" the pressure as an opportunity for self-improvement or performance enhancement.
Youth athletes tend to report "learning [and] improving skills" as top reasons for playing their sport, and "winning" as a much less important reason. Young athletes who focus on a high-pressure situation as one that may influence the outcome (win vs. loss) will often experience debilitating physical and mental tension. Instead, encouraging young athletes to view a supposed high-pressure situation as one that may help them improve their skills may create excitement, optimism, and promote optimal effort.
Even the youngest athlete can learn to change their attitude about pressure situations and to develop a genuine enthusiasm in response to pressure situations. This in large part begins with the kind of relationship parents create between athlete and pressure. Pressure, especially for those youth athletes who feed the need to "deal with" it, may cause anxiety, which in effect will lead to muscle tension, difficulty in decisionmaking, and a wandering, frantic mind, which is not a pleasant experience, especially when athletes are trying to play well.
One of the simplest ways to stay in control is by taking deep, relaxing breaths. Whether we know it or not, our breathing typically becomes quick and shallow when we are stressed. A deep breath allows oxygen to more efficiently enter the blood and the brain, which in effect helps us think more clearly. Coaches and parents may use common language with players - for example, "Take three!" or "Breathing easy!" as reminders during games. Over time, this will become an instinctual response to tension. Instead of yelling general terms like "focus" and "just do it", cheering with more specific actions can help a child process a stressful situation.
Mastery not ego climate
A healthy by-product of learning how to appropriately handle pressure is a boost to a child's confidence and ability to achieve goals. Sport psychologists at the University of Washington have found that young athletes' achievement goals can change in a healthy way over the course of a season when their coaches create a mastery motivational climate rather than an ego orientation. In other words, when parents and coaches stress positive communication, teamwork and doing one's best, a child will gain the belief that he or she can accomplish more challenging goals. The opposite happens in an ego climate, typified by many professional sports coaches, which focuses on winning at all costs and being better than others.
Stressing a mastery motivational climate and reinforcing positive episodes for your children (good performance, good effort, good examples of sportsmanship or leadership) helps build confidence. Asking children questions like, ‘What did you do well today?' or ‘What was the most exciting or fun part of the game/practice?' rather than simply ‘Did you win?' can create powerful and positive change in how they handle stress and make sports more enjoyable.
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP, is Director of Sport & Exercise Psychology at The Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Center in Englewood, New Jersey.