Your child loves to play. Practices are fun, teammates are a blast to hang out with. The coach makes up drills and games that are enjoyable. No pressure. Just learning and moving. Now, though, it's game time. The pressure has just increased. Some kids thrive on it, look forward to getting out there and competing. Others are terrified, and may experience fear beyond the usual "butterflies in the stomach."
It is completely normal and natural to feel anxious before a competition. Essentially, it is like a test of what you know about the sport and how skilled you are. Remember how school suddenly felt less welcoming on standardized test days? When the idea of a semester final struck fear in your heart? Had you studied enough? Studied the right things?
On game day, your child may experience similar fears. He or she may be questioning their readiness to play. There may be a fear of failure, of losing, of disappointing someone--the coach, teammates or you!
The key to assuaging these fears lies in preparation. Remind your child that the physical preparation (drills, scrimmages, conditioning training) has been done and doesn't go away on game day. Mental preparation can include relaxation, positive self-talk and imagery or visualization. Help your child to relax using some deep breathing. As they do this, they may repeat a phrase or phrases which help them to feel positively toward themselves and the competition. "I am prepared." "I will play my best." "I will have fun." Or, as Olympic diver Greg Louganis used to say before key dives, "No matter how I do, my mother will still love me." Have them imagine themselves at the game, making a good play, smiling, being congratulated by teammates, hearing the crowd cheer. Keep it all very positive.
Remind them that as long as they do their best, they will never disappoint anyone. Remind them, too, that you just want them to have fun, play hard and do what they know to do.
Pre-game rituals can also be calming and centering for athletes. Have the same pre-game meal, put equipment on in a certain order, do stretches or calisthenics prior to game time in the same way, same order each time. What you and your child choose to do is not as important as the ritual of doing it. Just be sure you and your child are in charge of the ritual and not the other way around. If for some reason you are unable to have the ritual pre-game meal, for example, you wouldn't want your child to decide all is lost. Be sure you and your child can adapt to any unexpected changes. Things you can do anytime, anywhere, would be easier to follow.
Above all, remind your child that everyone gets nervous, even the pros. And that feeling a little anxious means that they really care. That is what will enable them to be a good teammate, and do their best.