Most athletes get pre-game jitters—even the pros admit that they suffer bouts of nervousness before games. While professional athletes are equipped to deal with pre-game anxiety, however, adolescent athletes typically aren’t. And the pressure to perform at a high level, may be placing too much stress on young athletes.
To determine how stressful youth sports are on athletes, UCLA researchers Dr. Tara Scanlan and Dr. Michael Passer asked adolescent soccer players to fill out questionnaires assessing their anxiety ratings before and after soccer games. About 20 percent of the athletes reported high levels of stress before games. Many also reported high anxiety after their team had lost a game.
Considering that nearly 68 million student-athletes participate in organized youth sports, serious stress and anxiety in even a small percentage accounts for a significant number of kids. So, how can you tell if your child is feeling overly stressed?
How much stress is too much for young athletes?
Sports psychologist Dr. Rainer Martens compares competitive stress to a virus. He elaborates that a little bit of stress makes athletes perform better, teaching them how to channel their anxiety to aid performance. Too much stress all at once, however, can drain a young athlete of energy, leaving them ill and unable to compete at their peak level. This effect can carry over into other parts of their life as well, including academics.
The American Psychological Association points out a few main indicators that signal an adolescent’s stress levels have gone from helpful to harmful:
- Physical: Chronic stomach and headaches are common complaints of adolescents who are too stressed. If a child has a clean bill of health and still experiences stomach and headaches, it may be time to start looking at stress as the culprit.
- Emotional: Stress can manifest itself in many negative ways, including increased irritability, mood swings, emotional outbursts, withdrawing from usual activities and more.
- Behavioral. Too much stress is draining for young athletes, causing lethargy or the inability to concentrate. Athletes may change their eating habits—eating much more than normal or much less—or become more aggressive.
Individually, these symptoms may just sound like the growing pains of a typical teen. The APA notes, however, that if parents see physical, emotional and behavioral signs of too much stress in their student-athlete, they should step in to help their child effectively cope with the stress.
Help your student-athlete cope with stress and develop mental toughness.
There are ways to help your athlete deal with immediate stress, and ways to help them develop mental tools to limit stress in the future. We’ve listed a few short-term and long-term actions you can take:
- Immediate action: Ask them about the cause of their stress. Start the conversation about why they are stressed—is it pressure they’ve placed on themselves? Pressure from a coach, family member or friend? Is their “to do” list insurmountable?
- Immediate action: Discuss healthy ways they can deal with their stress. Michelle L. Bailey, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician and author of the book Parenting Your Stressed Child, suggests adolescents practice mindfulness to cope with stress. She defines mindfulness as the act of “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, in a non-judging way.” Other strategies like breathing techniques, muscle relaxation, going out in nature and engaging in physical activity other than their sport are also healthy ways to deal with stress.
- Immediate action: Find a place where your athlete can decompress. Every student needs a “stress-free zone” where they can let off some steam. For some, it might be sitting in their room listening to music. For others, it might be hanging out with their best friend. Recognize how your student-athlete decompresses, and encourage them to do so when feeling overly stressed.
- Long-term action: Help your athlete develop a desire to achieve, rather than a fear of failure. Often, young athletes correlate failure to punishment and criticism, and begin stressing about situations that might culminate in failure. Reframe the message about failure by emphasizing achievement instead. By developing a positive approach to achievement, athletes focus on the benefits of putting forth their best effort, rather than the negative effects of failing.
- Long-term action: Get them the tools they need to be successful. Stress can stem from an athlete’s insecurity that they don’t have the necessary skills to be successful. Work with your athlete on the physical skills they need in their sport. As their confidence in their athletic ability grows, they will experience less skills-based stress.
- Long-term action: Change the conversation about competition. Stressed-out athletes tell themselves phrases like: “Don’t mess up!” “You’re going to blow it.” “I’ll let down the whole team if I lose.” Instead, give them new phrases, such as: “I’m going to give my all and see what happens.” “I’ll go out there and have fun.” “I’m just going to focus on doing my best.” Once they start identifying internal stressors, the quicker they can shut them down.
- Long-term action: Ensure they get the right amount of sleep. Work with your student-athlete to create a sleep schedule. Students who get less than the recommended eight hours a night are more prone to stress and anxiety.
Stress is a natural part of life, but teaching your athlete how to cope with stress can set them up for success throughout their lifetime. Encourage your athlete to use practices that will increase their mental toughness and decrease negative reactions to stressful situations.