Returning to youth sports: Is your young athlete ready?
By Dr. Nick Molinaro and Celeste Romano
After several months of seclusion, the pandemic restrictions are lifting. Yet, while some of us are racing out the door to be the first to eat at a restaurant or hit the mall, others are self-implementing the previous stay at home orders. As I talk to other parents, I instantly see these varying degrees of concern. Some parents have expressed almost no concerns, while others maintain an almost doomsday scenario running in their heads.
And though most of us are proceeding with a healthy mix of concern and optimism, we must question how all this is affecting our kids. Do they feel victimized or empowered? Will they want to return to sports, or will they be nervous to do so? Are they questioning if they will be able to perform as they once had? How do parents give their kids the skills needed to weather this storm and grow from it?
Parents are the greatest factor in a child’s environment. And the child’s environment directly impacts their mental game, which in turn impacts their physical performance. So, how parents have reacted to the pandemic does affect how their kids have reacted to it.
Recently some states are allowing camps and some youth sports activities to start back up. What I tell parents is to be mindful of how their kids are responding to all these changes. Like adults, some kids may be reluctant to return to the norm. Other children may run back to their activities without an ounce of hesitation. Yet, the child returning to sports who is hesitant or fearful will increase their potential for a physical injury. Playing a sport or any activity where anxiety is present may create the potential for harm.
Parents must understand that no matter the source of the fear – Covid-19, their ability to perform as they once had, or the struggles they had prior to the pandemic still being there – the way parents and athletes address these fears are the same. Therefore, I encourage parents to practice the following:
Be alert. Watch for the child who is questioning and hesitant about returning to sports.
Be an active listener. Listen both to the words being used, what is not being said, and what the child’s body language is saying.
Be empathetic. Place yourselves in the child’s position and try to see the current situation through the child’s eyes.
Practice a growth mindset. Use growth minded words to communicate with the child; see challenges as opportunities. Make this time a teachable moment. Show kids how to adapt and find the growth opportunity in difficult, challenging times.
Answer questions while providing assurance. Let your child or a child you may coach know that you would never place them in a situation that would cause them harm. Allow the parent-child trust to calm any unsettled nerves. The more anxious the parent, the more potential for an anxious child.
Set Goals. Guide them in setting appropriate and measurable goals for their return.
Practice basic skills. Have them practice the basic skills of their sport. Communicate to the child that no one ever masters the basics, even professional athletes.
Practice imagery. This may be the last point but arguably the most important. Imagery is a powerful mental tool when dealing with anxiety or fear that may occur during play. It doesn’t matter what causes the fear or anxiety, what matters is how one reacts to it. I always teach players I work with proven imagery techniques–replacing fear or anxiety with a positive image to calm the mind and create focus. Follow these steps:
- Ask your child to think of a positive image. Then tell them to put that image aside, in their pocket for when they need it.
- Then have your child picture themselves in the situation they fear happening or a situation that posed a struggle for them in the past. Basically, visualizing themselves in their fear.
- Then have them instantly replace the fear-provoking image with the positive image they identified in step a.
- Practice this several times a day to imbed this as a skill. When they return to their sport and they are in a situation like they imagined, they will need to immediately replace any fear or anxiety with that image. The positive image will allow their nerves to calm and their mind to focus on executing the skill, not the fear they had.
In the end, going forward and resuming sports is as individual as the decision to play at all. Don’t compare your child’s reaction or fear to other players. As a parent, knowing your child and using the tips above will give you and your child the best environment to promote a healthy mental and physical game from this point on.
Remember, your child’s physical game depends on a healthy mental game. The mental game is a direct reflection of the child’s environment where you, the parent, play the lead role.
I wish you and your players much health, happiness, and good fun as you venture back to sports!
Dr. Nick Molinaro and Celeste Romano are the authors of Beyond the Scoreboard. Molinaro has worked in the arena of performance psychology for more than 30 years with middle school aged children through professional and Olympic athletes, in all sports. Romano is the founder and head of Creative License Publishing, LLC, a writing consulting firm.
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