Wednesday, 29 May 2024

Youth Sports: How to Manage Anxiety When Returning to Play

As young athletes prepare to return to practice after months of COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s natural for them to feel anxious. The new safety protocols and emotional shift can be overwhelming. To help parents navigate their child’s return to play, we turned to TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. Here are some strategies to support young athletes and address their anxiety.

Let Them Acknowledge Their Feelings

It’s crucial to validate your athlete’s feelings. They have spent months not being able to play with friends or attend practice due to safety concerns. Now they are being told to return. The sudden change in messaging can be confusing. Chapman advises parents to normalize these feelings and have open discussions with their athletes.

Identify the Source of Anxiety

Understanding the root causes of anxiety is essential in helping your athlete overcome it. Chapman highlights a few common triggers:

Feeling “Out of Sync”

Your athlete may worry about falling behind their teammates, even if they received cross-training recommendations or participated in virtual practices. Remind them that everyone is in a similar situation. Encourage them to think about ways they can catch up, such as practicing drills at home or spending time in the backyard working on their skills.

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Reconnecting with Friends

For young athletes, friendships can be complex, especially during pre-teen and teen years. Your athlete may have been out of touch with teammates, leading to nerves about seeing them again. If there’s time before practice restarts, suggest setting up video hangouts or group chats to reconnect and ease the transition.

Concerns about the Virus

Your athlete has been bombarded with information about the dangers of COVID-19. This may have led to excessive anxiety about germs and getting sick. Discuss healthy practices they can adopt, such as using masks and carrying hand sanitizer. Encourage them to reach out to their coach to understand any new practice etiquette regarding social distancing and mask use.

Parental Anxiety

Children are highly sensitive to their parents’ emotions. If you’re anxious about your child’s safety during practice, they are likely to feel the same way. While you can’t change your own feelings, try to find a positive aspect of practice restarting, such as enjoying some quiet reading time or engaging in your own workout.

Work Together to Find Solutions

Once you’ve identified the source of your athlete’s anxiety, you can collaborate on finding solutions. Chapman offers the following suggestions:

Catching Up

Remind your athlete that everyone on the team is likely feeling the same way. Encourage them to think of steps they can take to catch up, such as practicing drills at home or spending extra time working on skills in the backyard.

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Reconnecting with Teammates

Recommend setting up video hangouts or group chats with a few teammates before practice restarts. This will help your athlete reconnect and ease back into a larger social setting.

Ensuring Safety

Discuss health practices, such as mask use and hand hygiene, to help your athlete feel safer. If the coach hasn’t communicated any new guidelines, encourage your athlete to reach out and get a list. Having tangible steps to increase safety can alleviate anxiety.

Overcoming Catastrophic Thinking

If your athlete is overwhelmed by catastrophic thoughts, guide them through a series of questions: Is the thought certain? What evidence supports it? Is it driven by intense emotions or facts? These questions will help them challenge their anxiety and develop a more flexible perspective.

Encourage Attendance, Regardless of Readiness

If your athlete feels anxious about being back with teammates, it’s important to validate their feelings. However, avoiding practice will only reinforce avoidance behavior. Consider going to practice together and let them decide whether to participate or stay in the car. Often, once they see their friends and remember the joy of being at practice, they will join in.

FAQs

Q: How can I help my athlete cope with anxiety when returning to sports?

Addressing your athlete’s anxiety begins with acknowledging their feelings and having open discussions. Identify the specific causes of their anxiety, such as feeling behind or reconnecting with teammates. Work together to find practical solutions, such as practicing at home or setting up social interactions before practice resumes. Encourage safety measures and challenge catastrophic thinking.

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Q: Should I force my athlete to attend practice if they are anxious?

While it’s important to validate your athlete’s feelings, avoiding practice can lead to increased avoidance behavior. Consider attending practice together and allowing them to decide whether to participate. Being present at practice may remind them of their love for the sport and encourage them to join in.

Summary

Returning to sports after a prolonged break can trigger anxiety in young athletes. Understanding their feelings, identifying the causes, and finding practical solutions are essential to helping them cope. By validating their emotions, reassuring them that others are in a similar situation, and encouraging safety measures, parents can support their young athletes’ mental well-being. Remember to maintain open communication and prioritize their individual needs throughout this process. Let’s make the return to play a positive experience for young athletes.