Performance Anxiety in Children's Sports

Performance anxiety in children - boy on bench in gym
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Yes: Performance anxiety in children is very real. Kids often start to feel pre-game pressure as they move into more competitive levels of youth sports, or begin to compete solo. (They also might feel anxious about other things, like speaking in front of a group.)

Your child may be able to express their fears and say that they feel worried about an upcoming game or competition. Or they may have trouble connecting their anxious feelings to their sports performance. Either way, parents can step in to offer reassurance and help.

Identifying Performance Anxiety

Many kids won't come out and say what they're nervous about. They may not even realize they are anxious.

Signs of sport anxiety can include physical symptoms, unusual behaviors, or changes in thinking. Children may become irritable or have trouble sleeping. Your child might also talk about wanting to quit a beloved sport or activity. They may pretend to be sick or injured to avoid participating or even develop a physical symptom that stems from anxiety.

So how can parents figure out what's going on? Sometimes it helps to approach the subject obliquely. You might tell your child about your own experience feeling nervous before a game or event—either recently, say if you ran a race or played a softball game, or when you were the same age your child is now. Or invoke the example of an athletic hero: "Do you think Steph Curry ever gets scared before a big game?" Prompts like these can help kids understand and name their feelings.

Try to help your child name the specifics of their worries. Are they worried about forgetting what to do? Letting down their team? Making a mistake? Getting hurt? Once you know, you can help reassure your child, and/or their coach to do the same. You can also problem-solve with them, suggesting some of the techniques below.

Parents also need to be cognizant of the fact that they can sometimes contribute to performance anxiety and stress, even without knowing it. For instance, some kids are more afraid of disappointing their parents than anything else. And for some, this fear can increase their anxiety levels. Be sure not to pressure your child to perform when they're playing sports.

You can reduce performance pressures by being aware of the language you use before, after, and during a game.

For instance, be sure to praise effort and not results. Also, make sure you keep post-game discussions positive and avoid giving kids advice on how to improve. Unless they ask for your input, you should refrain from having too many discussions about what they did in the game or could have done differently.

How Kids and Teens Can Cope

Every child will respond differently, but these strategies for managing anxiety may be helpful. Talk through them together, then encourage your child to try a few to see what works best for them.

  • Memorize a mantra: Sometimes anxiety stems from negative self-talk: "I can't do this," "I'll never remember my routine," "everyone will hate me if I mess up." A mantra is a positive phrase that an athlete can use to replace those negative ones. Help your child come up with a phrase that means something to them, like "I am strong" or "I got this." Then they can repeat it to themself often: in practice, at games, or anytime they hear that "can't-do" voice in their head.
  • Visualize: This can be an extension of the mantra technique. While repeating the mantra, your child can also visualize performing well.
  • Practice, with and without moving: While practicing skills is critically important to success, sometimes mental rehearsal can make a big difference too. Coach your child to walk through their performance, picturing each step in order. They may even want to write everything down and review it. This technique allows your child to practice in the absence of game-like conditions. For example, a gymnast can envision each step of a floor routine even when they're away from the gym.
  • Set a goal: Talk to your child about what they hope to achieve at their next performance or game. Help them come up with an aim that is a stretch, but not unreachable. Instead of taking first place, maybe they want to beat a certain time or nail a particular skill. Focusing on that may take some of the pressure off of the overall event.
  • Breathe deep: Deep or diaphragmatic breathing can reduce anxiety and help them feel more relaxed. They can practice at home, on the way to games or meets, in the locker room, or on the sidelines.
  • Fake it 'til you make it: Smiling really does help, so tell your athlete to plaster one on—even if they don't feel like it!

What Parents Can Do

Aside from coaching your child through the techniques above, you can also help by setting the stage for a lower-stress experience.

Offer Reassurance

Not every child will believe or accept your words of reassurance, but some will. You can remind your child of how well they've done at past events, how much practice time they've put in, how much faith you and their coach have in them, and most importantly, that you love them very much no matter what happens. You can also remind them that some things are just out of everyone's control: the weather, for example, or a judge's whims. But never discount or brush off your child's worries.

Do Your Part

Calm worries by making sure your child gets enough sleep and eats healthy foods. Most kids should be responsible for their own sports equipment, uniforms, water bottles, and so on. But you can make sure everything is packed early and allow enough travel time to get to events. Rushing to a game or tournament in a panic is a rough way to start out.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ford JL, Ildefonso K, Jones ML, Arvinen-barrow M. Sport-related anxiety: current insights. Open Access J Sports Med. 2017;8:205-212. doi:10.2147%2FOAJSM.S125845

  2. Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017;8:874.doi:10.3389%2Ffpsyg.2017.00874

By Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is an experienced freelance writer and editor who specializes in pregnancy, parenting, health and fitness.