Pressure on Young Athletes

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Young players on a basketball court

With the beginning of a new school year, young students are taking part in lots of different athletic events.

As families head to the stadium or gym, it’s a good time to pause and think about how to make the most out of a young athlete’s experience.

Jedediah Blanton, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies, focuses his research on maximizing the benefits of youth sport and minimizing the detriments. He looks at how coaches, athletic directors, and state high school associations can help foster leadership and life skills through high school athletics.

Here he shares some tips on how to make sure children get the most out of their sport experiences.

How can young athletes stay properly focused?

Athletes often make mistakes by thinking about too many things at one time. And often those things are parts of the game they cannot control. One way to help athletes when they are too in their head is to first help them recognize when it’s happening and why, and then to refocus by having them:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Ask themselves what they can control and then channel their mental and physical energy there.

What can coaches do?

We encourage coaches to host practice sessions that are more like games. Too often coaches run the same drill over and over and over again, and we almost never get a game situation with the same skill back-to-back. Gamelike practices help athletes learn to make quick performance decisions without being able to predict what will happen. This sort of practice also allows coaches and players to stop and think through a mistake if one is made.

What we perceive as performance pressure is actually a fear of letting others down. And for young athletes these others are adults—namely, parents and coaches—who dictate much of their lives and perhaps even show varying levels of love based on sport performance. We always tell parents to show unconditional love and to let the child drive the conversation after a game, especially a loss. When young athletes have this kind of support, they are more likely to try new tactics without fear of what will happen when they fail or make a mistake.

What are the best tips for young athletes who have coaches who don’t give them feedback, either positive or negative?

To the extent the athlete is comfortable, they can simply ask the coach for some extra tips after practice. It’s a good idea to open this request with a goal statement first: “I really think I could improve my corner kicks. Can you watch me kick a couple and give me some feedback?” Other strategies might include leaning on peers or parents. For example, ask them to video you during practice and then watch it together to identify what went well and what could be improved.

What are the best tips for parents on how to support their young athlete?

We always ask parents to love their child unconditionally and remember that their child’s well-being is more important than one weekend’s sport outcome. We ask that parents model the type of person they want their child to be, in sport and out of it.

Athletes watch and listen as parents process their wins and losses. If a loss means a miserable and berating lecture on the ride home, they are going to quickly become miserable in sport. But if the athlete chooses to talk about it, and the parents help them to celebrate what went well, they will view sport as a place where it is OK to experiment and make mistakes as long as they try their best.

Photo by Eagle Photography

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