Pressure to perform.

In some instances, it drives us to exceed our typical abilities and achieve things we never thought possible.

At other times, it can feel like a heavy anchor or weight, making even the most routine activities feel impossible.

In sports, there is natural pressure to perform. It’s one of the things we love most about playing – the adrenaline coursing through us as we try to beat our opponent or our own personal best. In youth sports, all too often, success is measured singularly as wins/losses or records, without regard for the cost of that success. 

Simone Biles may be the most recent highly visible example of the toll that constant pressure can take, but she's not alone in her courage to step back and share her experience. Decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, and other professionals have talked about similar issues. While we idolize these athletes, they experience the same challenges we all do and are often suffering to keep such an incredibly high level of performance.

As adults, we shape the way children view competition and set the bar for their idea of success.

Are there athletes who love to practice long hours and have a burning desire to succeed?

Of course.

But how can we help teach our youth athletes to balance these desires with other important skills so they can manage the pressure and expectations placed on them, whether by coaches, parents or themselves?

The message we need to send is it's okay to step back from the spotlight. It's okay to prioritize your mental health. This does not reduce your courage, mental toughness, dedication to your team and sport, or lessen your accomplishments.

Here are five tips for parents and coaches to help kids find a more balanced way of thinking:

  1. Be proactive. It's no secret the “mental game” is part of success in any competition. Professional athletes focus on ways to manage stress and pressure, overcome obstacles, and deliver their best performance when it matters. We can help youth athletes focus on these same skills starting early in life. 
  2. Words matter. Using phrases like, “Don't quit,” “Your team is depending on you,” “Win or go home,” or “You just have to want it more,” send the message that if you don't succeed, you must have a character flaw or not be trying hard enough. Instead, highlight trying your best in that moment. “Do your best out there,” “Give it everything you've got,” or “We believe in you, just try your best.” Send a message to your kids about giving your best effort in the moment.
  3. Teach emotional empowerment skills. Spend time teaching athletes how to manage all the different emotions that may come up when playing a sport. Not only do they have to manage the elation of winning a big match, they must cope with the disappointment of losing and performing poorly as well. See our guide to emotional empowerment for suggestions at different age groups. This will help them far beyond the field of competition and into adulthood.
  4. Find reasons to praise effort or specific skills, especially after a difficult loss. Create a team spirit of congratulating each other or congratulating your child no matter the outcome. Make it a point to list something about how each player on the team improved in that practice or match. This is easy to do after a win, but more difficult (and important) after a loss or poor performance.
  5. Make room for other things. Encourage athletes to have other hobbies and activities outside of sports. This allows them to take natural mental breaks to engage in other enjoyable activities and promotes a sense that there are other parts of their life that contribute to their self-worth.

Starting conversations and breaking stigmas are at the heart of On Our Sleeves. We applaud the athletes who are starting these conversations and spreading the message that mental health – is health.