We know that excessive anxiety can be damaging to both performance and to the athlete's desire to enter such situations in the future. Two factors which have been found to play a role in the level of anxiety experienced are the importance of the event and the uncertainly of the outcome. Greater importance and greater uncertainty lead to increased anxiety. Parents, this suggests that you can play an active role in reducing competition anxiety by de-valuing the outcome of the event and by focusing on the individual performance over which the athletes have control.
Research has shown that children can learn emotional control strategies, ways of managing stress, positive thinking, and use of imagery to enhance their performance. Remember, children are not miniature adults, so the tactics must be adapted. They also must be practiced well in advance, not just the night before the competition!
Let’s take the example of teaching a very young child athlete to relax. A common technique for teaching adult athletes to relax is progressive muscle relaxation--to teach them to systematically tense various muscles groups and then relax them. When learned this allows the athlete to identify what it feels like to be relaxed versus tensed and how to relax on command. When we do this with very young child athletes we need to instruct them in terms they can understand. It must also be fun. Hence, instead of saying “feel the tension leave your leg” one might say let your leg go from being hard like a rock to “feeling like a warm piece of spaghetti” or turn your stomach from steel to “soft Jell-O”.
We also need to make things concrete when working with younger athletes. For example, when teaching them to control their thoughts a common technique is to have the youngster envision a television channel changer and practice switching from a negative or frustrating channel (negative thoughts) to a more positive one (positive thoughts).