Sports Anxiety: When Sport Becomes Unhealthy

Sports Anxiety: When Sport Becomes Unhealthy

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At the recent Olympic Games in Beijing, the outstanding performances of the athletes were once again widely celebrated in the media.

Performing and striving for excellence are good values, but are athletes always able to handle all of this? What impact do these images have on our society and our view of playing sports?

How can we help our teens deal with this emphasis on performance and not give in to anxiety?

Here are some answers from Joëlle Carpentier, a professor at UQÀM and a sports psychology expert.

Slaying the beast

Stress isn’t bad in and of itself, because it allows people to react when threatened. Sports should also be a good thing. But stress and sports together can have a negative impact on young people. At what point should a parent step in and make a difference?

When the mammoth gets too big, says Joëlle Carpentier.

The sports psychology specialist likes using a caveman analogy to explain the difference between healthy stress and sports anxiety:

Mammoth hunters were in a state of alert when fighting animals, she explains. This stress was temporary, and, once the beast was killed, it decreased. But for a young person with sports anxiety, the brain remains in a state of alert as if the threat were always present. Except that their mammoth is their constant fear of not performing well in their sport.

We’re not talking here about the simple desire to win a game or the normal disappointment of losing one. No—sports anxiety is much more than that! It leads to a flood of emotions and negative thoughts that quickly and frequently start running through the young person’s head.

If I drop the ball, the other team will win…

And everyone will make fun of me at school tomorrow…

And if I play poorly, the team won’t ask me to play for them next year…

And that could definitely make me lose the sports scholarship that I wanted to attend university in a few years…

And so on.

In short, as you can see, the hamster in their head is spinning away!

Temporary stress in a sports event is good—even desirable. But when it becomes constant and overwhelming, you’re dealing with sports anxiety.

-Joëlle Carpentier

Is someone to blame?

Can those close to the young person play a role in this challenge? Of course! The best example (or rather, the worst) was young Russian skater Kamila Valieva in the recent Olympic Games in Beijing. As you may remember, this 15-year-old athlete failed a doping test. All eyes focused on those closest to her. Many suspected that these people were not only aware of the situation, but probably responsible for it as well. Then her coach was sharply criticized due to her cold attitude when the teen, in tears and crumbling under the stress, fell on the ice several times during her last performance.

Of course, this sad story is an extreme example. In a healthier reality, most coaches are actually caring mentors. But whether it’s at the Olympic level or simply on a soccer field on a Sunday morning, collaboration between parents and the sports coach is essential. Both parties could watch for changes in behaviour and, more importantly, determine whether or not the young person is still enjoying playing their sport.

 

A coach is an expert in their sport, just as a parent is an expert in their child. It’s best to always work together, says Joëlle Carpentier.

 

An example closer to home is parents yelling at their child from the stands of a hockey arena—a reaction that should obviously be avoided. Our expert suggests that, even if you are a supportive, mature parent, you could open a dialogue with your child with questions such as “Do you think my attitude is okay at your games?” or “How do you feel when I attend?”.

However, Carpentier emphasizes one important point; the people closest to the child sometimes have nothing to do with the situation and the anxiety may come from the child themselves.

Yes, the people close to the young person may be the cause, but the latter may very well inflate their own mammoth, says Joëlle Carpentier.

During COVID, parents weren’t allowed to attend games. It may not be nice to say this, but I had more fun playing then.

-Cassandra, basketball player, age 13

How can I help my young athlete?

First, through prevention, by showing the child that making mistakes isn’t the end of the world.

When you make a mistake, even when doing little things such as household chores, don’t hesitate to admit to it to your child and show them the solution you found to resolve the problem.

And why not also admire with your child athletes that stood out for their personal qualities rather than their performance? For example, you can talk about a skier who missed a jump but who immediately hit the slopes again for another attempt. Or the runner who was the last to cross the finish line in the marathon, but who firmly refused to drop out of the race.

 

A few tips

  • Emphasize your child’s personal qualities rather than their performance.
  • Play games with them where there are no winners.
  • Make sure that your displays of love aren’t conditional on results.
  • Value their perseverance, but never their “extra efforts”.

 

 

Even if performance anxiety has already set in, there are still options. In the event of an anxiety attack, you can simply try to slow the hamster wheel that has started spinning too fast in their head. Look for simple solutions, such as helping them to better control their breathing. You can also help your teen visualize anxiety as a wave that’s approaching, but that they can see receding. Remain open to what they feel and their own solutions; maybe listening to their favourite music is what will help them most.

 

The next step would be to replace the mistaken beliefs about their sports anxiety—you know, that little voice that tells the young person that they’re no good and that their mistakes are serious. In fact, that’s exactly the goal of cognitive behavioural therapy, in case it is needed, stated the expert.

The good news is that anxiety is not a mental illness, but rather a changeable condition that can improve. After all, if elephants are afraid of mice, a calmed down hamster can certainly defeat a mammoth.

When I’m anxious before a volleyball game, I like to calm down by watching a movie.

-Ludovick, age 16

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