My child is anxious about playing sports, even when it is a laid-back, recreational league or an individual activity. How do I help her?
Melissa Gressner, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist
Kids get anxious for many reasons. Some of the most common contributors to sports anxiety are fear of failure, not looking good to peers, and disapproval by others like parents, extended family, and coaches. Here are ways to help your child cope:
- Try to ask open-ended, neutral questions like “How are you feeling about playing soccer today?” as opposed to closed, possibly stressful questions like “Are you nervous about playing today since Grandma is coming to watch?” Set kids up with questions that allow them to share how they’re feeling, yet don’t potentially alarm them or assume how they feel.
- If kids do express fear and anxiety, normalize it for them. Share how many people feel “butterflies in their tummy,” nervousness, or anxiety before they do something about which they’re excited. Share an example of a time when you felt fearful or anxious and how you dealt with it. Kids often feel better when they know they are not alone in this feeling.
- For some kids, talking may not be enough. They may need another approach by doing something to help them relax physically, such as taking a walk or listening to their favorite music. Mindfulness meditation, relaxation, and breathing exercises can also help kids train their mind and body to calm down when anxiety is on the rise.
- Help them increase their confidence. Research shows that feeling positive about ourselves and our abilities helps us perform well. Children with confidence are able to manage anxiety better and handle the challenges that participating in team sports or individual activities may bring. They will be able to manage their fear and learn valuable coping skills—both during physical pursuits and in life.
- Clarify whether they are feeling anxious or just don’t enjoy what they are doing. It is very common for children to try different activities as they grow up. Some may not like past sports they have tried, but might react differently when given the opportunity to try something new.
Be sure to remind your children to try their best, have fun learning and playing, and most importantly, not compare themselves to others.