Youth Sports: How to Deal with Anxiety Around Return to Play
As young athletes return to practice after being away from friends and coaches for months due to COVID-19 lockdowns, athlete anxiety will be natural. Not only are there new safety protocols in place that may seem confusing or intimidating, it’s a big shift emotionally as well.
Instead of being stressed or anxious about practices being canceled like they were three months ago, athletes are now feeling stress and anxiety around practices coming back. While the situation is similar, the ways that parents can help athletes cope with these feelings will be slightly different and TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, is here to help parents navigate an athlete’s return to play.
Let Them Feel Feelings
First and foremost, it is important to recognize your athlete’s feelings as valid. For months, he’s been told that he cannot play with his friends or go to practice without risking himself and his loved ones, but now, he’s being told to return to play. The shift in messaging may have been abrupt, as most states are reopening at a brisk pace, which doesn’t leave young athletes with much time to process feelings. “Most athletes I know are excited,” says Chapman. “But being nervous or anxious is completely understandable, and we need to normalize those feelings.” Don’t ignore your athlete’s feelings, discuss them.
Assess Where Anxiety Stems From
Before you can help your athlete figure out how to deal with anxiety around return to play, it’s important to understand what’s causing their feelings. Chapman notes that there are a few primary causes.
Work Through Solutions
Once you understand the root of your athlete’s nerves around returning to play, you can work together to find solutions. Chapman has some suggestions for how to help ease the transition.
Reset Goals and Expectations
Games and seasons might not look the same for a year or more, and for older athletes thinking about college and professional athletics, this time can be tricky and even lead to a lack of motivation. But Chapman explains that your athlete needs to understand the difference between ‘catastrophic thoughts’ and the reality of the situation. For instance, most programs around the world are paused, so colleges are aware that the 2020 season will need to use different tactics for recruiting athletes.
If your athlete is falling into catastrophic thinking, Chapman says to ask a few questions: "Am I certain that this thought is true? What's the evidence that this thought is true? Is this thought being driven by intense emotion or facts?”
“All of those questions will force the athlete to look at the evidence to support his anxiety, and then come up with a more flexible way to view the situation. The new thoughts don’t have to be positive, just more flexible."
Take Them to Practice, Regardless
You may have an athlete who simply doesn’t feel ready to return because of anxiety around being back with teammates. Chapman says that validating those feelings is important, but in this case, try to get them to the practice field.
“I've found that avoidance is going to backfire and create even more avoidance,” Chapman explains. You can tell your athlete they don’t have to get out of the car or engage with the practice, but that you’re going to go watch. Once you’re there, Chapman says, they’ll most likely remember what they love about being at practice and will jump out of the car to meet friends.
In this confusing time, it’s natural for young athletes to be anxious about returning to play. With these tips, you can learn to recognize their feelings, determine the cause, and help them address that anxiety.
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