How to Prevent Your Child From Choking Under Pressure
There are times when competition gets the best of even the most seasoned athlete. If a pro, who is at the top of his game developmentally feels the heat, how much more intense is it for our children? In the following interview, Executive Editor, TK Stohlman and Clinical Child Psychologist and Certified Sports Psychologist, Dr. Darrell Burnett, discuss how to prevent your child from choking under pressure.
Stohlman: What are some of the keys for parents to keep kids from freezing up in pressure situations?
Dr. Burnett: I think what we have to do is take a step back and view how you’re looking at youth sports in general. Consider a little league baseball game. A kid gets up to bat and his parents are sitting behind home plate within yelling distance. The parent instructs the child to get his shoulder up or watch his stance and it gets the player all psyched up and tense. The key to performing well is to relax. So if the atmosphere is tense then the child is going to pick that up.
I think the key is the word competition. If you want to try to take the pressure off, then get the your child to understand the meaning of the word competition. Sparky Anderson, a coach from a long time ago, once said time ”Competition is wonderful. The problem is what we as adults do with it when we deal with kids.” We make the competition the be-all end-all rather than competition for competition sake. The word competition comes from two Latin words meaning to seek a prize with someone. In essence, my opponent is seeking the same prize as I am. I am out there trying to do my best and the opponent is trying to do his best in search of the prize. And, if I win it is because my best was best on that day.
Sammy Lee was the first Asian-American diver to win an Olympic medal. I had a chance to talk to him about a couple of divers with whom I’ve been working. Sammy was saying when he works with divers he gets them to grasp the concept of competition that I just mentioned. He said if you come in second, all that means is that on that day you were able to bring out the best in one other person by your effort. His best on that day happened to be better than yours - just for that day. Who knows what will happen tomorrow. If you look at it that way, then you’re not putting so much pressure on yourself.
I have a picture in my office of three girls from the USA soccer team. They won the silver medal in the Olympics. The headline for the picture in the newspaper was “Settling for Silver.” The mentality is there is no place for second place. If that idea is conveyed to a kid, then the pressure is going to be on. What we want is a kid who’s excited about competition. It’s thrilling and he really enjoys it because it brings out the best in him, but he’s not going to fall apart. If he makes a mistake, then he makes a mistake.
Stohlman: When you talk about freezing up, parents look at it as it is the kid who’s freezing up or choking, versus it is the on the parent to create the atmosphere to let them know that failing is okay.
Dr. Burnett: Exactly. All the research shows that the performers who are in the zone and do well as peak performers are relaxed. Because when you relax, your skills come through. If the kid is going up there tight as a drum and everybody is on him, that is pressure and that is not good for kids.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to Darrell Burnett for this excellent advice.
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