Helping your Athlete Cope With Pressure

By: Dr. Patrick Cohn And Lisa Cohn

Do you know what kind of pressures your young athletes grapple with?

As sports parents, it's important to be tuned in to this issue. If your athletes are equestrians, for example, they likely feel pressure to perform up to their abilities. Then there's the added pressure of dealing with their horses' ups and downs. Add to that the potential for danger-and you've got a pressure-cooker situation at times. That's what Missy Clark, head trainer and owner of North Run Show Stables, Warren, Vt. told us in a recent interview. She works with some of the top young riders in the country.

What distinguishes the top performers in high-pressure situations?

They understand the mental side of sports, Clark says. In fact, one of her most successful young athletes had a mind like a "sponge" for sports psychology, she says. "She wasn't the most naturally talented rider, but she had an incredibly open mind about the mental aspect of sports."

That's true of kids in all sports. They face numerous pressures. They may intimidate themselves by comparing themselves to their competitors. They may put pressure on themselves to perform better than their peers. They may feel pressure from coaches to improve their performance.

If sports kids can identify and learn how to cope with these pressures, they've got a tremendous advantage. They're likely to be happier and more successful.

Here's a tip. Your kids most likely impose lots of pressure on themselves. They don't need any additional pressure from you. Be very careful about how you phrase your words of "support," especially before a competition or game. Even if you say, before a game, "I hope you score three goals today," you're pressuring your athletes.

To allow your kids to play freely, intuitively, and have fun, they must feel no pressure from others to perform well or win. In a trusting mindset, they are free to explore new methods and skills without the burden of worrying about the score or the "win."

One more tip. Too often, young athletes struggle with setting appropriate goals for themselves. Why? Because they're often influenced by family members--or the media, which glamorizes top athletes.

We recently asked Dony Wilcher, a popular basketball coach in Portland, Ore., about this topic. He suggests that parents just let their kids play and have fun until they're in fifth grade or so. At that point, it's a good idea to discuss your young athletes' long-term goals with them.

Don't try to talk them into becoming NBA stars or trying to earn scholarships, he says. Let them set their own goals. Then you can help them map out a plan for achieving their goals. And you can help them reach toward their objectives by providing emotional and financial support.

When your young athletes are old enough to identify their goals, they should think about their objectives for practices and for games and competitions. In addition, they should consider their "mental game" goals. These relate to their confidence, trust and composure. They can also identify fitness objectives aimed at improving strength, flexibility, stamina and overall fitness.

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