Managing Emotions: Helping young athletes cope and thrive
By Greg Bach
Young athletes these days are being ambushed by waves of emotions – anger, frustration and disappointment among them – as their world of playing the sports they love has vanished for now.
The sooner they accept all these feelings, rather than trying to ignore them, the quicker they’ll free themselves and be able to move forward.
“This is a situation that no one has gone through before and it is really sad,” says Dr. Megan Cannon, a leading sport psychologist who works with athletes at all levels, is a frequent keynote presenter at conferences nationwide, and has appeared on ESPN on multiple occasions sharing her insights. “There are losses – whether it’s a season, a prom, or a championship opportunity – and it’s gone. That is sad. It’s also angering and it’s frustrating and the best way to get through that stuff is to acknowledge that ‘I am really mad about this’ or ‘I am really sad about this.’”
This is new territory for all young athletes, wading through this minefield of emotions that most aren’t equipped to handle.
"We’re kind of culturally taught to ignore our emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones,” Cannon says. “So although it can be uncomfortable to do so, we really have to process those emotions and identify how we feel about them and what we think about them. That doesn’t necessarily change the situation, but it helps us mentally and emotionally kind of trudge through that pathway where the situation isn’t changing but it helps us emotionally get through it more successfully and oftentimes a little bit faster than if we’re just ignoring it. Ignoring those emotions is just going to stockpile them where it almost becomes like a volcano.”
Moms and Dads naturally want to protect their kids from painful experiences, but Cannon points out that it’s important that parents aren’t dismissing their child’s feelings during these challenging times.
“Absolutely validate how they are feeling,” she says. “We want to make things better and we want to help them, but in this moment it’s important for validating ‘this is really sad,’ and ‘this is really frustrating.’ To that child this is their world and it’s really helping to validate whatever emotions that the athletes have rather than unintentionally minimizing their experience.”
LEAN INTO THE PROCESS
“So much of athletics is obviously outcome-based but the thing is that at any moment in time that championship opportunity or whatever the goal is could be gone in a moment,” Cannon says. “With this situation it’s gone because of Covid-19, but it could be gone because the ref makes a bad call or because the other team outplayed you that day or someone just played better than you. So for a lot of reasons those goals can be blocked or prevented from happening. So when we’re so attached to those goals that we’re training for then what happens when they don’t happen? Then are we now viewing the entire experience as a total failure because of one game or one situation or one goal that hasn’t come to fruition?”
But when athletes are immersed in that all-important process, and they’re finding joy in the journey, they’re able to handle the ups and downs of competing, as well as situations like the one we are all experiencing that are fully out of their control.
“If you’re training and able to identify the components that you like about it, your road to whatever your goal may be is going to be much more enjoyable,” Cannon says. “And if that goal doesn’t happen because of an uncontrollable situation like this one we’re going through or you just lost that day, it’s a lot easier to get through, in addition to helping you be more motivated through training. With any championship opportunity there are thousands of days that go into making someone ready for that so if we’re not enjoying those thousands of days where’s our motivation?”
PEEL BACK THE LAYERS OF GOOD
Amid the disappointment surrounding the lives of young athletes these days who are unable to compete, there are valuable lessons that can be pocketed and carried forward when lives eventually return to normal and they are able to resume playing the sports they love.
“This is a wonderful lesson in controlling the uncontrollable,” Cannon says. “This is a wonderful lesson on regaining perspective on what’s important and I think that extends a lot to the parents. Do all your weekends have to be triple booked? You don’t have to have them in training 50 weeks of the year when they are 12. I hope that this is just a nice shift in perspective for a lot of people. The world of sports was moving at this fast-paced intensity and trajectory and now it has come to a screeching halt, where hopefully it’s opportunities for us to re-evaluate and re-prioritize.”
LIFE LESSON REFRESHER
“When I talk to parents across the country one of the first questions I ask is ‘Why did you choose to put your kid in this?’ And every single time I get a very similar set of answers: learning how to work well with others, time management, communicating, tolerating failure, and all of those things. Never once has a parent said ‘I put my kid in this so they could beat that kid down the street.’ However, when the ball is in play and there’s emotion and there’s financial investment and time investment, we forget about all of that and all of a sudden those priorities can get moshed around. So this is hopefully an opportunity for the sport world in general to really re-evaluate what is important here and what are the lessons through sport we’re trying to help children build in terms of their overall character.”
RECHARGING AND RELAXING
With the additional hours of free time available to athletes these days, Cannon encourages using a portion of it for exploring what types of activities promote relaxation.
“I’m challenging my athletes,” Cannon says. “What do you enjoy? What is helpful for you? What is relaxing to you? Athletes have so much time now to engage in doing this and mentally and emotionally recharging. It’s a wonderful time to determine helpful self-care things that you can start engaging in now. By doing that research now you can find what is helpful and a year from now when things are moving at a quicker pace, you’ll know that perhaps you don’t really like drawing but you love painting or playing a musical instrument.”
You can follow Dr. Megan Cannon on Instagram: @drmegancannon and Twitter: @DrMeganCannon.
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