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Nerves can be a good thing for athletes off all ages
By Nancy Justis, correspondent
Feb. 26, 2021 11:49 am
There isn't an athlete on the planet who doesn't experience nerves and anxiety before competition.
It doesn't matter what age or what level in which they participate. Butterflies occur. And they are not a bad thing.
I think back to my competitive days. I would make myself almost ill before an event. Maybe because of excitement - or maybe because of a lack of confidence. I feared missing a flip turn, starting off the blocks too early.
Maybe I was just not confident in my ability to do what my teammates were counting on me to do.
Butterflies can be of help in upping performance. Athletes care and want to do well. Nerves can help an athlete focus on the task at hand. Raised heart rates, sweating and tension can be common.
However, tears, tantrums, nausea and other symptoms of stress are not likely to lead to better performance.
Vancouver child psychologist Carly Fry explained why some children are more anxious than others.
'It's a complex interplay between three factors,” he said. 'The first is the temperament or personality the child is born with. The second is genetics - 30 to 40 percent of anxiety is understood to be genetic, and children are more likely to exhibit it. The third factor is learned, which can stem from a negative experience the child has had in the past, or messages they've received (from) older siblings, parents or coaches.”
Gordon MacLelland, CEO of 'Working With Parents in Sports,” gave the following suggestions on how parents can help their children soften these feelings of anxiety:
- Tell your child these feelings and butterflies are normal. Avoid telling them 'don't worry about it” or 'you'll be fine.” This type of message may imply there is something wrong with the individual. Instead, start with empathy followed by a statement the child will be 'forging ahead anyway,” combined with coping strategies.
- Don't let your child avoid or run away from a negative environment. As the parent, you should be trying to help build resilience, not giving them an easy way out.
- Expose your child to a different number of sports and different environments. This may give you a better understanding of your child and what may be causing all the anxiety. Patience is required.
- Focus on the processes rather than the outcomes. If you can celebrate those parts that make up the bigger picture, you are less likely to add to the anxiety by focusing on the outcomes, like winning. Highlight successes such as work ethic, determination, self-confidence and positive decision making.
- Don't allow your child to create a false narrative. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is another day. Don't bring up previous negative experiences.
- Have realistic expectations. Express positive statements to your child. There's nothing wrong with you telling them there will be some struggles and they will have to battle through some adversity. However, if your demands are too high you might cause more anxiety.
If stakes are high, coaches may be tempted to focus only on the win. Positive Coaching Alliance noted 'Double-Goal Coaches” should re-emphasize the ELM Tree with their players. 'Leave everything you have out on the field. Keep learning things that will make us better. Flush your mistakes, and focus on the next play.
- Encourage your athletes to have fun. 'The pressure is on (the opponent). Everyone expects them to win. We have nothing to lose. So let's have fun going all out!”
- Remind them of their preparation. They've worked hard. You've provided a plan. '... let's focus on doing what we know how to do.”
- Nervous is normal and good. 'If you weren't (nervous), I'd be worried that you didn't care about today's game. I'm glad you're nervous. Now let's use that energy to play our game.”
- Pressure is a privilege. 'We're lucky we get to play in a big game. So let's give it our best effort and have fun while we're at it.”
One of my favorite poems is 'Thinking” by Walter D. Wintle:
'If you think you are beaten, you are,
If you think you dare not, you don't.
If you like to win, but you think you can't,
It is almost certain you won't.
If you think you'll lose, you're lost.
For out in the world we find -
Success begins with a fellow's will.
It's all in the state of MIND.
If you think you're outclassed, you are,
You've got to think high to rise,
You've got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.
Life's battles, don't always go
To the stronger or faster man
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”
The best advice I can give is to believe in yourself.
Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at email@example.com