A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
Are you making your child's pre-game jitters worse?
By Linda Alberts
New research from Ithaca College suggests a young athlete’s anxiety levels before competition are determined not only by their own expectations of their performance, but by their parents’ expectations, too.
Drs. Miranda Kaye, Amy Frith and Justine Vosloo, professors in the School of Health Science and Human Performance at Ithaca College in New York, worked with athletes 6-18 years old who participated in the individual sports of swimming, tennis, bowling, wrestling, cross country and indoor track.
The athletes and their parents were given a survey the day before competition. The athletes gauged how they wanted to perform and the parents gauged how they expected their child to perform. They each also reported how they were feeling about the upcoming competition.
Performance goals fell into four groups: performing better than one has in the past; not doing worse than one has in the past; out-competing others; or not being out-performed by others.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, found that high achievement goals were linked to higher levels of worry.
The highest levels of worry were observed in children whose parents wanted them to outperform others or to not lose to others. Also, a child’s concentration level appeared to be impacted most when the parent wanted them to perform better than others.
THE PRESSURE TO OUTPERFORM OTHERS
Time after time children report that the top reason they play sports is to have fun. They also participate in sports to do something they are good at and to improve their skills.
“With these motives in mind, it is no surprise that young athletes feel more anxious in terms of worry and concentration disruption when their parents want them to outperform or to not lose to others,” says Kaye. “Youth overwhelmingly endorsed goals based on improving upon a past performance, which is something they can control. If parents are focused on how they do in comparison to others – which athletes can’t control – this can be anxiety provoking.”
Kaye also points out that youth whose parents wanted them to improve on a past performance did not exhibit higher anxiety.
While all parents in the study wanted their child to perform to the best of their ability, 34 percent reported that they wanted their child to avoid doing worse than others and 43 percent were focused on their child outperforming others. Also, 66 percent reported wanting their child to avoid performing worse than they had in the past. Parents were able to endorse more than one performance goal.
The study findings also indicate that how a young athlete hoped to perform affects how a parent feels prior to competition. For example, if a child expected to perform better than in the past, their parent had physical anxiety, like bodily tension, before a match.
“While only parents and athletes in individual sports were examined in this study, I believe that the results may apply to parents of children in youth sports,” says Kaye. “We examined only individual sport athletes because the effect of parents is slightly more isolated than in team sports. An athlete’s experience in youth sports, whether in an individual sport or team sport, is built upon a number of sources, including parents, teammates and coaches. It is important to look at their impact individually and collectively.”
POINTERS FOR PARENTS
Whether your child plays on a team or is an individual competitor, you can affect your child’s performance. Here are some tips from Vosloo on things parents should be aware of in their behavior or words as to not add pressure to their child before competition.
Ask your child about their goals for their own performances. When these goals emphasize outcome, such as outperforming others or not losing to others, encourage your child to focus on a goal that they can control, such as effort or playing/working their hardest.
Watch your pre-game talk
Prior to a game or competition is not the time for a long pep talk reminding your child about everything they have to do during the game. Instead, they need to hear that you believe in them, are proud of them and love them.
Keep it all in perspective
Your child will play lots of games. Some you may perceive as more important than others; however, emphasizing that importance will only increase the pressure they feel. Instead, keep the goals for each game the same, regardless of importance: Have fun and work hard.
After the game, notice your own language when asking your child about their game or competition. Do you emphasize outcome over effort? If so, change it. Remember that so many factors impact outcome (e.g. opponent’s ability, calls by referees, performance of teammates, etc.) and most of these are out of the control of your child, which increases anxiety and perception of pressure that your child may feel.
Ask the following questions instead: Did you have fun or enjoy yourself? Did you do your best? After listening to your child’s response, acknowledge their perspective and reflect their feelings. Then tell them that you are proud of them and that you love them. It is important that your child know that in your eyes, their worth is not dependent on their performance in any way.
Helping children learn life lessons through failure and disappointment that everyone experiences while competing is an important role for coaches and parents to handle. Are you ready for it?
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