Young athletes face tough transitions on a regular basis. Whether it’s something big, like a move to a new school, or just the start of a season with a new coach, these transitions can be significant sources of anxiety. But, there are ways to navigate these challenging times.
TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, shares six ways to help athletes reduce their anxiety in times of transition. Remember, not every method will be the right fit, so you may need to try a few exercises before landing on the one that helps the most.
Ride the wave
Chapman likes to tell all his athletes to “ride the wave” when it comes to feeling negative emotions like anxiety, frustration and fear.
“I encourage athletes to feel their emotions, rather than avoiding them or ignoring them,” he says.
Don’t ignore feelings: acknowledge them instead.
“I like the metaphor of riding the wave because emotions truly do come in waves, and they will flow and ebb,” he adds. “Distress is uncomfortable, but it’s also tolerable and impermanent. Feel that feeling, and know that when you ride the wave, it always comes down again.”
Consider the worst-case scenario
It may sound counterintuitive, but leaning into your greatest fear can actually help you work through it. Often, a young athlete will catastrophize—assume the worst—without fully thinking a scenario through. They have a feeling of heightened fear or anxiety but aren’t necessarily picturing a specific outcome.
“Unnecessary anxiety or heightened anxiety is typically the result of getting caught in thinking traps. And one of the thinking traps involved in transition anxiety for an athlete would be what we call catastrophizing,” says Chapman.
He suggests writing or talking out the worst-case scenario. What is the worst possible thing that could happen on that first day of school or practice? Then, think through how to potentially handle that worst case scenario, or cope with it. Often, just vocalizing the worst case is enough to help see that it’s not as bad as you think. Running through solutions and coping strategies helps decrease anxiety as well.
Whether it’s taking five minutes with your eyes closed or writing it out in a journal, think about how you want the day (or practice, or game) to play out. Get as detailed and granular as possible, not just thinking about sinking shots at practice, but about getting to the locker room on time after the bell rings, getting changed, warming up, and all the mundane details that go into a normal day. This may help you realize that you’ve done all these steps before, even if some of the parts—like where the locker room is at the new school—may be different.
“Visualization is a powerful tool to actually change the brain using neuroplasticity, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in a positive way for your athlete—just make sure they’re thinking through a realistic day, not the perfect day,” says Chapman. “If they can visualize how they’ll handle a missed shot in practice versus imagining making every shot, that’s better.”
One trap to avoid though, Chapman notes, is falling into a perfectionist mindset. If you have perfectionist tendencies, visualizing the ideal day could backfire, because if something happens to slightly derail that plan, you may struggle to get back on track.
Create a list of easy to accomplish goals
For bigger transitions like starting at a new school, it can be helpful to set some achievable behavioral goals. List a few goals that may be a bit anxiety-producing, but that are small enough to get some easy, early wins. This could mean emailing the baseball coach at the new school to ask about team tryouts. These small goals add up to big gains over time, says Chapman.
“These small behavioral goals are really the key to mastery because they decrease anxiety and increase confidence, or what we call self-efficacy, as it relates to that specific task, like getting started on a new team.”
Develop some physical grounding practices
Chapman doesn’t like the idea of deep breathing for the sake of deep breathing—many people misuse the concept of meditative breathing as a way to tamp down anxiety, rather than feeling it and moving through the emotion (‘riding the wave’).
“Understand that breathing is simply a portable tool to help you remain in or deal with uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking situations,” he says. “Deep breathing won’t help if you’re still thinking catastrophically.”
In reality, the deep breathing isn’t the cure for anxiety, Chapman says. But it is a tool that allows an athlete to move into that space to confront that anxiety. If you can learn to take those few deep breaths, acknowledge the feelings of anxiety going through your mind in the moment, and use that breath to physically deal with the sensations of discomfort,, you will be better prepared to walk into that first team meeting feeling more confident and capable.
Ask for help
Seeking expert help, whether it’s from a coach, teacher, counselor, psychologist or parent is a strong thing to do—not a sign of weakness. Pay attention to your feelings as you deal with this transition.
“There are two signs I look for that would suggest an athlete needs professional help,” Chapman says. “First, if symptoms of anxiety are distressing and happening on a daily basis. And second, if those feelings are impairing functioning, meaning some facet of your athlete’s life, from sport to school to family relationships.”
If parents or athletes feel that the level of anxiety goes beyond normal first day jitters, speak to an expert early, rather than waiting for the situation to potentially worsen.
Tackling a transition, like joining a new team or starting at a new school, is often a stressful and anxious time for a young athlete. These strategies will help you, whether you are a parent or athlete, better understand the situation.
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