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Pressure to Perform

Sports are unfortunately synonymous with intense competition all too often. Kids can be involved in sports activities of all levels, have successful and gratifying experiences, yet not have the pressure of intense win-loss events. If they do choose to be active in more competitive sports and move on to an age and skill level at which competition is more appropriate, readiness to compete is influenced by mental and emotional development in addition to chemical maturation and motor improvement. If a good foundation of support has been laid, the house of self-esteem is sturdy and not easily huffed, puffed, and blown by windy big bad wolf pressures or shaken by stormy win-loss results. It is with this positive foundation that we see young athletes thrive on perfecting skill levels and competing because they really enjoy the recreational activities or sports in which they are participating.

Adolescents who are struggling for identity among their siblings or classmates may find a unique area of improvement and accomplishment in an activity such as a certain sport, musical instrument, or artistic performance, which causes their self-confidence to blossom. If their identity becomes significantly associated with the sport or activity and they fail, however, their identity also can fail.

Parents who live through their child’s accomplishments can fall into that dark pit and put excessive stress on the child to continue to perform without allowing any room for second place. Young athletes have young psychological makeup, so they cannot be treated like adult athletes. This is a point that cannot be emphasized enough. (Insert bells, whistles, and fireworks here.) Youth should not be placed in a significant or intense win-loss situation until they are confident that their worth is not based on the outcome of the athletic activity.

The good news is that most children and adolescents play sports and compete without any long-term negative effects, and research shows that the large majority of children who are involved in sports do not suffer from excessive stress. However, there are important psychological bruises for the youngster who is placed in a sport that she is not interested in or ready for or is pushed too hard. Older athletes in later high school, college, national, Olympic, or professional sports strive to meet ambitiously high standards that they place on themselves. However, with few exceptions, young children and young athletes rarely display these traits unless there has been considerable influence and pressure from parents or coaches to accomplish certain goals.

It is necessary and critical that youngsters participating in activities and sports be given opportunities to succeed as well as chances to have a successful outcome from an unsuccessful event. Reality sports success often comes from learning from previous failures! Reality success comes from youngsters bettering themselves no matter how they placed at the finish. Reality success comes from a positive sports or exercise experience in which they participate because it is pleasing, instead of participating to please everyone else. Thinking they can never fail does not give youngsters the chance to reach their full potential because they will always be intimidated or hold back just to be safe.

Part of the remedy for dealing with the ups and downs of the sports roller coaster involves knowing that every day will not be the same. Sometimes we can ride that roller coaster with our hands in the air; sometimes we can barely keep down our popcorn. So it is with sports and activities. Some days will feel good and much can be accomplished. Some days will just not click and performance will be lacking. But if each day is approached with the same attitude of always trying to improve technique and form and give the best effort no matter the result, each day of training or competition can be accepted as a successful event. Every day is different for everyone. That’s reality. This approach can significantly affect an experience because the viewpoint is different than usual and avoids seeing down days as failures. Emphasis on the effort instead of winning must be modeled and taught by coaches and parents. This is rarely a concept youngsters figure out by themselves. Bravo to the ones who actually do!

Paul R. Stricker, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
Sports Success Rx! Your Child's Prescription for the Best Experience (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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