Sport is a lot about performing at competitions, so how do we prepare young athletes for that?
Let´s start with talking about two common challenges and one misconception that makes athletes worry too much about competition. Not only the day of the race but all of the time. Knowing why they may lose sleep over this makes it easier to see possible solutions.
The first reason is pretty obvious - The Pressure.
There are different kinds of pressure. One is the pressure that athletes feel from others. People in direct contact, like parents, coaches, teammates, and on a broader spectrum, maybe also the school or even spectators.
And then there is the pressure they put on themself.
The feeling of pressure is an emotion, and emotions are important to be taken seriously! But here is the thing: Emotions are created by thoughts. These are the good news and the point where we can start to reduce the pressure and, with it, the worry.
Ask your athletes about the thoughts they have when it comes to pressure. In this way, we will get straight to the roots. Whether we find those thoughts silly, they are real and authentic to the athletes, even when we think differently. I.e., if you are a parent and your athlete is telling you that they feel the pressure from you, that´s real for the athlete, even when it´s not real to you. But now, knowing about your athletes' impressions, you can talk about it. Why does the athlete feel that way, and what thoughts create this feeling? Just saying you, as a parent, don´t expect something outstanding from your kid is insufficient, even when this is the case.
Of course, there is also the chance the thoughts of your athlete are right. You want your kid to succeed, you want your kid to be the best athlete it can be, and maybe you even want to create some pressure to push them to their own luck. There is nothing wrong with that, but now you have the chance to talk it out. There probably is still no reason for the athlete to worry about anything. It's just constructive to hear that all you expect is that they are trying their best. In this way, the athlete has a measurement of what you expect. Having a tenable task and not wondering about your expectations is helpful. Even when you said it before or never said anything of what your athlete is thinking. There might still be some unpleasant pressure.
The goal is not to eliminate all the pressure. A healthy amount of pressure is just part of the whole sports concept, and handling it is a skill. I was writing more about that in other blog posts, like Preparing for a Big Event or Competing in Front of a Big Crowd
If your athlete tells you, as a parent, that the pressure comes from someone else, i.e., the coach (or you as a coach hear about the pressure an athlete is feeling from their parents), you can now talk about this. It could be possible to reframe some thoughts, and sometimes it also helps the athlete to share their emotions and talk over them to ease the pressure they load on themself. Thoughts can change, and so can emotions, so worries have the chance to disappear or at least lowering as a first step.
What else can make athletes worry about competition? - Feeling Unprepared.
How to solve this issue?
- Make sure the athlete has the chance to join every practice session.
- The athlete understands the process explained by the coach or other resources (I was talking about this in What is Training Actually Doing )
- Staying healthy as an athlete so they do not miss training sessions
- Let them compete to experience and learn how to prepare for competitions
In the feeling of being unprepared, we do the same as we did with pressure and ask the athlete specifically if they feel ready for the competition. Very important: Ask this question not out of the blue, but ask it if you have the feeling they worry about what´s coming up. Also, the way you are asking will play a role. If you ask in a way as this would be a concern, it will become one, even when it was not on the athletes' radar at all. Asking it with light and fun - an exciting “Are you ready?” - might give you a good answer. If not verbally, then the body language will tell you a lot.
A third and very different approach - The Athlete Sacrifices Training for Competition.
That´s a different type of worrying too much about competition. Training is for long-term improvement. Some competitions may be part of the training and part of the pathway to the long-term goal. Not all competitions need not be prepared in the same way. Some are for training purposes only, and others are to “show off.” If athletes want to prepare for every little training competition to be able to show what they have to offer, they may miss a lot of training. They avoid pushing hard enough in some training sessions leading to a training competition to make sure they feel fresh. The result will be that they are not as well trained, not as resilient, and not as competitive when the competition that counts the most is coming up. They will not be able to perform on a high level for a full season, and they will be disappointed when the race comes up, which everyone is fresh and prepared for. That´s why you sometimes see athletes who perform very well when it doesn´t really count and can not keep up with their own expectations when it comes to the season highlights. It will also become a problem to perform at their best later in the competition season. Of course, there are other factors that play a role, but sacrificing training for competition is an easy one to avoid.
I leave it for now, but I will get back to the topic and talk about the consequences when athletes worry too much about competition. You might already guess one, which is, not performing at their full potential.
Do you have a Dream? Keep going towards it :)
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