Tips for Making Sports Happier and Healthier for Your Anxious Child

happy sportsThe phrase, “Mom and Dad, I’m not having fun,” goes a long way toward letting you know your anxious child may not be reaping enjoyment from sports. And if your child is not having fun, sports can be a nightmare. Our post on How Sports Can Help (or Hurt!) Your Anxious Child points out how severe that nightmare can become, but there are ways to help switch that nightmare into a more dreamy experience.

Children may be afraid or stressed-out about telling you they are not enjoying the activity for a number of reasons:

  • Maybe you just invested half the monthly mortgage in uniforms, equipment or Little League fees.
  • Perhaps your child knows how much it means to you that he or she excel at this particular sport.
  • Maybe he or she recalls your own stories of sports stardom and is trying to live up to your standards.
  • Or maybe you made it known that all your hopes are pinned on your child to be the star athlete you could never be.

Whatever the reasons, you can often tell by your children’s actions if he or she is enjoying a particular sport even if they don’t say a word about how miserable they are.

Red Flags Your Anxious Child is Not Enjoying the Game

KidsHealth outlines several questions to ask that can help you determine your child’s level of enjoyment – or not. The factors hold truest when they are consistent across the board, and not just a single reaction to a particularly high-stakes game of the season.

How does your child act when game time is drawing near?

Fun: Ready for action, full of nervous excitement, focused and revved up.

Not fun: Jumpy, packed with nervous energy, possible suffering from stomach aches, headaches or other stress-induced physical symptoms.

How does your child handle any errors or mistakes he or she makes?

Fun: An “Awww, man! I’ll do better next time” attitude.

Not fun: Fear to go home, fear of the coach, an attitude of “My life is no longer worth living!”

What’s your child’s “good sport” level?

Fun: Generally OK with either winning or losing, focused on the good plays and good points of a game instead of the bad, kind and cordial to own teammates and children on other team.

Not fun: Throwing mud at other players when they score a goal, tripping or otherwise committing fouls. Screaming, crying or throwing tantrums if the team loses the game.

You can always tell Jimmy it’s OK to hang up his bat or let Sally know she can sell her soccer shoes. But you can also check out some tips that can help transform sports from a ball of misery into one of enjoyment.

Four Tips for Happier Athletes

Keep your zeal in check.

Being zealous about your child’s participation is a good thing. Being overzealous about it is not. You can tone down your zeal level by correcting some of the common moves an overzealous parent may make.

A major sign is trying to “coach through the coach” as the Parenthood blog puts it. This means you constantly corner the coach and talk his or her ear off about skill levels and the way the children are training. Sticking your child with extra practice sessions or training that’s way beyond, well, sane, is another warning sign you may have morphed into an overzealous parent.

One more sign is your child asking, or even begging you, that you stay away from the practices or games.

Watch what you say.

This tip comes from KidsHealth and sports psychologists Lisa Cohn and Dr. Patrick Cohn.

“Words have incredible power, so use them carefully, especially when you disagree with coaches and umpires,” KidsHealth says. “Praise specific good efforts by your child and other players, even after a loss, and offer criticism constructively and not in the heat of the moment.”

The Cohns explain that children can additionally translate well-meaning words of what you think are encouragement into impossible expectations. Let’s say you tell soccer player Sally that she should “score a goal every time you get possession of the ball!”

Sally can take this to mean she’s a failure unless she scores whenever the ball even comes in her direction. Even if she makes a stellar pass, ends up helping to defend against three goals from the other team and makes the longest kick an 11-year-old has ever made on this earth, she’ll think not scoring a goal is letting down parents, coaches or whomever may have uttered those words.

Lower your expectations. 

The higher you or your child’s own expectations are of his or her performance, the more stressful the sport can be. The Cohn team says that strict expectations often backfire, resulting in poorer performance. As you may already know, the stress of trying to be “perfect” can be quite a detriment for any activity, only leading to frustration and grief.

You may also already know there is no such thing as “perfect.”

Putting super-high expectations on your child also shifts the focus more on the outcome than anything else. And not focusing solely on the results happens to be the final tip in our lineup.

Don’t make the results the bottom line.

The Cohns say to emphasize the process over the results, or offering up manageable goals your anxious child can achieve. Instead of telling Sally to score a goal every time she has the ball, for instance, perhaps you can give her tips on dribbling or shooting or passing or other aspects of ball possession that  can help her improve her performance.

“Great dribbling, Sally!”

Keeping the sports in perspective is also important, the Parenthood website notes. What matters most is your child’s involvement and enjoyment of the activity, not that he or she be a star or take the team to the championship. It shouldn’t even matter if the team barely squeaks into last place, as long as your anxious child is having fun.


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