How to Help Your Young Athlete Manage the Pressure to Win

My daughter broke the high school record for pole vault in the first meet of her freshman year. She had gone into that meet full of fear. I had found her crying in her bedroom the night before, feeling the pressure to win at her sport.

“What if I suck?” she whispered, a pained look on her face. “Everyone’s going to be watching me. I don’t want to let the coach down.”

She had taken up the sport in junior high and gotten the attention of the high school coach. Everyone was looking forward to seeing what she would do in high school.  I found myself surprised that evening watching my daughter. What I thought would be an evening of joyful anticipation as she prepared for her meet had turned into an anxiety-ridden nightmare. How could I save my little girl?

The pressure to win is real for young athletes.

With no time and few resources available at that late hour, I googled articles on athletes and mindset. I found one where successful athletes talked about tools they used to overcome pre-performance stress, things like positive visualization, meditation and shutting down negative self-talk. Knowing she would bristle at my personal attempt to soothe her, I sent it to her phone.

While she didn’t tell me it helped her, I heard the crying stop. A little while later, she came out to talk about the food she would like to bring to the meet with her. She appeared subdued.

It turned out to be a glorious day for her. She lived up to the hopes of her coach and realized she really was good at this. She went on to break her own record several more times that year. Her confidence soared, and so did she.

On the meet circuit, she started to get to know the other pole vaulters in our area. Some were intimidated and unfriendly, others open and helpful. One in particular, took her under her wing. Rose was a senior who had already committed to a Division I college. She was the best in the region.

“Enjoy this, Dani,” she said. “Freshman and sophomore years are the best. Get all the joy you can out of it, because by the time you are a junior, the stress sets in.” She went on to explain how the sport she loved had become a job. “When you’re really good, everyone realizes you’re on track for a scholarship. As awesome as that sounds, your job becomes to get one.”

It was all still fun and games sophomore year as the United States Naval Academy, West Point and the Coast Guard Academy came to call. NCAA rules allow only the service academies to contact athletes before junior year. Between the constant letters and emails from these prestigious schools, and the crowds that would gather at track meets to watch her fly, Dani was riding high.

But at States that year, she had a bad day. Moving into junior year, she had a few more of them.

By the winter of her junior year, when indoor track season was taking off, the bad days started to take a toll and I could see her struggling with the pressure to win. Whereas they used to be few and far between, flukes that ran off her back, now they were doubly devastating. Qualifying for States wasn’t good enough anymore. Girls at her level were expected to make it to Nationals. She had memorized the qualifying standards for Division I and Division II colleges, and she knew she wasn’t quite there. If she could only hit 12 feet, she said, then everything would be okay.

When she had a bad meet, I could hear her crying in the shower afterwards. “I suck at pole vaulting,” she would say in frustration. The following practice, she couldn’t get off the ground, even with a college coach there, scouting for talent.

January 1st came and I made a resolution. It was personal for me and had nothing to do with any of my three children. I decided to recommit myself to meditation, daily devotion to gratitude and appreciation of all of the gifts in my life. I would try to find the joy in the everyday routines of a chaotic, working mother.

As I set out to have a better 2018, so much of what I read, watched and listened to spoke to my eldest daughter’s plight. It became clear that she was choking because she had let the outcome of each meet overcome the joy she felt in doing the sport. She was overanalyzing out of fear of failure. She was pinching off the natural high that had helped her to soar. She was squashing her own spirit.

Her disappointment in herself made her difficult to live with. She took her frustration out on her sisters, my husband and me. When not practicing or at school, she isolated herself in her room. When she did come out, her mood was toxic. Some nasty outbursts led to her being grounded. I was really worried about where this downward spiral would finally end.

One night, while I chastised her once again for her treatment of the rest of us, she began to cry. She wanted to go to her boyfriend’s house despite being grounded.

“I just want to feel better!” she cried, exasperated. “I need a break, I need to forget what a disappointment I am.”

Knowing that she truly needed relief from those feelings, I offered a deal.

“I will let you go for a few hours…If you will agree to read, watch or listen to things I send you for the next two weeks.”

My goal was to get this reticent child to open up to the ideas I thought might help her. Most teenagers balk at their parents’ ideas for self-help, as did she.

“I will select something every day and send it to your phone, and then I want you to tell me what you thought of it.” She agreed, and she smiled for the first time in a week as she walked out the door.

I scoured the internet for the best, most relevant and most catchy presentations on how mindset affects performance. I pulled from Dr. Wayne Dyer, Abraham Hicks, Kobe Bryant and my favorite meditation app, “Calm”.

There were themes like “Trust your training –  you know how to do this,” that focused on not overanalyzing, but rather finding joy in the event. Some very well-spoken and persuasive people recommended using the energy that comes from anxiety to elevate ones’ self rather than cut ones’ self down.

Some of the advice echoed Dani’s amazing pole vaulting coach. He had nearly fifty years’ experience under his belt and had coached countless champions. His advice leading up to competition was to not think about pole vaulting. “Think about what makes you happy, just have fun. Distract yourself. You know what you’re doing, so listen to some great music, laugh with your teammates and forget about results.”

So, there I sat last weekend, in the stands at the New Balance Games, with teams and athletes from all over the eastern half of the country. I had driven Dani nearly three hours, all while trying to keep the mood light and fun. We talked about fun memories and she played her favorite playlist. After dropping her at the door, I spent another 45 minutes parking and walking back to the venue. Winter coat weighing me down, I paid my admission fee and searched for a seat.

I wedged myself in between coaches, parents and athletes, and waited for my child to begin competing. Eventually, A friendly looking woman sitting nearby struck up a conversation. She was about my age, and had the same nervous look on her face as I did. Noticing where I had positioned myself in the stadium, she asked, “Are you here for the pole vault?” I replied that I was and inquired if she was too.

“No, my daughter does high jump,” and the conversation flowed. We talked about the college recruiting process and the campus visits we planned. She couldn’t have been more modest, practical and realistic about her daughter’s aspirations.

Strangely enough, it came time for them both to compete simultaneously.

“Do you get nervous?” she asked, and I almost felt her reaching out to grasp by hand. As I started to reply, she said, “Of course you don’t.”

It was then I pointed out my trembling hands, the ones that held the phone my daughter had asked to me use to videotape her jumps. “In case I make twelve feet, for the colleges,” she’d said.  I let this mother know, I too was a nervous wreck.

I’ve heard about crazy sports parents, the ones who pressure their children, berate them for not doing well and scream at them when they falter, but I have seen very few. The ones I’ve met are like me and my new friend, concerned solely with their child’s physical, and emotional, well-being.

We sat there as my child jumped, and then her’s, hearts pounding, breathing shallow and palms sweaty. We saw them soar over their opening heights, as expected. Then we discussed what it would take for each of them to “not be devastated”. For her daughter, it was a high jump of 5 feet, for mine, a pole vault of 11’ 6”.

When those “baselines”, as we came to call them, were met, we high-fived and celebrated that at least our long car rides home would not be completely miserable.

She confided that her daughter just wanted to beat the school record of 5’ 4”, and I told her of my daughter’s notion that 12” was the key that would unlock scholarship offers from D I schools she really wanted to hear from.

“She looks miserable,” the woman said, “I guess today is not the day.” We talked about how we’d noticed that when they felt better, they did better. Every time her daughter looked up in the stands, this mother smiled, mock-cheered, and even got up and wiggled her hips in a silly dance. While her daughter rolled her eyes and turned away, she couldn’t hide the smile that crept onto her lips.

Despite having hit it in practice that week at least 8 times, 12’ continued to elude Dani. At least she had hit her current standard, I thought. Maybe she’d go easy on herself.

One of her teammates broke the meet record and became number two in the country that week, but I also watched helplessly as some of her teammates fell apart. One senior who got 12’ last spring and a full ride to a great school, fell two feet short of her best. Another didn’t make it over her opening height for the third time this season. The heartbreak on their faces and those of their parents was hard to watch.

I had to say goodbye to my friend when I saw my daughter leaving the arena, even though her daughter was still competing. I promised to check the results and wished her well.

Later that night, after a long and arduous drive, I did check in and saw that sweet “Liv”, whom I had never actually met, made 5’ 2”. Like my daughter, she had done extremely well, but not good enough for her own standards. I said a silent prayer for her mother, hoping the ride home had been tolerable.

I was thankful that mine had been. Never knowing quite what to say when Dani doesn’t do as well as she hoped, I had chosen my words carefully.

“Did you have fun?”

Yes.

“I really loved watching you compete.”

Thanks. (Smile.)

I breathed a sigh of relief and marveled at her spirit. A smile spread across my face in the dark car. I was full of appreciation that my daughter was, at least for the moment, accepting her own performance and respecting herself.

Photo credit: SD Dirk

Related:

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Adriane Heine lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, three daughters and lab mix. She is an adoption social worker for children in foster care. Her writing has garnered four Keystone Press Awards from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. She is passionate about helping children, doing as much yoga as possible, and sharing cool experiences with her girls.

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