Mood swings: Helping young athletes keep their cool
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
Sports are a great way for young kids to have fun, interact with others and stay fit. Plus, they learn valuable life lessons like how to communicate with one another and the importance of teamwork.
But, the fun can be taken out of the game when a child experiences a change in their mood, which has the potential to sabotage their performance.
“Helping kids identify what makes them their best and raising awareness can help kids stay levelheaded and focused all game long,” says Dr. Brent Walker, past president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). “Lack of success and making mistakes can cause things to unravel. It’s important to let kids know that giving up or engaging in bad behaviors can lead to unsuccessful player performance.”
Kids must deal with a variety of emotions while playing in a game. One moment they may be feeling good and confident, and the next moment they may miss a shot and feel dejected and disappointed.
“Mistakes are going to happen,” Walker says. “For kids who struggle and make mistakes, it is important for them to slow down and take deep breaths.”
It’s also important to help kids identify that they have a choice in everything they do. Helping kids stay in a positive frame of mind is key, especially if they’ve had a bad day and have a game to play where they need to work through their emotions in order to give the team their best effort.
“Coaches can set the example of what it means to have fun,” says Walker. “Kids often mistakenly assume that fun is a consequence of success. In reality, the opposite it true. Going into a competition and making fun a priority will often lead to a successful performance. I literally tell kids that I want to see them smile at least five times during a game, knowing that going into the performance to have fun will increase the chance of a positive performance outcome. ”
MANAGING HIGHS AND LOWS
Kids often struggle with emotions because their parents and coaches tell them they cannot show any emotion. Trying to bottle it up inside and not have any emotion whatsoever can cause a child to play flat and be a leading factor as to why they are not experiencing any success.
If a child continues to struggle with their emotions during a game, show them how their emotions negatively hurt the team.
“Videotaping them during the game, and playing their reactions back to them is a good start,” Walker says. “Players are often amazed at how they respond to certain situations.”
It’s up to coaches to not just show players how they are responding in certain situations, but what they can do to get a grip on that behavior so that it doesn’t affect their performance or hinder the team.
“When you are dealing with someone who is overly emotional and we tell them not to show emotion, we have told them what not to do, not what to do,” Walker explains. “If a player finds themselves starting to get angry I always suggest squeezing your fist down by your side and counting to four to squeeze away your anger. This way the player is starting over and getting rid of that emotion.”
WORKING AS A TEAM
Keeping teammates motivated to play with an emotional player can be a learning experience for everyone involved, as well.
Walker suggests trying this team exercise to help your team keep everyone’s emotions in check.
- Each team member (and each coach if desired) identifies 2-3 things that happen during a competition that lead to an emotional reaction. (This encourages kids to become aware of the cues that cause them to lose their cool).
- Each team member then shares with the rest of the team a word or phrase other team members can say to help stop the emotional reaction and to re-focus on the competition. (This helps kids understand that they can choose how to react in a situation and it forces them to identify how they would want to be treated when faced with adversity).
- Each team member then identifies what they focus on when they are performing their best. (This primes kids to implement a more effective focus approach during times of adversity. It also helps them realize that they can choose what they focus on during a practice or competition).
These three steps provide a concrete solution when faced with a situation that typically leads to an emotional reaction. At the same time, team communication and cooperation are enhanced as team members learn how to help one another.
Dealing with parents whose own motivational tactics go against the coach’s can be another mountain to climb.
“When parents yell at kids it’s confusing for kids because they do not know which player is being yelled at and they do not know whose instruction to follow,” he says. “When parents give input, kids start to struggle to commit to one thing.”
Everyone has different moods, but we all have choices. It is important for kids to become aware of how they respond to situations and it all comes down to helping them perceive things the right way.
Bowling Green football coach Mike Jinks on helping young athletes embrace roles, recognize responsibilities and be all in for the team
Dr. Jesse Michel, mental skills coordinator for the World Series Champion Houston Astros, on helping young athletes improve focus and concentration to perform at their best
University of Tulsa football coach Philip Montgomery on the importance of sending players home in a positive frame of mind
Olympic swimming great Dana Vollmer, winner of five gold medals, challenges coaches of all youth sports to find the most effective ways to motivate all their young athletes