During the summer months I enjoy coaching our neighborhood swim team. Our team consists of 110 athletes ranging in age from 6 to 17. All the athletes experience a natural anxiety prior to an event. They want to do well. Some may question whether or not they can do it. Parents have very different approaches to this performance anxiety. Some approaches yield better results than others.
As a mother of four, I find it difficult to watch my kids struggle. Even if the challenge is age and ability appropriate. In response, some parents will swoop in and rescue their kids. When a parent tells their swimmer, “you don’t have to swim an event,” they are reinforcing the athlete’s perception that he or she can’t do it and taking away an opportunity to grow in self-confidence.
Other parents may force the child into the water with a threat. If you don’t get into the water there will be no trip to the park tomorrow! The threatened athletes may swim out of fear, but are likely to dislike swimming for years to come. Some parents use a bribe. Recently I used this strategy on my 7-year old. Sammie, you swim the Individual medley, I’ll get you ice cream after the meet. She did it. It went well. The next week she chose to swim it again then requested ice cream. Can you see a pattern developing?
There are several ways to help your children overcome the challenges they face.
If the challenge is appropriate, meaning the kid most likely can do it but is fearful, opting out is not an option. Johnny, I know you are fearful about swimming this event because you haven’t done it before. The coach believes you are ready and so do I.
Provide them with a strategy to address their concern. Do you need to talk to the coach before you swim and get some tips? Make sure the child knows that you will love him/her no matter how he/she finishes. The goal is to do your personal best. Finish with, “I’ll be right here cheering. Good luck!”
Sometimes parents sign their youth up for an activity before they are ready or in spite of the child’s protests. It’s good to expose our children to activities. After a trial period, if the child isn’t engaged, find another activity to try and possibly revisit that activity at a later time.
Last year we had a younger athlete opt out. He wasn’t ready, he wasn’t having fun. His mother had him come to me. He said, “Coach, I don’t want to do this anymore.” I thanked him for letting me know,respected his decision and told him I’d be glad to have him back in the future. He came back this summer and is doing great. When a child is self-motivated there is no need for threats or bribes.
It’s hard to watch our children struggle. However; children develop self-confidence by overcoming challenges. Parents can help by encouraging them to persevere.
Kerri Gray is a marriage and family therapist. She teaches educational programs for parents, teachers and students through Lee’s Summit CARES. She resides in Lee’s Summit with her husband and four daughters.