Young athletes are constantly under pressure, whether it’s to win a big game, make their parents proud or impress a coach. That pressure, and the anxiety it can bring, can make a kid too nervous to perform at their best. It’s important to teach kids how to understand and manage their emotions before big moments, so they can attack challenges with confidence and let their skills shine through.
Several strategies can help calm your young athlete’s nerves before a big game. Try one or try them all to see which one’s right for your kid.
Create a Ritual1 of 12
A big factor that contributes to pre-game nerves is uncertainty. So, one of the best things a kid can do before an important game is limit the number of choices they have to make. Creating a game-day routine or ritual does just that. It can include packing a game bag the night before, eating the same pre-game snack or listening to the same songs during warm-up—or all of the above.
Try a Distraction2 of 12
While it's important to focus when preparing for a big game, if nerves start to hit, the last thing a player should do is dwell on everything that could happen. Instead, try a distraction through thoughts and activities. For example, a kid could talk to their friends (not about the game), or read an interesting book. Getting their mind off the challenge ahead will go a long way toward calming nerves.
Motivational Videos & Quotes3 of 12
A quick search on YouTube nets thousands of amazing motivational videos that will get young players excited—instead of nervous—for a big game. A couple of our favorites are Eric Thomas's 'How Bad Do You Want It' speech, and this inspirational clip from the movie Rocky Balboa. It can also help to write down quotes from role models and keep them handy on game-day to inspire strength and confidence.
Listen to Music4 of 12
Listen to Music5 of 12
Take Deep Breaths6 of 12
Taking deep breaths is an age-old, time-tested way to calm nerves. In fact, a study published in Science showed that quick breathing triggers neurons in the brain that signal an emergency, while slow, long breaths help you maintain a state of calm. Before big moments, encourage kids to take deep inhales and long exhales while focusing on clearing their minds.
Practice Visualization7 of 12
Another powerful tactic to banish pesky nerves is visualization. While it's true that, in some cases, it can cause nervousness to think about the game, visualizing the scenario with a positive outcome can help to calm nerves and boost confidence. By visualizing what they need to do to succeed, young athletes can trigger positive emotions before the game even begins.
Banish Negative Self-Talk8 of 12
The brain can be a very powerful tool if you have control over your thoughts and emotions. But, if you haven't yet mastered that control, negative thoughts and self-talk can completely kill confidence. If a young player is experiencing negative thoughts, encourage them to simply cut off those thoughts and instead tell themselves, "I can do it!" Repeat the phrase again and again until they truly believe it.
Focus on Yourself9 of 12
Another common stressor for young athletes is worrying about the competition as a whole—and all the variables they cannot control. Instead of worrying about the other team, the weather or anything else, encourage them to focus on themselves and the role they'll play in the game. When they know they're personally doing everything they can for the team, they can head into the competition with confidence.
One Play at a Time10 of 12
It's very easy for players to get caught up in the last play, the last game or even the last season. Don't let a bad pitch impact the next pitch. Don't let a goal scored by the other team throw off the next play. Suggest they create a physical cue that signals they're putting a bad play behind them—for example, if they miss a fly ball in the outfield, pick up some grass and then toss it away. Focus on giving 110 percent in the moment, no matter what just happened.
Have Fun!11 of 12
If all else fails, at the end of the day it can be very helpful to return to the reason why they're playing the sport in the first place—for the fun of it! While tryouts and games can be very important, it's crucial not to let the moment become bigger than it actually is. When nerves hit, remind young athletes of times that made them happy and times when they did well. Encouraging words can go a long way toward lifting the world of burden off their shoulders.