Every athlete will likely feel some kind of nerves during practices or in competition. Some athletes thrive under pressure and embrace the nerves, while others will crumple if not bolstered by a supportive coach and team.
Nerves aren’t inherently bad, and they can actually indicate interest in sport, but it’s important for athletes to learn how to manage anxiety for long-term mental wellness, especially since the anxiety created by sport is often similar to the social anxiety experienced outside of sport.
To help athletes control their sport anxiety, TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, has some suggestions.
Sports should reduce anxiety, not cause it
Emphasizing the ‘fun’ aspect of sport is important at all ages, especially in the adolescent years. It’s easy to get caught up in the points spread or results as a coach, but that’s not the main reason sports matter for youth. Research has shown that playing sports can have positive impacts on mental health and anxiety in young people, and ultimately, it’s important to understand that for many young athletes, this will be the greatest benefit that sport will provide them. With that in mind, coaches and parents’ language and behavior should reflect that the goal of playing sport is the social and physical benefits, not the scholarships or tournament wins. For example, make your first question after a game, “What was your favorite part of the game?” rather than “What did you do wrong today?”
Teach mental strategies early and often
Coaches are often so bogged down by mandatory practices, busy competition schedules, and other demands on their time that they completely skip over the importance of teaching mental strategies to athletes. But visualization and other mental techniques have been shown to improve performance.
Start early in the season with a discussion of mental techniques and make practical recommendations, Chapman says. Walk athletes through a visualization exercise that they can do before games, have everyone download a free guided-meditation app, and have a discussion of what success looks like for this team, this year.