Understanding the Impact of Stress on Young Athletes


By Melissa Lambert, M.ED, LPC, YNS, YFS2

It wouldn’t be a typical work day if there wasn’t a knock on my office window from a child demanding that I play a game of basketball with her. She is a talented young lady who does a wonderful job rubbing my face in the fact that she once again crushed me in a game of “21.” However, when she plays with the rest of the kids in her group I hear swearing, threats, and—at times—aggression. What changes for a child who could present so calm playing with an adult and then display intense anger in a full court game with peers?

There are many reasons for the change in behavior that may include trying to fight her way on top in the social hierarchy, wanting to show off in front of her peers, having difficult experiences with other kids her own age, trouble controlling emotions in competitive situations or the pure fact that she hates to lose. These aren’t abnormal behaviors. However, with further assessment, I discovered a lot more underlying factors.

This holds true for all the children and teenagers I work with. Can you imagine focusing in an athletic event when you are worried about the safety of your family or if there will be food to eat for dinner? The reality is your young athletes are also having these thoughts. They just may not be facing the same extreme circumstances. If awareness and attention aren’t given to the level of stress an athlete is experiencing, the less likely the child will find enjoyment and reach peak performance.

To understand the source of stress on young athletes you need to look for insights in how they perceive the world.

The term “home court advantage” has merit when athletes are performing in an environment that is well known with fan support. These factors are non-existent when a team steps foot on another turf. It’s harder to adjust to unknown experiences and maintain composure. This may be one source of anxiety that exists as result of competing in sports, but there are other factors to consider when the young athlete steps foot on the playing field.

According to Weinberg and Gould (2011), stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the physical and psychological demands placed on an individual and their response capability. Failure to meet those demands under specific conditions has important implications for that individual. What is perceived as stressful to one child will look much different to another child. For example, children that present as shy may become anxious when asked to speak or perform in front of others while other children feel comfortable with that level of attention.

Temperament and experiences of each young athlete will determine how they perceive the world. If there is an imbalance between the demand and their confidence in accomplishing the task, the individual will experience a stress response. The athlete will become aroused, display increased worry, have increased muscle tension, and likely have difficulty concentrating. As a result, the athlete may perform poorly rather than achieve the desired outcome. This process can become a vicious cycle if the athlete continues to feel threatened and is not able to meet the demand successfully.

We know stress and anxiety exist among everyone, however with the increased demands put on our youth and decreased time for free play there is a greater risk for sports to become another demand rather than enjoyable. It’s important for coaches, parents and trainers to understand the potential sources of stress and the warning signs. Children who have experienced major life events such as parent divorce, financial problems, death in the family, or trauma tend to be more obvious in presentation. However, other causes of stress include lack of sleep or food, peer and family conflict, being bullied, school work, involvement in too many activities, and pressure to perform in the given sport.

In order for an athlete to perform at his or her optimal level and get the most enjoyment out of sports there are warning signs that adults need to be cognizant of. Coaches and parents serve as educators in teaching skills like responsibility, discipline, or a new skill in a sport. The same applies to handling stressful situations and emotional regulation. Coaches who work with youth should know each child on an individual level and have an idea of their baseline performance. Any change in behavior or performance should be noted immediately. Signs to watch for if an athlete is experiences increased stress or anxiety include frequent urination, muscle tension, sweating, irritability, somatic complaints (headache and stomachache), negative self-talk, trouble concentrating, and difficulty sleeping.

Stress on young athletes can have a dramatic affect on their performance and outlook.

Relieving The Stress on Young Athletes

If an athlete is experiencing stress or struggling to perform, it is the role of a coach to get the athlete back to focusing on the child’s goal. Time should be taken to explore how the youth is feeling and offer suggestions on to how to cope in difficult situation. For example, baseball players often experience slumps in hitting. This is a prime opportunity to work with the athlete on establishing the use of imagery and rehearsing what it feels like physically and emotionally to get a hit. More often than not, the experience is never as bad as how we perceive it to be. Helping athletes understand how their negative thoughts are impacting their performance can be an effective way in practicing mind control.

Athletes can also rehearse positive statements and determine which thoughts are irrational. We tend to view thoughts as facts. A baseball player stating “I can’t hit” or “I suck” is a perfect situation for a coach to challenge those statements. If a player has successfully gotten on base as a result of a hit, the repetitive negative statements are not true for that athlete. Athletes who believe in their ability to cope with a stressful experience and are confident in their skill ability will not view it as debilitative to their performance.

Another productive approach to helping athletes build confidence and manage stress is through creating positive experiences in practice. This doesn’t mean making practice easy where success is given, but rather fostering a supportive environment where skill work is encouraged and mistakes should be made. The more exposure athletes have in encountering stressful situations the more confident they will be in handling it in a game situation. Mistakes in practice are prime opportunities for teaching and learning rather than the use of screaming, criticism and embarrassment. Simulation training is a great tool to use during practice to expose athletes to the stressor. If a child doesn’t handle a soccer ball well under pressure there is opportunity to work on composure while another athlete or coach adds various levels of pressure. Over time, the constant exposure will also help the athlete’s ability to cope in a stressful situation. Rather than panicking and feeling helpless, the athlete will develop increased confidence as long as the athlete has been successful.

Anxiety and stress will always exist among athletes; however, it is crucial for coaches and parents to be observant of the warning signs. An athlete may not be performing to the best of their ability and we need to start asking ourselves why. Anxiety may be a combination of internal and external factors that exist outside of the playing field. Coaches can help athletes get the most enjoyment and reach peak performance by identifying arousal emotions early, tailoring practices towards each individual athlete (expectations should be different), and supporting confidence building through the use of simulation training and finding appropriate strategies to cope with stress.

Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of Sport and Exercise
Psychology (5th, ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Melissa Lambert, M.ED, LPC, YNS, YFS2
Clinical Manager, Child and Adolescent Therapist
and Director of CT Coast Soccer Performance Training Clinic

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