By Greg Bach
Frustration, anxiety and disappointment are just some of the emotions that young athletes across the country have been tussling with since the pandemic flipped everyone’s lives upside down.
We checked in with some top U.S. Olympic athletes – whose plans for competing in Tokyo this summer were put on hold until 2021 – and leading psychologists for their thoughts on how to work through these difficult days.
Use their insights to help your young athletes stay positive, motivated and anxiety free as they make their way back to sports, or anxiously await the chance to return to competition in their communities:
STAY STRUCTURED WITH CODE R.E.D.
Olympic track and field champion Tianna Bartoletta created Code R.E.D. to help her stay focused, and encourages others to use it, too.
“I struggle when I’m not organized or when I have a lot of unstructured time,” Bartoletta says. “So I created Code R.E.D. for myself because I was waking up and kind of having that feeling of what do I do today? So it helped me figure out what I need to do to help make getting through these days easier for myself and I shared it because I thought maybe it could help someone else who is struggling with that same thing.”
Code R.E.D. is an acronym for Reinforce, Eradicate and Develop. On a three-column page young athletes write down the current habits or skills they want to maintain under Reinforce; they jot down the current habits they want to get rid of under Eradicate; and they write the new habits or skills that they want to develop or learn under the Develop column. Each day that they successfully execute their Code R.E.D. plan they mark a big ‘X’ on those bad habits they’re getting rid of and a positive emoji on those areas that they are reinforcing or developing.
“Writing it down really allows you to see areas where you can accomplish some of these things that you have been waiting on,” Bartoletta says. “I think as you tackle those things you do end up generating positive momentum.”
“My favorite quote is to blossom where you are planted,” says U.S. Olympic discus thrower Whitney Ashley. “And when you can’t control things you have to learn to step back and ask yourself ‘What can I control right now?’ And the best thing right now is the mental side.”
That means helping young athletes keep those thoughts positive and purposeful during these unprecedented times.
“Every day it’s being intentional,” Ashley says. “It’s envisioning when you start competing again what do you want to see? You have to start manifesting things and not focusing on what isn’t open or what you can’t do right now. Focus on what you can do.”
REFOCUS AND REDIRECT
Since many youth sports seasons are on hold, encourage young athletes to use some of that free time available to work on those areas of the sport that they may be having some trouble with. With many states only allowing teams to practice, it’s a great time for coaches to dial in on those skills that have been the most challenging to learn.
That’s exactly what U.S. Olympic hurdling medalist Kristi Castlin is doing these days. “For myself looking ahead it’s the small things that always help me get better,” she says. “So I’m using this time to really work on my weaknesses, things that I’ve struggled with for years.”
PROCESS EMOTIONS – DON’T IGNORE THEM
The sooner you can help your child accept how they are feeling rather than trying to ignore it, the quicker they’ll be free to move forward.
"We’re kind of culturally taught to ignore our emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones,” says Dr. Megan Cannon, a leading sport psychologist who works with athletes at all levels. “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.”
BE AN ACTIVE LISTENER
“Asking a child how they are feeling and then listening without telling them what to do or how to feel is very healing, empowering and calming to the child,” says Dr. Alicia Clark, a psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety.
It’s crucial to be fully engaged during these all-important talks, too. Parents can’t be distracted by television, their cellphones or anything else that tends to pull at their attention.
“A lot of parents think they are listening to their kids and they think they are talking about feelings when they really aren’t,” Clark says.
During these exchanges, parents need to be wary of trampling their kids’ thoughts. It’s important to give them the space to share what they are feeling and to soak in their thoughts.
“Telling kids it’s all going to be OK is really important for them to hear and they need to hear that from a parent,” Clark says. “But they also need to hear that we understand how they’re feeling and not jump over how they are feeling into the solutions.”
TEND TO YOUR EMOTIONAL HEALTH
As COVID-19 news relentlessly churns, it’s easy for parents to be overwhelmed and stressed out.
“Children can sense a lot of emotional experiences from adults,” says Dr. Jenny Yip, a leading parenting expert and author of Productive, Successful You: End Procrastination by Making Anxiety Work for You Rather Than Against You. “So if you’re giving off a sense of anxiety and stress that’s probably when you will see them be a little bit more defensive and irritable because they’re sensing it from you. So adults have to do the same in terms of taking care of themselves.”
One way to achieve that is by limiting how much time you spend digesting news.
“Every time you’re searching for information you’re basically putting that IV drip of stress into your system,” Yip says. “Then you overload your system and it impacts your immune system negatively. And the best thing we can do for ourselves right now is to make sure that our immune system is healthy.”
Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion Briana Scurry, author of MY GREATEST SAVE, on managing challenging moments and what young athletes in all sports can do to navigate them and stay focused on the present
Ryan Gareis, former University of South Carolina standout and current forward for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, on bringing energy, enthusiasm and a team-first mentality at all times
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance