Aaacckk!! Helping Teen Athletes with Pre-competition Anxiety – Part 1

As I was working on this post I realized that the topic was much too broad for just one post so I have broken into two. In Part 1 I mainly focus on things that teens can do (with your support) to help themselves with pre-competition anxiety. In Part 2 I will discuss more about what you as a parent or coach can do to help. Of course, I’m sure I will revisit pre-competition anxiety, and related topics, in the future.
Helping Teen Athletes with Pre-Competition Anxiety 

Many of us have experienced the rush of standing on the sideline just before a competition. The noise of the crowd, last minute instructions from your coach and the excitement from the team! It can be completely invigorating … or totally overwhelming.

Everyone feels some level of nervousness or anxiety before a game or performance. Anxiety is a totally normal feeling and in many cases is helpful for competition.

We have all experienced some physical symptoms of anxiety like:

  • Increased heart rate and breathing
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Upset stomach or digestion issues
  • Headache or feeling light headed
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating

When an athlete is experiencing significant anxiety these symptoms are usually magnified by worries about losing, performing poorly or letting down parents or coaches. If your teen athlete/performer experiences nervousness or anxiety that gets in their way then here are some things that can help.

Ongoing Preparation

There is so much more to sport than the competition! Many things need to happen before the game, be sure these are part of the preparation.

  • Practice – The first step is being prepared. Putting in the time to practice and train can really help build confidence. Nothing is better than feeling like you are ready to compete.
  • Goal Setting – Set goals that are not related to the outcome of the competition (which you cannot control). Focus on improving your skills (things you can control) and use those to track your success. It isn’t always about winning. Your team may have outcome goals like going to the state playoffs, but you should also have personal goals.
  • Relaxation Techniques – If you can learn ways to relax your body you will be better prepared to deal with anxiety when it strikes. Practice these techniques every day to see the benefits. I have included links to some sites I like.
    Deep breathing
    Progressive muscle relaxation (Great before going to sleep)

Before the Competition

For many athletes following the same routine before each competition helps them stay focused and calm.

  • Try doing the same warm-up every time, preferably something the same as or similar to what you do in practice. This helps you prepare mentally and physically for what you are about to do.
  • Sometimes having a word or phrase to focus on ‘breathe’ ‘stay low’ ‘quick feet’ can help keep your mind from being distracted before a game. Keep it short and related to your personal goals.
  • Visualization. Some athletes find that mentally walking through the competition in advance and picturing themselves doing things ”right” helps them feel more prepared.

During Competition

After all the hard work to get to competition, here are some things to do so your teen can get the most out of the experience.

  • Stay in the moment. If your mind wanders bring it back to the task at hand and what you can control. Remember, you cannot control what anyone else is doing!

Developing mindfulness can help your teen stay on task during a competition. Some of the above exercises – deep breathing and meditation – will help foster mindfulness. This is a much bigger topic than we have time for in this post so here are a couple articles where you can learn more.
Nine Essential Qualities of Mindfulness
Mindfulness and Misconceptions: A Mindful Parenting Guest Post

  • If you make a mistake or something doesn’t go right just keep moving forward. Worrying about what has already happened is not going to help you with what is coming.

After the Competition

After the excitement of the game or performance is over, take some time to reflect.

  • Learn from your mistakes and then move on. Don’t dwell on what went wrong. We all have a tendency to pick apart every last detail of a performance, especially if things did not go as planned.
  • Celebrate what went right! Recognize even small improvements.

Remember, there is no “quick fix” for pre-competition anxiety. These ideas and techniques need to be practiced over time – just like your sport – to be effective and not everything will work the same for everybody. Keep on trying until you find something that works for YOU!

I’d love to hear about how you have dealt with pre-competition anxiety!


4 responses to “Aaacckk!! Helping Teen Athletes with Pre-competition Anxiety – Part 1

  1. Great post – such important information here! My younger son is a very good long distance runner, but his performance has been impaired by anxiety. He has been seeing a sports psychologist, and she recommends many of the same things! I’ll be sharing this.


    • Thanks Lana! There are so many young athletes who are fighting anxiety. I am glad to hear your son is working through it. I would be interested to hear if he has found anything in particular that has helped. I appreciate your comments!


  2. Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up and also
    the rest of the site is also very good.


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