Most high school athletes playing sports are on the last stop of their athletic careers. Numbers do not lie. A small fraction of these athletes makes it to the collegiate level and even fewer play in the professional ranks. In theory, it should be a joyous time filled with exciting competition and everlasting memories, but it is riddled with immense pressure for some. The game’s speed gets faster, the competition gets tougher, and the crowds get larger. These factors contribute to many athletes struggling with severe anxiety and underperformance because they do not know how to handle the pressure at this level. What they used to do simply for fun has suddenly become an intense environment that they may not be equipped to handle. As a parent, you’re left wondering, how do I help support my teenager through this?
Start With Perspective
When you are between the ages of 14-18 years old, everything seems like a big deal, and it is for those of that age. High schoolers tend to define their self-worth by their social status, academics, and athletics. They have not yet been allowed to explore college or a career after high school to see what the world has in store for them. Naturally, this makes them feel as though what they currently are is all they ever will be. A fumble in last night’s football game or a missed shot to win the state championship game carries huge implications for a high schooler; therefore, it is natural to feel the pressure.
It is important to first recognize and validate these feelings as a parent. Attempting to brush the pressure off as illegitimate may leave your teen feeling as though you don’t care or don’t understand what they feel. Start by connecting with your teen and reassure them that you understand how they feel; this instantly builds a better, more trusting relationship. From here, you can begin to help by offering valuable perspectives. Perhaps you played sports yourself at the high school level or beyond and know exactly what they are feeling. In this case, you can offer them coping strategies that you used to use to handle pressure better. If you have never played sports, you still have a lot to offer. Explain to your teen that while it may seem like a lot to handle right now, these moments are finite and will not last forever. One day they will look back fondly on their athletic career and cherish all the opportunities they were awarded. A friendly reminder like this can make a world of difference in getting the teen to seize the moment and live in the now, good or bad.
Strategies for Coping
Some of the best things a parent can do to alleviate pressure for their teen are as follows:
- Ask them what they’re most worried about. Is it the fear of failure? Disappointing their teammates or their coaches? Or perhaps they fear being embarrassed in front of others. Getting them to acknowledge their feelings can sometimes be enough to create better awareness and develop methods to handle the stress.
- Help them establish a plan to address feelings of pressure or anxiety. Let them know that these feelings are normal and come with competition but harnessing them is key. Suggesting methods such as meditation, creating a pre-game ritual, taking a nap, listening to music, etc., are all things that can help center your teen.
- Communicate with the coaching staff. You do not have to speak directly with your teen’s coaches. In fact, I think you should abstain from it. Instead, encourage your teen to talk about the pressure they are feeling with their coaches directly, as this can help them build a better working relationship and even give the coach insight on how to help.
- Focus on nutrition, sleep, hydration, and all other external factors. Sometimes the pressure one feels from athletics is rooted in something else. If your teen is running on 4 hours of sleep, has a huge math test, and forgot to eat lunch during the game day they are only adding fuel to the fire. Creating a less chaotic environment will ensure that more energy and focus can be placed on the competition itself.
- In some cases, seek professional help. Recruiting a sports psychologist or mental coach to meet with your teen regularly can help tremendously get to the right state of mind. There is a reason why most professional sports organizations now have a full-time sports psychologist on staff. One must be both physically and mentally sharp for peak performance.
Navigating the pressures of high school athletics can be difficult for parents and teens alike. Teens are bombarded with stress from school, social life, parents, and athletics, so it is natural to feel overwhelmed at times. As a parent, it is important to communicate with your teen on effectively handling the pressure and equip them with tools to do so. Most importantly, remember that the purpose of training and competing in athletics is to have fun at its core. Keeping fun as the number priority in high school athletics will keep unnecessary pressure from taking precedence.