Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Pressure in Youth Sports

Pressure is part of all sports and its impact in youth sports is something we need to carefully evaluate. The spotlight is brightest in baseball; there is simply no place to hide. For the pitcher, batter, catcher and anybody the ball is hit to, all the attention of parents and peers is riveted on that player. In soccer, basketball or other sports, it’s easy enough to “blend in”, but not in baseball. I have tremendous respect for every kid who takes the risk and goes out to play ball – especially the kids who are not as talented; it’s not easy. This is especially true for a young pitcher who controls every aspect of the game. Is there simply too much pressure put on kids to early? I don’t think so. As we evaluate the physiological aspects of pressure, the kid’s psychology, our own beliefs, and effective ways to deal with pressure, I’ll let you know why.

What Is Stress? - Changes, such as sudden trauma, several big crises, or many small daily hassles, cause stress. The human body has different ways of responding to stress; one quick responding nerve-hormonal system involving adrenaline, another long-lasting system involving cortisol, and perhaps others. These systems not only determine the intensity of our anxiety reactions but also our attitudes, energy level, depression, and physical health after the stressful events are over. Stress can also be a source of energy that can be directed towards useful purposes. How many of us would study or work hard if it were not for anxiety about the future? Life is a dynamic process and thus forever changing and stressful. Physiologic changes including an increased heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing, muscle tension, dilated pupils, dry mouth and increased blood sugar all take place. In other words, stress can also be described as a state of increased arousal. Up to a certain point stress is beneficial. We can perform with greater energy and increased awareness with the influx of excitatory hormones that release immediate energy.

Understanding Each Child – There are genetic, constitutional, and other factors that influence the pressure an individual will feel in any situation and their reaction to that stress. Some of us may have been born "nervous", “happy”, “emotional”, or even "grouches." Almost certainly we are by nature prone to be shy or outgoing, and we also inherit a propensity for certain psychological effects, including our reaction to stress. So, we have to expect that each child will be impacted by and deal with pressure situations differently. It is imperative to judge each child as an individual. Some kids are desperate to bat with the bases loaded or the pitch in a clutch situation. Does your child hope the ball is hit to him so that he can make the play or does hope it’s not hit in his direction so that he can’t make an error? My favorite Michael Jordan quote is: “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” You want to put kids into a position where they can succeed and to do that you need to understand who they are and how they are impacted by different pressure situations.

Another difference in children can be the way that they act in team vs. individual sports. A friend of mine has a child who is a very good athlete and highly competitive in tennis and golf, but “disappears” in soccer and basketball. The psychology behind this is simply that this person is able to perform when she knows that it’s all up to her. However, she doesn’t want to be the one who lets down the team by missing a shot. On the other hand, some children may react in just the opposite manner and not want the outcome to be totally determined by their own actions

The easiest thing to do is very simple – just ask the kids. You may be surprised at how honest the answers will be. Here are some questions to try:

1.When the game is tied and you’re playing in the field, do you want the ball to be hit to you or would you prefer that the ball is hit to one of your teammates?

2.If your team is losing by one run in the bottom of the last inning, the bases are loaded, and there are two out, do you want to be at bat?

3.If you’re on deck in the same situation, do you want your teammate to win the game or do you want a chance to get to the plate?

4.Would you prefer your teammate make the last out of the game so that you don’t have to bat with the game on the line?

5.Do you want to pitch?

6.Would you want to come in with the bases loaded and your team has a one run lead in the championship game?

Projection of Parents, Friends and Relatives – Projection is one of the defense mechanisms identified by Freud and still acknowledged today. According to Freud, projection is when someone is threatened by or afraid of their own impulses so they attribute these impulses to someone else. For example, a parent or grandparent who is so nervous about the outcome of a game can project their own insecurity and stress onto a child when the child isn’t bothered at all. For example, I know some grandparents, who are admittedly risk averse themselves and protective of their kids (no matter how old they are) are now at least as protective of their grandchildren. They have a grandson who is an excellent pitcher and loves to pitch, but they still feel that he’s under too much pressure and maybe he shouldn’t even be playing baseball. This is an example of projection of their feelings about the child rather than actually finding out how he feels. I know many parents who prefer their child not come to bat in a tough situation just in case their kid makes the last out. While this is very easy to understand since we all want to protect our children, it often isn’t the kids feeling the pressure, but the rest of us.

Dealing With Pressure – Webster’s Dictionary defines “Pressure” as “the burden of physical or mental distress”. Even that definition is interesting because it neglects the possibility that people can perform well and even thrive under pressure and stress. One misconception though with performing under pressure is that stress always has a negative connotation. Many times, "the stress of competition may cause a negative anxiety in one performer but positive excitement in another". That is why one frequently hears how elite players' thrive under pressure, when most others would crumble. As individuals, our nervous systems differ; however, according to Richard Dienstbier at the University of Nebraska, we may be able to modify our physiological reactions by learning coping skills. Not surprisingly, exercise and sports participation are commonly considered as activities to reduce stress from other areas in life. However, if a child is feeling pressure while playing sports, here are some solid stress relief techniques they can employ:

1.Visualization – Before a game, visualize yourself in stressful situations and dealing with them successfully. Put yourself into that place mentally so that you can deal with it better when it happens in reality. During the game, you can remember back to how you’ve already dealt with this situation and are mentally prepared for it. Just so you know where I’m coming from, visualization is simply a shorter version of meditation.

2.Breathing – If a kid is feeling stressed during a game, feeling less anxious can often be as simple as taking a few deep breaths. Deep breathing is a very effective method of relaxation. It is a core component of everything from the 'take ten deep breaths' approach to calming someone down, right through to yoga relaxation and Zen meditation. It works well in conjunction with other relaxation techniques such as Progressive Muscular Relaxation, relaxation imagery and meditation to reduce stress.

Conclusion - A lot has been made of the impact of pressure in youth sports and the negative impact, but much of this is simply projecting a parent or relative’s individual beliefs on the situation. While you can argue that I’m doing the same thing, but in reverse, I in fact take a different position which is: 1) to acknowledge that pressure does exist, but 2) to determine how each individual child can deal with the situation. Only by knowing each child can you determine if the situation is, in fact, distress rather than an adrenaline producing pressure moment which the kid loves.

About the Author

Ken Kaiserman is the president of SportsKids.com, a leading youth sports website featuring games, sports news, sports camp and league directories, community features, and the www.sportskids.com Superstore with over 150,000 products.

Ken coaches youth football, basketball and baseball. He also serves on the local little league board of directors as well as the Park Advisory Board.