Sports are a great way for kids to have fun, stay fit, improve skills, and make friends.

But it's not always fun and games out on the field or court. The pressure to succeed can be overwhelming — and that can lead to a lot of frustration and tears.

In some cases, sports pressure is self-inflicted. Some kids are natural perfectionists and are just too hard on themselves when things don't go their way. But more often than not, the pressure is external: Kids try to satisfy the demands of a parent, coach, or other authority figure and end up feeling like winning is the only way to gain the approval of the adults they respect.

Either way, how kids learn to cope with sports pressure — and what the adults in their lives teach them about it, either directly or indirectly — not only affects their performance and enjoyment of the sport, but can have a lasting impact on how they deal with similar challenges throughout life.

How Stress Affects Performance

Sometimes sports-related stress is good — it prepares the body to rise to a challenge with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness. On the other hand, too much of it can exhaust a kid's energy and drive, leading to sports burnout.

Events that cause stress are called stressors, and they can be positive (such as trying to impress a college scout out on the sidelines) or negative (such as struggling to keep up with schoolwork).

  • Positive stress comes from taking part in something that's enjoyable yet challenging. This type of stress provides energy and pumps kids up and keeps them on their toes, providing a healthy spark for the tasks they undertake.
  • Negative stress is different. If your child had a fight with a close friend, missed the bus, and forgot his or her homework, it can be pretty hard to get in the right frame of mind for the afternoon tennis match.

How to Help

Parents can probably spot the difference between their child's good and bad stress simply by noticing kids' game-time interactions. For example, is your child focused and ready for action or is nervous energy getting the best of him or her? How does your child handle mistakes? Is he or she a good sport or do emotions get out of control? Of course, some of this has to do with your child's personality. Like adults, some kids are naturally able to stay calm under pressure.

What may be a little harder to spot, though, is the role you and other adults might play in your child's handling of stressful situations. For example, parents who place a lot of weight on their kids' sports accomplishments run the risk of adding to a child's stress.

Of course it's good for your kids to see you taking an interest in their activities, but there's a fine line between encouraging kids and pushing too hard. Overzealous parents tend to overreact to mistakes, game losses, and skipped practices, which often causes kids to do the same. And when kids beat themselves up over mistakes, they're missing an important opportunity to learn how to correct problems and develop resiliency.

Similarly, check your sideline behaviors. Words have incredible power, so use them carefully, especially when you disagree with coaches and umpires. Praise specific good efforts by your child and other players, even after a loss, and offer criticism constructively and not in the heat of the moment. Make sure your child knows you understand that a game is just a game.

Playing sports can teach many wonderful life lessons — valuing teamwork, overcoming challenges, controlling emotions, taking pride in accomplishments — but only if you stay out of the way and let your kids learn them. In fact, by taking a step back, you're showing your kids that you trust them to handle situations on their own.

Kid-Friendly Stress Management

Teach kids to use these relaxation techniques when the demands of competition start to heat up:

  • Deep breathing: Find a quiet place to sit down and inhale slowly through the nose, drawing air deep into the lungs. Hold the breath there for about 5 seconds, then release it slowly. Repeat the exercise five times.
  • Muscle relaxation: Contract (flex) a group of muscles tightly. Keep them tensed for about 5 seconds, then release. Repeat the exercise five times, selecting different muscle groups.
  • Visualization: Eyes closed, picture a peaceful place or event. While recalling the beautiful sights and happy sounds, imagine stress flowing away from the body.

    Or visualize success. People who advise competitive players often recommend that they imagine themselves completing a pass, making a shot, or scoring a goal over and over. On game day, recalling those stored images can help calm nerves and boost self-confidence.
  • Mindfulness: Focus on the present instead of worrying about the future, and stop negative thinking by focusing on the positives. Whether preparing for a competition or coping with a defeat, repeat positive affirmations: "I learn from my mistakes!" "I'm in control of my feelings!" "I can make this goal!"

Other things kids can do to keep stress in check:

  • Do a body good. It's important to eat well and get a good night's sleep, especially before games where the pressure's on.
  • Do something fun. Encourage kids to engage in some type of activity other than the sports they're involved in. Suggest taking a walk, riding a bike, seeing a movie, or hanging with friends to get completely away from the sport that's causing stress.
  • Avoid perfectionist thinking. Don't try to be perfect — and don't expect it in teammates either. Everyone flubs a shot or messes up from time to time. Teach kids to forgive themselves and move on.

It's possible that some anxiety stems only from uncertainty. Encourage your child to meet privately with the coach or instructor and ask for clarification if expectations seem vague or inconsistent. Most instructors do a good job of building athletes' physical and mental development, but some might need to work on it. And sometimes kids might need to be the ones to open the lines of communication.

Stress Overload: What to Do

A child who is so nervous that he or she feels physically unwell before a game or begins to have trouble sleeping at night or concentrating at school may be over-stressed. This can lead to health problems, so it's important to discuss it and find ways to help. Simply sharing these feelings can ease anxiety. When talking, let your child know that you won't pass judgment or look down on him or her for revealing these feelings.

Sometimes kids don't want to play a sport but don't know how to tell their parents. So ask if your child really wants to play or is just doing it to please you or someone else. Remember, while things like college scholarships are a nice reward for hard work, they may not be worth the risk of physical injury or long-term stress on kids.

If your child wants to continue playing, perhaps a hectic schedule is part of the problem. Many kids are involved in so many teams and activities that there's no time left over for schoolwork, hobbies, or just kicking back with friends. Exhaustion can sap enthusiasm, even for a sport a child seems to love.

If a too-full plate is the problem, discuss the options together. Perhaps it's time to let a sport go or to choose one that's less demanding. When looking for something new, encourage your child to try a variety of activities and choose the one that is the most enjoyable.

Once a decision is made, respect it and give your child credit for recognizing the need to steer out of a stressful situation. This is a sign of courage, wisdom, and maturity.

Sports are about enhancing self-esteem, building social skills, and developing a sense of community. And above all, whether kids play on the varsity team or at a weekend pick-up game, the point is to have fun. By keeping that as the priority, you can help your child learn to ride the highs and lows that are a natural part of competition. Back to Articles


Related Articles

A Guide to Eating for Sports

You've prepared for the game in almost every way possible: but now what should you eat? Read about performance foods, nutritional supplements, and more.

Read More

Kids Talk About: Coaches

Coaches are key people for kids who play sports. Find out what kids have learned from their coaches.

Read More

Sports and Exercise Safety

Playing hard doesn't have to mean getting hurt. The best way to ensure a long and injury-free athletic career is to play it safe from the start. Find out how.

Read More

What Kids Want in a Coach

Kids respond to our survey about coaches.

Read More

What Kids Want in a Coach

We asked kids in an online survey: "What should a coach care about most?" Their answers might surprise you. This article is for educators.

Read More

What Makes a Good Coach?

We ran a survey asking what you think makes a good coach. Here's what you told us.

Read More

What Teens Want in a Coach

We asked teens in an online survey: "What should a coach care about most?" Their answers might surprise you. This article is for educators.

Read More

Sports Medicine Center

Get tips on everything from finding the best sport for your kids to preventing and handling injuries.

Read More

Relax & Unwind Center

When life throws problems your way, learn how to stay calm, de-stress, and solve problems.

Read More

5 Ways to Deal With Anxiety

We all get worried or nervous about things. Here are 5 ways to control anxiety.

Read More

What If I Don't Like Sports?

Sports can be challenging when you're new to them, but they also can be really fun. Take a second look at sports - and learn other ways to be active - in this article for kids.

Read More

How to Compete in Sports

Sometimes sports competition can make kids feel pressure. If it's too much, a kid might not have as much fun as before. Find out what to do if this happens to you.

Read More

Handling Sports Pressure and Competition

Winning is all that matters when you play sports, right? Not when that means you can't even enjoy the game. Read about how to handle sports pressure and competition.

Read More

What Girls Say About: Sports

Girls who like sports really like them - even more than texting or the mall. And most girls who say they don't like sports want to get better at them.

Read More

Is Your Child Too Busy?

Some kids have too much to do and not enough time to do it. Is your child too busy?

Read More

How to Be a Good Sport

Winning is more fun but losing happens to everyone. Find out how to handle losing - and other frustrations in sports.

Read More

Sportsmanship

Some people define good sportsmanship as treating the people that you play with and against as you'd like to be treated yourself. Learn more about what good sportsmanship is all about.

Read More

Sportsmanship

One of the most important goals of kids' sports is helping children develop a sense of good sportsmanship. Here's how to set a good example for your kids.

Read More

Stress & Coping Center

Visit our stress and coping center for advice on how to handle stress, including different stressful situations.

Read More

Helping Kids Cope With Stress

Stress from things like school and social situations can feel overwhelming for kids. But by teaching healthy coping strategies, you'll prepare your kids to manage stress.

Read More

Childhood Stress

Being a kid doesn't always mean being carefree - even the youngest tots worry. Find out what stresses kids out and how to help them cope.

Read More

Choosing the Right Sport for You

If you're having trouble choosing a sport, this article can help!

Read More

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2019 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

Search our entire site.