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Posted 11/14/2020 in Category 1

Children in sport: Are they having a rough time?

Children in sport: Are they having a rough time?

Getting involved in playing sport is a rite of passage for many children. And why not? There seem to be many benefits. Playing sports has a range of physical, emotional and interpersonal benefits. For example, to do with maintaining a healthy body weight given the increase in childhood obesity rates in recent years. Participation in sport also helps with physical co-ordination, with learning to work together and support others. Playing sport can also help children build their self-confidence, understand the difference between playing fairly and cheating, having fun and forming friendships.

As children get older, fun can get replaced by fear. Fear of losing. Fear of being regarded as a failure. Fear of not meeting other people’s expectations of them. Fear of losing face in front of friends and family. Losing self-confidence and even the dreaded fear of having to explain to parents that they don’t want to play sport anymore. One of the biggest sources of fear that comes from participating in sport is the way children cope with different kinds of pressure. Competing always leads to some pressure. A little pressure is good as it helps children face the challenge ahead. Too much pressure can take all the fun out of competing and make children feel stressed out and hard to perform at their best. It can also lead to disordered eating, not being able to make a good decision, identity issues and interpersonal physical violence and verbal abuse. 

When adults confuse encouragement with unrealistic expectations, they are turning up the pressure dial in the child’s mind. Too much pressure from parents or coaches to win, can make children feel nervous and anxious. It doesn’t help performance. It hinders it. Sadly, for some children, it increases the pressure to cheat. This external pressure can be hard for any child to control. There is internal pressure too. This is the kind of pressure children put themselves under. This can also get in the way of playing well & having fun. For example, children with perfectionist tendencies often suffer a lot of anxiety and worry due to their fear of failure. Often this fear is about disappointing adults and not being seen as the star athlete by their peers. Children need to be helped to keep things in perspective. This is about avoiding ‘self-sabotaging’ themselves. This serves no positive purpose.

So how can children experience pressure as something positive Here are 4 major strategies that work across all sports, for children and adults to think about and practice.

1.    First do it, then do it right, then do it better

One of the best ways to get better at something is to have the courage to have a go at it and then reflect on what you did, learn from this and put this learning to good future use. Children need to be helped to avoid over-worrying about getting things right first time. They need to be helped to ‘be-friend’ the moment, enjoy the here-and-now and be helped to see pressure as an opportunity to shine.

2.    Believe in yourself

Everyone has self-doubt at times, but if you know yourself and know what works for you, this can be easier to combat. Building a child’s self-belief is a fundamental part of a positive approach to helping them compete well. Children need to be supported to identify their positive side, how to avoid surrounding themselves with negative people, to learn to seek positive feedback, enjoy praise and keep things in perspective. We all get down from time to time and maybe especially after losing.  Children need to be helped to appreciate that we all get a little broken, but even broken crayons can still colour!

3. Use your strengths

Children need to be helped, by coaches and parents, to know what their strengths are. When a coach wants children to ‘play’ football, they may be thinking about passing the ball and using space well. They might also mean stopping the opponents from ‘playing’ football. This might be about tackling well and pressing the ball. All these are strengths, technical and tactical ones. But children also need to be supported to develop and use their character strengths such as being determined, fair and respectful. Playing to one’s strengths helps to keep pressure positive. 

4.    Learn how to let things go

Pressure increases when children bottle things up, like the negative feelings of being beaten or letting others down. Holding on to negative feelings & thoughts does not serve children well.  If children always think about problems like what went wrong, or why they didn’t perform well enough, then these problems just grow bigger in their mind. Children grow in the direction in which they, their parents and coaches ask questions. Asking positive questions about what we wish a child to experience more of (happiness, fun, pride etc) not less of (anxiety, sadness, frustration etc) is a way of using pressure for growth, better performance and for the child’s benefit.

Guest Blog by:

Professor (dr.) Tony Ghaye - Director: The global U MATTER human rights & wellbeing project




Gayatri Bhushan 

MSc. Sport and Exercise Psychology 

Project Administrator - U MATTER: The global U MATTER human rights & wellbeing project



We hope you have found this article and if you would like to discuss these issues with a sport psychologist online or a sport psychologist near you then please search our directory of sport performance consultants.  

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