Performance anxiety can cripple the best athletes. When it comes to youth coaching, there is a lot to be said about how you frame situations, and what you can do to help kids do their best. The Junior Olympics is hands down one of the best ways to get this experience for young athletes (not just high performers). In preparing my athletes, I like to take away as many fears as possible. Leaving minimal chances for surprises – this can often mean sharing the reality of a situation that may give them fear but long-term comfort. Let me explain..
Put yourself in their shoes
I mean this all but literally. Go through every detail of what they will experience long before race day. Let them know wht conditions to expect (like extreme heat), and that’s why practice is in the middle of the day in the summer. Talk to them about what the check in and staging process is like. Go over with them long before race day what they should do before they hit the track or course. Most importantly, it’s not a systematic set of movements – get them to keep moving and they will keep their heart rate high – and keep their chances of starting cold will give them the best chance of a top performance.
Go through some of the basics, when they need to start preparing, what should they wear? What will other athletes say to them, how should they feel? Remember, most of your athletes are experience this for the first or second time if ever at all. You can help them know how to feel by making a guess at how you would have felt in that situation. Would you have fear, yes! Would you have doubt, yes! Would you feel nervous, YES!
Take this knowledge and find ways to insert it into your workouts. That last rep of a workout 2 weeks away from States? Create a place where you can say ‘pretend that when the whistle blows, you’re 300m from the finish – hurting and ready to quit but someone is coming on your shoulder’. Help your athletes work through situations so when they find themselves there it’s a reaction not a moment of fear and doubt. Give them reminders and motivation in areas they connect like Instagram; you can motivate outside of practice too!
Talk through the negative
Rarely if at all do kids have a chance to share why or how they feel a certain way. When we teach kids to internalize every negative thought and feeling it becomes an internal struggle and something that can tear them down at the start line. I will often ask my athletes 2 questions ‘ what are you excited about?’ and ‘what are you most scared about?’ – this allows them to share how they feel as well as releasing some fears with someone they trust. Often the they thing they are most scared about is a bad race, falling at the start, or not performing better than they did before. Having an athlete articulate these fears often leads them to self reflect and realize that they are capable and that what happens in a race is what makes every experience unique.
Control the controllable
Stealing the phrase from one of my adult athletes Malia Crouse – you have to be adaptable on race day. This mindset and experience is what allows top athletes appear bulletproof in the face of adversity. Ask any athlete at the sub-elite or elite level if they’ve had a bad race. Everyone will tell you about the time that they melted in the heat, or lost a shoe on a muddy course, took a hard digger on a trail.
When it comes to kids they need to know that a State, Regional, or National meet is important and that feeling scared or nervous is totally normal. I always tell my athletes ‘ if you’re nervous, crying or scared – I appreciate that; it shows me you care about what you’re about to do’. As coaches we aren’t hear to create robots, we’re here to create better humans.
Understanding it’s okay to fail
Want to be a better athlete? Fail, and fail often. Soon, you’ll be wiser and harder to kill. Failure is the best teacher – especially for the stubborn. It’s also a lesson for the meek when they see a fear come to reality – it’s a reminder that no matter how good we think we are we can still have something trip us up but the consequences are minor. Having a bad race is a great way to work with an athlete in a very close way.
Take this bad race and use it as a tool, not as a disheartening stick. The athlete will return to competition after this next race with 2 feelings: apprehension and a desire to dominate. The fear of feeling failure is often the motivation needed to go to a very uncomfortable place. Failure is a lifelong teacher and a director of forward progress.
Mr. Churchill says it best: ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts’
So what’s the best thing you can do for your athletes leading into a big race, or heading into a tent for 30 minutes of solitude? I have used ‘cue cards’ for my athletes at most of their major races. This is something small, a little reminder of what to do before they head into a scary situation, and something to calm the noise around them and the chatter in their head.
Big performances are a culmination of the work they’ve put in months earlier, it shouldn’t fall apart 30 minutes before hand. Giving an athlete a tangible article to review, and be motivated by can help them through a very scary situation. A simple reminder that they are capable, a reminder that they need to stay moving at the start line. This has made the difference between top performances, and average performances.
As a coach this allows you to help an athlete capitalize on their strengths, and minimize weaknesses. Something as simple as ‘you can do this’ becomes a mantra late in a race. This affirmation can carry an athlete through a dark part of a race and bring them to the other side. Races don’t define you, it’s how you define yourself in the race that does. If you believe you can, you will.