8 Ways to Help Calm Anxious Young Athletes

Tried-and-true tips from a sports psychologist

Sam Maniar, PhD

| 4 min read

It’s not uncommon for some of the best athletes in the world to get so nervous and anxious before a game or performance that they can barely function. In fact, as a sports psychologist, the most common reason athletes work with me is because of their difficulty performing under pressure. But before enlisting the help of a professional to help your child calm their nerves, you can try these “anxiety hacks.”

1. Breathing.

Help your child slow down their breathing. This helps for two reasons. First, slowing one’s breathing slows the heart rate. When our heart is beating slower, we typically don’t label our emotions as anxiety or nervousness. Second, breathing can center an individual or bring them to the present. When people are overly nervous, they are usually focused on the past (which can’t be changed) or the future (which hasn’t happened yet).

2. Reframing.

This is just a fancy psychology term for looking at something in a completely different way. For example, ask your child how they feel physiologically when excited. They may say their heart beats faster, their breathing speeds up, they perspire or they get butterflies in their stomach. Now, ask them how they feel when they are nervous. You will find that the answer will be very similar. In fact, researchers have found that excitement and anxiety are the EXACT SAME emotions. The only difference is that we label one as positive and one as negative. So, help your child reframe their anxiety as excitement.

3. Have a plan.

Sometimes anxiety can be fear of the unknown. Have your child make a list of the things that they are worried about, and then help them come up with a solution or strategy for each concern.

4. Practice under pressure.

You can’t expect an athlete of any age or ability to perform well under pressure if they do not practice under pressure. Shooting free throws or penalty kicks in a completely calm state with nothing on the line doesn’t prepare us for the real thing. This is why so many golfers are great on the driving range and then terrible on the course.

5. Have a consistent pre-game routine.

Routines provide consistency and can serve as triggers to remind our brains to let go. They can range from using the same warm-up routine or stretches to listening to the same music.

6. Focus on what can be controlled.

Pressure is often the result of trying to control something that we cannot control. We can’t fully control game outcomes, so trying to do so is not only futile but will also lead to more pressure. Help your athlete focus on things that are in their control, such as tactics (quick passes or getting to the end line), effort, or attitude. Focusing on mechanics is usually a bad idea since it typically worsens performance.

7. Have a growth mindset.

Help your athlete learn from mistakes or losses. This is the only way to get better! By seeing mistakes as learning opportunities, you can remove a lot of the anxiety surrounding losing.

8. Lean on a professional.

If, after trying all of these strategies, your child is still struggling, you might want to consider visiting with a psychologist or sports psychologist.

A version of this story first appeared on ilovetowatchyouplay.com, a site for parents who want to raise happy, healthy and successful athletes.

Sam Maniar, Ph.D., is a sports psychologist and founder of the Center for Peak Performance, LLC, where he works with athletes, teams, and businesses. He holds a doctorate degree in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in sports psychology. His favorite two “athletes” are his 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. 

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