Just about everyone has felt nervous at some point in his or her life. For student-athletes (and others in high-pressure situations, such as the performing arts) this may be known as performance anxiety. Getting the jitters every now and then is fine and is a sign that we are ready to go to work, but it can reach a point where it starts impacting outcomes.
Largely, anxiety is how it is perceived. If anxiety is viewed as negative, it’s likely to trigger a flight or fight response or cause a person to freeze, which can adversely impact performance in high stress situations.
“If we see something as distressing, we reject it,” explains Valerie Valle, Psy.D., sports and performance psychologist in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Institute for Brain Protection Sciences. “If we can teach our athletes and performers that anxiety is normal and useful, we can create the mindset of being open to it.”
As a parent or coach of a student-athlete, there are strategies you can use to help the child through moments of performance anxiety.
- Identify when your student-athlete is feeling anxious. This can be shown through display of muscular tension such as jaw tightening or going doe-eyed, moving too fast-paced and making a lot of errors or acting out through shows of aggression. A classic example is a tennis player throwing a racket. Though that looks like anger, underneath it may actually be anxiety. Any behavior that looks out of place is an opportunity to check in and ask athletes how they are feeling. Thoughts that are almost always linked to performance anxiety center around the idea of being unable to do something or inferiority.
- Acknowledge and normalize feelings of anxiety. Having anxiety in high-stress situations is a normal part of life. Letting your child know that these feelings are OK can go a long way in reducing nervousness. With young children, the concept of having ‘butterflies’ in their stomach is a common way to talk about it.
- Make a game plan. Concentration is one of the first things to go when someone is under pressure. Help your student-athlete develop a game plan and help him or her stick with it during the game. Keep it short–no more than three technical items or strategies.
- Remember to breathe. Breathing is an essential part of re-centering and self-regulation. Remind your child to breathe and find a focus when nerves start to show up.
- Stay positive. Good feedback always helps. Reinforcing what went well during a competition can help increase self-esteem and lessen the negative thoughts that can contribute to anxiety. Briefly offer constructive comments on what can be improved for next time.
It is not the job of a parent or coach to act as a therapist for a child who might be struggling with anxiety, but it is important to recognize the signs and assist in getting help when needed. If episodes of anxiety are more than a one-time thing and happen regularly during the season or times of high stress, such as specific games or meets, it may be time to seek the help of a professional psychologist.