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When Your Child's Star Dims

Sports are supposed to be good for children, combining play and fun with exercise. But child athletes may not be having fun anymore. Some are being trained to excel at a particular sport, often to compete at Olympic level. Others are pushed to excel at sports to gain a scholarship, fame and fortune as a professional athlete. To constantly be ready to compete at a high level can raise stress levels in these young athletes, and the stress parents, coaches and peers put on them may be too much. Stress is an inevitable consequence of everyday life.

As children are subjected to increasing amounts of stress, they experience more and more of its effects on their bodies, making them aware of the great rate of wear and tear they subject themselves to. Originally coined by Hans Selye in 1936, the term stress was defined by him as "the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change." This means that we are all subjected to stress, but its effects on our bodies differ greatly from person to person, largely dependent on the gravity of and how we handle the stressful situation. It manifests itself in any number of physical or psychological symptoms that are often ignored by the child, parent or coach until it seriously affects their health. Children are especially vulnerable to stress because they lack the words to express their feelings adequately.

But how much is too much? There are a few symptoms that parents, teachers and coaches should look out for, such as: l Inability to go to sleep the night before a game, or having incessant nightmares about games that were lost. l The child begins to dislike or avoid the sport he/she previously was enthusiastic about, but only when there is an actual game he/she has to participate in. l The child cries after making a mistake during the game, however minor it was. He/she may also attribute the loss to an imagined mistake. l The child excels during practice, but chokes during actual matches. l The child is easily tired, distracted and irritable during matches. l His/her schoolwork is beginning to suffer because of fatigue or awkward schedules. Those who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity while facing additional physical, physiologic, and psychological demands from intense training and competition. Adverse consequences from intense training and competition have been reported, raising concerns about the sensibility and safety of high-level athletics for any young person. Children can be vulnerable to physical conditions like cardiac problems, growth retardation, muscle, and/or skeletal injuries.

They can also suffer from performance anxiety and other psychological issues, some due to the pressure of competition and others because of the retardation of their psychosocial development. To help prevent performance anxiety in children, they must be encouraged to participate in sports at a level consistent with their abilities and interests. Pushing children beyond these limits is discouraged because it can be traumatizing for them. Being physically and verbally abusive with them will only make them hate their parents and coaches. Teach children some relaxation techniques that they can use before, during and after a game such as deep breathing. Doing this in the comfort of your home will help them associate it with relaxation. Parents, teachers, coaches and doctors must remain in agreement as to how much training the child can handle. It would also be beneficial if the child is encouraged to pursue other activities apart from sports. Your young player will start to build and experience confidence as they relax under pressure. They will be more focused for each play in the game, improve their skill level and most importantly, they will enjoy the game more.

Performance anxiety is not just for adults, and we must make sure that these child athletes remain happy, healthy children.


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