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3 Ways to Improve Your Child's Mental Game in Sports

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health

Participation in sports can boost your child’s physical health by improving cardiovascular fitness, strengthening muscles, supporting bone health and managing body weight. But playing sports exercises the mind as much as it does the body – if not more so.

“Youth sports represent a great opportunity for kids to learn how to handle adversity and manage certain mental challenges while developing valuable skills that go beyond the playing field,” says Vincent Caringi, MD, a University Hospitals psychiatrist. As a Team Behavioral Health Clinician for the Cleveland Browns, Dr. Caringi helps elite athletes manage mental health issues, identify stressors that negatively impact their performance and learn strategies to reduce stress levels.

Dr. Caringi addresses three of the most common areas that youth athletes experience mental challenges: confidence, anxiety management and focus.

Confidence: A Quiet Sense of Certainty

While the media-driven sports culture often associates self-confidence with things like ego, arrogance, bravado and vanity, Dr. Caringi emphasizes a “quiet sense of certainty.”

“True confidence is a quiet sense of knowing who you are and believing in your abilities and what you’re capable of achieving,” Dr. Caringi says. “In this type of confidence, a person is both self-assured and humble. They embrace their positive qualities and successes while acknowledging their own imperfections and areas where they can improve, understanding that everyone can always get better and learn more.”

To improve confidence in young athletes, Dr. Caringi advises coaches and parents to emphasize the positive over the negative. He says that rewarding appropriate behavior and noticing when people do things right is far more effective at boosting confidence than punishing negative behavior or being overly critical.

Coaches and parents should look for opportunities to praise young athletes’ character and behaviors. In sports, positive reinforcement can be used even when the end result isn’t achieved on the playing field or court. For example, praising qualities like hustle, hard work, good attitude and small improvements are all great for building confidence.

In a technique introduced by Dr. Zinsser, Director of the Performance Psychology Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, athletes of any age or skill level can improve their self-confidence by exploring three aspects of their game on a daily basis. It’s called the ESP Technique:

  • Effort: Think about something you did that made you feel like you put in a good effort.
  • Success: Think about something that made you feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Progress: Identify a part of your game that improved, if only by a small degree.

The ESP technique is ideally done as a journaling exercise, but young athletes can benefit from simply reflecting on each item for a few moments every day. Dr. Caringi says the ESP approach is great for improving confidence in athletics, as well as for academics and other areas of life.

The Fine Line Between Anxiety and Excitement

Experiencing pre-game jitters – whether butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms or a fast heartbeat – is normal for athletes. However, if your child’s pre-game nervousness becomes full-blown anxiety, it can negatively affect both their athletic performance and enjoyment of their sport.

The human body is amazing in its ability to send out the right chemicals to get us to perform well under stress. For example, the body releases hormones that quicken our heartbeat and dilate our blood vessels to increase the amount of oxygen that is available to our skeletal muscles and brain, allowing us to perform better.

“The line between negative/fear-based anxiousness and positive excitement is often just a matter of perception,” says Dr. Caringi. “Simply educating young athletes about the close connection between feeling anxious and feeling excited can be helpful in getting them to manage their anxieties. Coaches and parents should encourage young athletes to view any pre-game anxiousness they experience as part of a positive state of preparation for the game (something to be enjoyed) rather than useless fear.”

Focus: Getting in the “Zone”

Athletes often speak of getting in the “zone”: a state of heightened focus that allows them to perform at their best. There are many distractions that can take a young athlete’s head out of the game, including self-doubt, mistakes made during the game, the opposing team scoring, and parents or coaches yelling from the sidelines. Very young players, in particular, tend to have shorter attention spans and can be easily distracted.

Dr. Caringi says the reason many athletes have problems with in-game focus is that they concentrate more on the outcome of the game than the process.

“The idea of focus is similar to mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental activity in which you focus intensely on what you’re feeling in the present moment. In sports, there is immense value in focusing on the task at hand – be it covering your teammate on defense or honing your eyes on a fly ball – while ignoring everything that came before that moment and everything that will come after it.”

Here are a few tips for coaches and parents to help young athletes stay focused:

  • Keep sports fun: The more fun an athlete has while playing their sport, the more likely they’ll stay focused on the game. Be on the lookout for players who are no longer having fun and those who may have reached a point where they dread going to practice or playing in games.
  • Encourage your child to compete against himself/herself: While there may be no “i” in “team,” kids who concentrate more on improving as individuals rather than winning games are more likely to feel focused and relaxed during competition, usually leading to better performance.
  • Try centering techniques: You can try teaching your young athletes to center themselves by breathing deeply in and out and counting if they wish. This simple technique can reduce anxiety and distractions. Try practicing mindful breathing with your child at home between sports events.

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The pediatric sports medicine experts at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s are dedicated to treating athletes of any age – from toddlers through adolescence and teenagers or young adults.