Gut Check

Experts Say These Are The Red Flags You’re Putting Too Much Pressure On Your Kid In Sports

They aren’t playing in the pros. Maybe ease up?

A young soccer player sits on a field, defeated.
Johnny Greig/Getty Images

Watching Challengers made me feel a lot of things, including wondering how the pressure of being a child athlete doesn't permanently affect someone for the rest of their life. It's tough enough being a kid, but imagine being a kid who's really good at sports. What might that pressure actually feel like?

According to Dr. Cara Damiano Goodwin, a psychologist and founder of the Parenting Translator, child athletes often feel overwhelming pressure from others — particularly their parents — to achieve a certain level in athletics. In fact, says Goodwin, they may feel this pressure “whether expectations are expressed by others or not.”

Additionally, Goodwin tells Scary Mommy that children who are athletes may also experience a fear of failure or a preoccupation with the worst-case scenario, as well as unrealistic expectations due to their lack of experience. "Their anxiety about performance may even backfire, causing them to actually perform worse since they are expecting to do so," Goodwin adds. "They may also be unable to focus on the game or experience physical symptoms of anxiety that makes it hard to play the sport."

This is where performance anxiety comes in.

Suddenly, your kid who once loved sports complains of stomach aches because they don't want to play anymore. Or, when it comes to the big game, they freeze up and can't perform as well as they once did.

"Performance anxiety presents as unusually strong worry or fear around activities that involve accomplishment," Mary Ann Little, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of Childhood Narcissism: Strategies to Raise Unselfish, Unentitled, and Empathetic, tells us. "It can be experienced in any number of areas that range from public speaking to athletic performance, academics to sexuality, test-taking to interviewing."

Little says the causes of performance anxiety are varied, but the process is the same. "The threat of failure or lowered performance is so upsetting that emotional calm is disrupted," she explains. That fear interferes with regulated steady function, and the ensuing anxiety can compromise performance. Ironically, the fear of low performance can lead to symptoms that can compromise high performance."

If you suspect your athletic kid has performance anxiety, here's what you need to do to identify the symptoms, and how you can offer reassurance and support.

What are some of the symptoms of performance anxiety in child athletes?

Children often experience physical signs of anxiety, such as a stomachache, headache, trembling, or a racing heart, explains Goodwin. They may appear nervous or simply be more irritable than usual. "This may result in them appearing more energetic and active, or withdrawing and being quieter than usual," she says. "They may also show changes in their sleep or appetite (sleeping or eating too much or too little) and/or changes in digestion or constipation."

Little adds these physical symptoms can also be accompanied by ruminations centered around the fear of failure and/or negative outcomes associated with failure, including thinking, "I'll never get a scholarship if I don't do well," or "If I play sports poorly, the whole school/my coach/parents won't like me."

"Behavior patterns can vary widely, particularly in children," Little says. "Some children may become obsessed with practicing, studying, or repetition, while other children can become task avoidant, delay homework or competitions, or display a 'don't care' attitude."

How can you tell if your child has performance anxiety?

If you suspect your child has performance anxiety, Little says you need to observe your child's behavior and attitudes carefully. She recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Does my child seem overly worried or anxious about performance issues?
  • Does my child demonstrate excessive concern about performance, such as staying up all night to study, being unable to sleep from worrying over an exam or competitive event, or refusing to see friends to prepare or study?
  • Paradoxically, does my child avoid performance activities or act like they don't care about performance?

If you're concerned about your child's behavior, Goodwin suggests normalizing feeling anxious before asking your child about it. For example, parents could say, "I often felt nervous before big games as a child. Do you feel this way or notice anything in your body that feels 'off'?"

How can parents help their children cope with this?

Of course, every child will respond differently, but Goodwin suggests the following strategies:

  • Validate and normalize the feeling of performance anxiety, i.e., "I understand why you might feel nervous about this game. It can be scary when so many people are watching you."
  • Model how you cope with it yourself. For example, talk about a work presentation or a public speaking event you were nervous about and how you coped with it.
  • Notice and praise their effort and process rather than the outcome. For example, "It was so great how you hustled to get the ball down the field."
  • Avoid becoming overly involved in your children's sports, as this might convey to them that they are more important than they need to be.

What can kids do to cope with their performance anxiety?

Being proactive about your child's performance anxiety could help reduce symptoms. According to Little, these general strategies might include:

  • Prepare in advance. "Practicing, training, and rehearsing skills builds confidence over time and is certainly required to perform well," she says.
  • Engage in daily exercise as an anti-stress activity.
  • Develop pre-performance strategies to build confidence. For example, Little says athletes may cross-train to help their skill base.
  • Visualize the task with successful outcomes. "Encourage your children to practice imagining a solid performance," she says.
  • Use self-calming, such as meditation or mindfulness, to keep calm.
  • Learn breathing exercises and practice other pre-performance rituals.
  • Talk with a therapist. If the above doesn't work, Little suggests therapy. "Treatment strategies include cognitive behavioral therapy, more general therapy that builds specific tools to manage anxiety and performance, or strategies that help people feel more powerful and in control," Little says.

What should parents know about raising child athletes?

Goodwin says it's crucial that parents focus on sportsmanship rather than performance, teaching children to be gracious winners and avoid being sore losers.

"Parents need to know that children can often sense our emotions, even if we do not communicate to them that it is important to us that they perform a particular way; they can tell if we are stressed or disappointed," she explains. "Parents should seek to understand and learn to regulate their own emotions related to their children's performance so they do not inadvertently pressure their children. Some pressures that parents might place on their children include being better than their friends, making their parents proud, or using athletics to gain admission or financial aid for college."

Little adds that parents need to remember that competition is anxiety-ridden from the start. "Anyone who plays a sport or participates in a skilled activity is aware of the risks of performance outcomes," she says. "Parents must realize that their job is not to put more pressure on their child but rather remove pressure from them. This is done primarily through unconditional love that remains constant over time." She says you can do this by reassuring your child with things like:

  • "I love you no matter what the outcome is."
  • "I will help you in any way I can as you try to reach your goal."
  • "Your value never changes in my eyes, and my affection for you never diminishes."

It's not a bad thing that you might want your kid to be the next Serena Williams or Tiger Woods. Just make sure your child understands that no matter who wins the big game, they're always your No. 1.