Children experience many emotions during competitive sports. These feelings can include excitement, fear, nervousness, disappointment, confusion and a whole host of other experiences that come with winning and losing. Sport performance expert Dr. Jim Loehr has identified four key mental states that athletes often find themselves in: tanking, anger, choking and the ideal performance state.
Preparing your child in advance to spot and deal with these emotions will help make youth sports more enjoyable and elevate your child’s performance.
Tanking occurs when your child not only quits, but also tries to lose. This happens when your child has already decided he’s lost and just wants to get off the field or court as soon as possible. Examples include batters who purposely swing at bad balls or tennis players who hit balls into the net or don’t run for shots any more.
Tanking occurs for a number of reasons, such as when a player is physically spent, is outmatched by a superior opponent, can’t turn around a bad performance, is playing a cheating opponent or is angry with a teammate, coach or parent.
Tanking is also an emotional defense. Take the example of two siblings or close friends playing and one is losing badly. In the mind of the child who tanks, his brother or best friend didn’t really perform better – “You didn’t really beat me, I wasn’t even trying.” Tanking can help a child salvage some self-esteem during a bad loss.
If you’ve seen your child throwing a bat or racquet, kicking a chair or screaming to himself, “You stink!,” you’ve seen your child in the anger stage. When your child is angry, he’s still trying to win, but is out of control. This occurs when he wants to make a change, but can’t pinpoint the cause of his poor performance. An angry child will look for excuses, such as his equipment, someone nearby talking while he’s playing a point, or the weather.
Choking is fear. If you’ve ever been nervous in a performance situation, you might have felt your mouth go dry, your knees get wobbly or your heart rate increase. You want to win, you’re trying to win, but you’re facing set point, a free throw that could win (or lose) the game for your team, or pitching a final out in a ball game with the based loaded.
Instead of letting go and allowing your brain to send the correct message to your muscles as it has done a thousand times, you start thinking too much about technique and override your brain’s stored motor memory. Think of the golfer who is playing well. He focuses on where he wants his next shot to land so he is in a good position for the next swing. Think about the golfer who is playing badly. He thinks about his grip, shoulder turn and follow through – which is not how he thought when he was playing well.
Ideal performance state
When champions are playing their best, they are aggressive, confident and enjoy the challenge. Dr. Loehr refers to this as ‘loving the battle.’ This is the rush a confident quarterback feels when he’s leading his trailing team in a two-minute drill to win the game. It’s the excitement a tennis player feels when he’s just lost the second set after winning the first and is heading into the deciding set. It’s the emotion a confident goalie feels when trying to stop a penalty shot.
Prepare to your child for these mindsets
Review these four mental states with your child during practices so that he will recognize them during a game. Ask your child if he can give you examples of when he has ever tanked, been angry, choked or enjoyed a stressful situation. Ask him what caused these four situations and what he can do in the future to get out of a negative mindset and into Teach your child positive body language, such as keeping his head up, eyes straight ahead and hands on hips. Teach him to use positive self-talk, such as “Let’s go!,” or “Make this kick!” instead of “Don’t miss it!”
During a match, meet or game, ask your child, “What state are you in right now?” Practice how to spot and deal with anger, tanking and choking and how to stay in the ideal performance state by not overthinking things.