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Sizing up stress: What coaches and parents need to know

Sizing up stress: What coaches and parents need to know


By Ker’Shyra Myrick

When young athletes feel pressure from their parents, they may be more likely to avoid difficult situations and not deal with the stress effectively.

Dr. Katherine Tamminen, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and associate editor of the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, was the lead author of a study on helping adolescent athletes cope with stress.

During the study 85 pairs of athletes and parents completed online surveys. Athletes reported levels of parental pressure or support and how they coped with stress, and parents described the type of advice they had given to their children about dealing with stress in sport.

Tamminen's research has shown that the foundation for helping athletes develop coping skills is for parents to establish a positive, supportive relationship with their child.

SportingKid Live spoke with Tamminen to get her insights on this important issue that affects young athletes.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are the symptoms of stress?

TAMMINEN: Symptoms can be different for everyone. For most athletes, stress or negative emotions tend to result in anxiety with physical and cognitive elements. An athlete could experience racing thoughts, have trouble focusing, and always think the worst. But then there can also be physical symptoms like a racing heart, upset stomach, nausea and trembling legs.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What causes stress?

TAMMINEN: Stress varies from person to person. Common things young athletes tend to find stressful are the fear of not performing well, missing a shot in the game, losing a game, the pressure to win from coaches or parents, conflicts with referees, and issues with coaches, parents, and teammates. All of these factors depend on the person. One of the situations mentioned above might be more difficult than another. It all depends on how the situation is interpreted by the athlete.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are the effects stress can have on an athlete’s performance?

TAMMINEN: This is tricky because some athletes might see stress as really bad, which can affect their performance. Others might see it as a challenge and interpret their feelings in a positive manner. Researchers call these types of situations appraisal of threat and challenge.  Athletes may view some stressors as a threat, causing them to experience anxiety and fear. However other athletes who perceive a stressful situation as a challenge may experience positive emotions or excitement, and that can lead to them having better performances.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are tips for dealing with stress on the morning of a big game?

TAMMINEN: In my research, what I have tried to do with athletes and parents is suggest athletes reflect on things they have done in the past and see what has worked and what has not. There is no magic ‘one size fits all’ strategy to deal with stress. For example, a runner before a race could be more anxious if they are around their teammates, and they may need to be alone before a big race; withdrawing from teammates might work really well for them.

Being self-aware of how you are coping with emotions and stress can help as well. If an athlete is experiencing butterflies and sweaty palms, then practicing deep breathing, slow controlled breaths, and focusing on relaxation can help to calm them down. Coping with stress effectively depends on being aware of how you are perceiving and reacting to stressful situations, and reflecting on that process in the long term.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are tips for dealing with stress the night before?

TAMMINEN: Some athletes say visualizing their performance helps. Diagram plays, planning, and thinking logically about the game ahead are steps an athlete can take in preparing the night before. Creating a list of keywords is also helpful. For example, swimmers have different words to help them focus on each lap. You may also hear athletes say the expression “feel the burn,” which can motivate an athlete and help them power through stressful situations.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are common mistakes parents should avoid?

TAMMINEN: Not listening and acknowledging that athletes might be stressed out, or even downplaying and undermining a stressful situation. Sometimes parents forget how important sports are to their young athlete. Validating their emotions is important. There is a gray area with many situations, because it might not be the worst thing in the world if an athlete loses or does not perform well during a game. So as a parent, it is important to let them know it is not the end of the world; we can move on and recover. But stress is really subjective and it can feel terrible at times, so acknowledging and validating an athlete’s stress can also provide perspective for them to see the big picture in the long run.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches and parents support young athletes with stress?

TAMMINEN: Coaches and parents can support their young athlete in various ways:

  1. Helping them learning to cope with stressful situations
  2. Teaching them to become more self aware of their thoughts and emotions
  3. Acknowledging their emotions
  4. Encouraging reflection on the part of the athlete
  5. Asking questions like: What did you do the last time you dealt with stress? What else can you do? What do you think your sports idol might do in stressful situations?

Getting athletes to think about what might be effective for other athletes and what they might have done in the past can be helpful. Asking questions can help athletes problem solve. In this scenario, athletes are not being told what to do, but actively learning what works best for them and developing reflective abilities.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can coaches tell if a young athlete is experiencing stress?

TAMMINEN: If an athlete’s behavior is out of the ordinary that can be a sign of stress. Stress can be coming in from outside areas such as school or even fighting amongst friends. Another sign is the athlete is acting more emotional than usual, like getting upset over something very minor. During the game, signs can be missing shots they normally make.

Coaches should respond with empathy and ask if everything is okay. This is not a time for the coach to start coming down on the athlete, simply because they could be dealing with a lot already. A coach should be supportive through those moments, which can prove to be really valuable for the athletes, and in the end could help them to start performing well again.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is stress helpful or harmful?

TAMMINEN: This all depends on how we interpret or receive stress. Stress tells us the thing that we are doing is of value and important to us. When it comes to sport, if you feel nervous before a game that means the game is important to you. However if symptoms start to get out of control and we can’t manage it effectively then it can become harmful. On the other hand, stress can be useful and help promote positive performances. Stress can be seen as a challenge and an athlete may experience excitement in that moment. It is important for us to reframe how we see stress. If an athlete can see stress as positive toward their performance, it can be helpful in that situation instead of harmful.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is it better to approach stress individually or as a team?

TAMMINEN: Emotions are contagious within groups. So if one athlete is dealing with high levels of stress that can spread to another athlete on the team. Athletes can also express confidence and excitement which can be contagious as well, so it can go both ways. Some athletes need to deal with stress individually by having their own pre-game routines. It can be valuable for teams to prepare together. Once again, it all depends on the team and the individual, but there is value in teams coming together and acknowledging the stress they are feeling.

Stress Conflict Pressure Anxiety

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