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Tips to help children deal with the pressure to compete and develop confidence

Written by Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP

Member of ACSM

By using the term “dealing with” the pressure, parents inevitably instill within their child that the experience of engaging in a pressure-filled situation should be viewed as something awful for which she is forced to brace herself.

Parents, conversely, may instill within their children that they have the ability to change their mindset when it comes to pressure – instead of “dealing with” the pressure, then, athletes may learn to “thrive on” or “embrace” the pressure as an opportunity for self-improvement or performance enhancement.  Athletes, even kids, can learn to change their attitude about pressure situations and to develop an excitement in response to pressure situations.

Pressure, especially for youth athletes who feed the inherent need to “deal with” it, may cause anxiety, which in effect will create tense muscles, difficulty in decision-making and a wandering, frantic mind.  Not a pleasant experience, especially when athletes are trying to play well.  One of the simplest ways to stay in control is by taking a few deep, relaxing breaths.  Whether we know it or not, our breathing typically becomes quick and shallow when stressed.  A deep breath allows oxygen to more efficiently enter the blood and the brain and helps us think more clearly.

Coaches and parents may use common language with players – for example, “Take three!”; “Breathing easy!” – as reminders during games.  Over time, this will become an instinctual response to tension.  So instead of yelling hollow, meaningless terms like “focus” and “just do it”, parents can say something valuable.

Confidence comes from knowing you have the unshakable ability to accomplish your goals.

Sport psychologists out of 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.

Therefore, stressing a mastery motivational climate and reinforcing positive episodes for your children (good performance, good effort, good examples of sportsmanship or leadership) will help 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?’ is a powerful and positive change in language.

What do you think? Join the conversation on our Facebook Page and on Twitter.

Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP Member of ACSM: Greg Chertok is currently a Sport Psychology Counselor and Fitness Trainer at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center. He received his B.A. in Psychology at Tufts University and M.Ed. in Counseling specializing in Sport & Exercise Psychology at Boston University in 2007. 

Note: The views expressed in ACSM Olympics Hot Topics are those of the contributors only, and should not be construed as official statements of the American College of Sports Medicine. 

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