Helping Young Athletes Keep Their Cool
No matter your age there are times in life you want to throw a tantrum. Things don’t go as you hoped, and you’d really like to kick and scream or break some stuff. But once you’re out of the terrible twos, that’s not the answer. Young athletes in competitive soccer are under pressure to perform. Learning to keep their cool is part of the game.
Competing = stress. It’s that simple. No matter who you are or what you’re playing. Young soccer players are supposed to be having fun and learning the game. But there’s a lot more going on. The player may feel pressure:
- From parents or coaches to win
- To not disappoint teammates and friends
- To compete in a position or at a level they aren’t confident about
Players who are over scheduled are particularly prone to stress and outbursts from frustration and fatigue. The young athlete who is practicing four nights a week after school and also fitting in personal training, schoolwork and an attempt at a social life is ripe for burnout.
But even those players who aren’t overcommitted or feeling under the gun can experience anxiety and anger in the midst of a game. Maybe a call doesn’t go “their way” or they feel they should have been passed the ball more often. Or they are taking responsibility for something that goes wrong in the game, seeing it as a personal failure rather than part of the bigger picture of team play.
That’s when these several strategies to help a young player keep things in perspective can help.
Even in the midst of a game or quickly when you’re on the sidelines, you can try to regulate your stress with deep breaths. Breath in through your nose and hold it for about five seconds. Then, release it slowly through your mouth. Repeat this five times and see if you don’t feel calmer.
#2 Flex & Relax Muscles
You might also try to flex a muscle group for five seconds, then release. Making a fist. Or tightening your shoulder blades. Or even contracting your toes tightly five times like this takes your focus away from what’s bothering you and puts it on how your body feels. Sometimes all you need to slow down a stress or anger reaction is to get out of your head and focus instead on your body.
#3 Think Positive
Managing self-talk is a big part of the battle when we’re feeling stressed. It can be a slippery slope. Say a striker misses one shot wide of the goal. Then, he starts thinking “I’m so stupid. I will never score again.” Then, “the team’s going to lose.” And “I’ll never play again.” Then, “everyone hates me.” That kind of thinking is going to get a player out of step and super-stressed before the ball’s even back in play from that shot the striker missed in the first place.
Taking responsibility for a mistake matters. But continuing to play hard, be enthusiastic, and staying focused and calm are a much more positive way to approach a challenge or hardship in a game or practice.
#4 Visualize Success
This one may not work in the midst of a high stakes game. You don’t really want to be caught flat footed because you were imagining the ball in the back of the net. However, taking the time before the game to do some imagery training can help to boost confidence. This, in turn, can reduce your stress levels.
#5 Eat Healthy
Eating a healthy diet has a positive impact on your quality of play on the field. The right fruits and vegetables can help you sustain energy levels and support body recovery. Giving your body the right fuel can also help your brain function better in regulating your emotions. When your body feels good, you’re more likely to feel mentally healthy.
#6 Get Enough Sleep
Eight-plus hours of sleep are essential for young athletes. Especially before a big game. Sleep helps our bodies restore order and rejuvenate, grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones. The athlete is also better able to retain information and perform memory tasks. And overall, they’re more likely to adapt to a setback with equanimity.
#7 Accept Mistakes
We’ve talked before about what can be learned from losing and making mistakes. The player who learns to accept that mistakes are going to happen will be better able to bounce back when something goes wrong. Accepting our own mistakes, and those teammates might make, is important. Even being willing to see that a referee could make a mistake and being able to forgive and move on can help an athlete to be more resilient in the course of play.
#8 Talk About It
Holding on to frustration or anger, and stewing in it, is just setting the player up for an explosion when the next negative thing happens. Talk to a teammate, a coach, or a friend or family member about your anxiety. If you’re mad about something in particular, try to communicate clearly how the other person’s action or decision made you feel. Avoid saying “you did this and it sucked.” Instead, try for “when you did this it made me feel…”
Athletes at every level, in all sports, have to deal with disappointments. What separates the best from the rest is how they handle those challenges. Support a youth athlete’s resilience and ability to deal with stress on and off the pitch with these helpful tips.