Helping Kids Play It Cool
09-14-2015 / By:
Sports are a great way for kids to have fun, stay fit, improve skills, and make friends. But it's not always fun and games out on the field or court. The pressure to succeed can be overwhelming — and that can lead to a lot of frustration and tears.
In some cases, sports pressure is self-inflicted. Some kids are natural perfectionists and are just too hard on themselves when things don't go their way. But more often than not, the pressure is external: Kids try to satisfy the demands of a parent, coach, or other authority figure and end up feeling like winning is the only way to gain the approval of the adults they respect.
Either way, how kids learn to cope with sports pressure — and what the adults in their lives teach them about it, either directly or indirectly — not only affects their performance and enjoyment of the sport, but can have a lasting impact on how they deal with similar challenges throughout life.
How Stress Affects Performance
Sometimes sports-related stress is good — it prepares the body to rise to a challenge with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness. On the other hand, too much of it can exhaust a kid's energy and drive, leading to sports burnout.
Events that cause stress are called stressors, and they can be positive (such as trying to impress a college scout out on the sidelines) or negative (such as struggling to keep up with schoolwork).
- Positive stress comes from taking part in something that's enjoyable yet challenging. This type of stress provides energy and pumps kids up and keeps them on their toes, providing a healthy spark for the tasks they undertake.
- Negative stress is different. If your child had a fight with a close friend, missed the bus, and forgot his or her homework, it can be pretty hard to get in the right frame of mind for the afternoon tennis match.
How to Help
Parents can probably spot the difference between their child's good and bad stress simply by noticing kids' game-time interactions. For example, is your child focused and ready for action or is nervous energy getting the best of him or her? How does your child handle mistakes? Is he or she a good sport or do emotions get out of control? Of course, some of this has to do with your child's personality. Like adults, some kids are naturally able to stay calm under pressure.
What may be a little harder to spot, though, is the role you and other adults might play in your child's handling of stressful situations. For example, parents who place a lot of weight on their kids' sports accomplishments run the risk of adding to a child's stress.
Of course it's good for your kids to see you taking an interest in their activities, but there's a fine line between encouraging kids and pushing too hard. Overzealous parents tend to overreact to mistakes, game losses, and skipped practices, which often causes kids to do the same. And when kids beat themselves up over mistakes, they're missing an important opportunity to learn how to correct problems and develop resiliency.
Similarly, check your sideline behaviors. Words have incredible power, so use them carefully, especially when you disagree with coaches and umpires. Praise specific good efforts by your child and other players, even after a loss, and offer criticism constructively and not in the heat of the moment. Make sure your child knows you understand that a game is just a game.
Playing sports can teach many wonderful life lessons — valuing teamwork, overcoming challenges, controlling emotions, taking pride in accomplishments — but only if you stay out of the way and let your kids learn them. In fact, by taking a step back, you're showing your kids that you trust them to handle situations on their own.