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How Parents Can Help Athletes Grow from Stress

Stress automatically calls to mind negative moments in life: A difficult upcoming test, a fight with a friend or parent, global collective stress like the coronavirus pandemic, or even self-created stress about what others might be thinking. And yes, too much stress and too few resources to combat it can be a bad thing…but allowing kids to entirely avoid it actually does them a disservice.

Board-certified family physician and TrueSport Expert Deborah Gilboa, MD, specializes in youth development—including stress management. Her main message to parents is that children need to experience stress in order to be prepared for later life and become effective leaders. "Our job as parents is not to protect them until they're adults. It's to ready them for adulthood. And the ability to deal with stress is one of our best tools,” says Gilboa.

Here, Gilboa explains how parents and coaches can teach young athletes how to process and handle stress, rather than bulldozing it away.

Understand your response to a child's stress

“From the time kids are very small, we have to be hyper-vigilant to keep them safe: There's no more helpless creature than the human newborn,” says Gilboa. “It’s natural to try and control absolutely everything that you can, but that won’t help your child grow and lead. Parents are hardwired to pay attention to every sneeze and cough, but then by the time our kids are adults, they suddenly need to be able to do everything for themselves.”

For nervous parents, Gilboa notes that despite the scary 24-hour news cycle, in many ways, it’s never been safer to be a child in the U.S.

Consider the source of the stress

“Very few parents get kids into sport to win championships or trophies, we’re just trying to teach them life lessons and as such, we shouldn’t deprive them of chances to deal with adversity and stress,” says Gilboa. This experience is especially beneficial in the semi-controlled environment of sport.

“Those experiences of getting benched or having to run extra laps or being second string, they’re all valuable life experiences even if they cause stress. Kids have to learn to put the group ahead of themselves sometimes. They have to learn to do stuff that they don't feel like doing. They have to learn to show up when they’d rather stay home.”