The Anxious Athlete: Practical Techniques to Help Alleviate Your Child’s Fear

Every parent of a child who competes in any sporting event has most likely witnessed some level of pre-game jitters. Sports anxiety isn’t just for the professional athletes, especially considering the emphasis that our culture places on success and competition. That’s right, kids are more than just a little susceptible to pre-game pressure. This nervousness can either be channeled as a driving force of motivation or as a paralyzing numbness they can’t seem to shake. It’s important to remember that at least some degree of nervousness before and during a sporting event is completely normal. But, if the anxiety gets out of hand, there are a few strategies that may be helpful to alleviate the stress. Three of the simplest exercises associated with sports related performance anxiety are visualization, mindfulness, and breathing.

We’ll start with the easiest of the three- breathing. I know this sounds like a suspiciously simple solution, but when you help your player learn how to exhale effectively, you may be surprised at the outcome. Sports psychologists call this “performance exhaling”. Teach your child to experience the relaxation response that accompanies an intentional exhale. This technique can be useful in situations both on and off the field and can be practiced nearly every day. Once your child is able to associate the intentional exhale with relaxation, he or she can apply it during a game as a part of settling into the batter’s box or while approaching the free throw line.

This next technique involves visualization. Have you even been lining up a putt while thinking “don’t hit it left, you hit it left last time, don’t hit it left”? Chances are good that you ended up hitting it left. Think about it- the only information your brain was getting was left, left, left. Teach your child to 180o those thoughts and visualize what they DO want to do, instead of what they don’t want to do. When the night before the big game comes, encourage them to focus on and actively visualize not just hitting line drives, but the specifics of what goes into hitting that line drive: where the ball hits the bat, head down, elbow in, and “squishing” the bug with their back toe. Encouraging your child to visualize the positives, or what they would like to happen, also offers them that mental training that no amount of time in the cages can accomplish.

The third technique for reducing your child’s pre-game anxiety is mindfulness. I realize this concept sounds a bit “new age-y” or possibly too advanced for a younger child. I assure you- helping your child develop mindfulness in age-appropriate ways is an excellent strategy for regulating any emotion, including pre-game jitters. For most of the older kids, the act of being mindful involves not just intentional breathing and visualization, but being actively aware of these experiences. Encourage your child to pick a moment before a sporting event. This can be breakfast the morning of a big game, loading up on the bus before heading to the stadium, or crossing the white line while running out onto the field. This is the moment that all the tension, all the anxieties, all the fears get put on the back burner and focus is turned onto the task at hand. The act of narrowing down the field of focus can result in your child reaching a peak-performance state, or what pros call “the zone”.

Helping to ease your child’s sports related anxiety can be achieved in a lot of ways. Sometimes, a child may only need a reassuring smile to feel better before the big game, and the best way to get to know the needs of your child is by creating and maintaining open communication. Whether you’re raising a 6 year old athlete or a 16 year old athlete, helping to reduce the pre-game jitters using these techniques will instill in them personal coping skills that will last a lifetime.

Preventing the Post Holiday Blues

“The stress and craziness of the holiday season is finally coming to an end. So why do I feel so down and depressed?”

Many people have some variation of the above thought at some point during the first part of the new year. If you have asked yourself this question, then you have already achieved the first step in preventing the “post holiday blues”. We must recognize and acknowledge our emotions before we can begin taking action steps to move through this hard time and feel better.

What are the symptoms of the blues? Changes in sleep patterns, such as the desire to sleep more or insomnia, can be a sign of mild depression. Mood swings, having the urge to cry for no apparent reason, and feeling sad or down are also common signs. The National Institute of Mental Health states that people can have headaches, increased alcohol consumption, and overeat as a result feeling depressed after the holiday season. Feelings of fatigue or increased anxiety are also common indicators of depression.

Children can suffer from post Christmas doldrums as well, though their symptoms may present themselves a bit differently. Kids may have decreased motivation, decreased focus on schoolwork, seem as though they are in a brain fog, or become more reclusive. Returning to school can be difficult because they are facing another 3 months without a break from homework and tests. Many children feel sad because they are not engaging in the fun activities they enjoyed over the Christmas break such as seeing family, or hanging out and relaxing with friends.

There are several ways to assist your children through this back-to-school time. It is helpful to create opportunities to see family after the holiday season, and allow meaningful hang out time with close friends when possible. Plan activities that your entire family can look forward to such as ice-skating, game night, or a trip to the movie theater. Even printing off holiday photos and creating an album can raise your little one’s spirits.

Here are several steps that can help to return you and yours to a better state of mind:

1.    Get rest!  The hustle and bustle of the holidays can lead to less sleep. Lack of sleep has been linked to irritability and depression, as well as weight gain and other health concerns. Give yourself a week of 8 hour nights of sleep and get back on a sleep schedule by going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. Incorporate down time to relax and regain energy.

2.    Feel it.  Allow yourself to acknowledge and experience your emotions and tell yourself that it is okay to feel down. Name the emotion, identify what your thoughts are regarding the emotion, and express your feelings in a productive way. This may be crying, talking to someone, journaling, or listening to music. Remember to give yourself permission to move out of the emotion.

3.    Get sunlight and exercise.  You may not have noticed how much you have been inside over the winter break, or the way the days have become shorter. Our bodies need sunlight in order to produce vitamin D3, which is needed to synthesize the brain chemicals that create feelings of well-being. If getting outside is difficult during these shortened days, then you may want to consider purchasing a sunlamp. Sunlamps are typically used for ten minutes a day and results are usually seen in four to five days.

Regular exercise (3 to 4 times per week for at least 30 minutes) has been linked to increased production of neurotransmitters, which in turn leads to increased mood and energy.

4.    Focus on others.  When we help someone in need or give of our time and energy to better other human beings we can’t help but experience feelings of joy. Sometimes we simply need to take our focus off of ourselves and by taking an active step in this process we stop dwelling on our negative state of mind. Volunteering for an organization you are passionate about, taking a sick friend dinner, or running an errand for a family that is going through a hard life circumstance are just a few ideas of how to focus on other people.

5.    Plan events and get excited about the future.  We often look forward to spending more time with family during the holidays, but why not plan an activity once a month to look forward to as well? You could organize a supper club with those closest to you, plan a girls or guys night out for the same time each month, or have a family movie night every couple of weeks. Planning fun activities with those we love not only gives us something to look forward to, but it helps us not fall into a pattern of isolation and reclusiveness.

6.    Focus on spirituality.  Research shows that when we are all consumed with ourselves and our day- to-day lives and have no spiritual grounding, this can lead to depression. Give yourself permission to explore big questions such as: What is my purpose? Why am I here? Why is there suffering? Is there a higher power? Of course, you may never find the absolute final answer, but allowing ourselves to ask these questions and explore what we believe can lead to joy and understanding.

If you are struggling with any of these questions, then seek wise counsel to help you navigate through this exploration. Pastors, friends, and Licensed Professional Counselors are all good people to include, if needed, in your spiritual journey.

I hope that the above steps will help to relieve any post holiday funk that you or your family members may be feeling. If you implement the steps above and still cannot seem to get any relief from feelings of depression, then you may need professional help. Licensed counselors and psychologists are trained to help people navigate hard times, and achieve relief from depression.

TAAS and TAKS and STAAR……OH MY!

For many young students in Texas these three familiar acronyms represent something much scarier than lions and tigers and bears.

STANDARDIZED TESTING, as we know it today, often leaves students and teachers feeling caught in the tornado nightmare Dorothy experienced in the Wizard of Oz.  Everyone wants to go home.

The cheerful buzz of spring and the excitement of summer peeking around the corner have become overshadowed by the emphasis placed on standardized testing.  The STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness), which replaces the former TAKS test, has promised an increased level of rigor and greater depth of cognitive complexity.

Students and teachers all over Texas are feeling the heat to perform.  An increased number of children, as young as third grade, are presenting signs of test anxiety.  How does one differentiate between normal levels of nervous energy and increased levels of anxiety that can significantly impact performance?   If you notice any of the following symptoms in your child, he or she may be struggling with test anxiety.

  • Physiological: changes in eating patterns, upset stomach, nausea, headaches , increased heart rate, or muscle tension
  • Emotional: changes in mood, such as sadness, anger, frustration, or nervousness; fatigue, cries often, feels helpless, fears failure
  • Cognitive: irrational, negative self-statements (“I don’t get it. I know I will fail.”), reduced self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, negative thoughts about performance

What can parents do to help?

  • Encourage children to replace negative self-talk with positive statements.  For example, if your child says, “Math is my worst subject.  I am not going to pass this test.”  They could replace this thought with, “I have studied hard and will do the best I can on this test.”
  • Practice relaxation.  Encourage children to take long, deep breaths before and during the test.
  • Develop a plan for taking breaks during the test.
  • Provide opportunities for physical exercise at home before test day and encourage stretching during the test.
  • Guide children in developing good study skills and creating a quiet environment to work in at home.
  • Speak with teachers and school counselors to offer support in the classroom and on test day.
  • And of course, don’t forget the basics; make sure children are well rested and properly nourished on test day.

If your child is struggling with anxiety this testing season, please don’t hesitate to contact one of the counselors at HBHC.  We are happy to assist in developing strategies to decrease test anxiety so that your child can step into any testing situation in a calm and confident manner.