When anxiety gets out of hand

Heart ECG

We all remember the empty feeling in your stomach when the teacher was walking down the isle handing out that Mathematics exam paper. You hands were sweaty and you could not sit still, continually moving and shifting in your chair. You could not help think about what will happen if you can’t answer the questions and when you started writing you felt like the pen would just not move quickly enough for you to finish the exam in time.

The abovementioned are all symptoms associated with nervousness, anxiety and stress. Participating in competitive sports goes hand-in-hand with these symptoms. The question now is; when does nervousness or anxiety actually become a serious problem?

To simplify things, in this article I am going to distinguish between nervousness and anxiety, the difference being only in the perceived intensity (and often duration) of the symptoms. Nervousness will be used in what I would consider the common intensity of physical and mental symptoms before you or your child take part in sport. Anxiety will be used when referring to the more intense experience (and often of longer duration) of physical and mental symptoms that have a definite influence on your child’s behaviour in that situation.

Often the instruction to children experiencing nervousness or anxiety is; relax, just go out there and play your game. This often does nothing to relieve them of their anxiety. This could in fact have the paradoxical effect of making them more nervous or anxious because after a few minutes they simply could not do what you (or the coach) asked. A more constructive way to help your child is to let them learn through experience. Use past experiences your child has where they were not so nervous or anxious and let them reflect (learn) why they were not so nervous or anxious then. Therefore, the way they will learn is not by following instructions, but rather through experiences they already have. The area of sport psychology offers further assistance in handling firstly nervousness and secondly anxiety.

When your child experiences nervousness before participating in sport it will likely start to increase the day before or morning of the event. There are two perspectives in sport psychology that address feeling nervous before or during an event. The first perspective is control-driven and through arousal control, relaxation, ‘psyching-up’, imagery or similar techniques will try to alleviate some of your child’s symptoms of nervousness, resulting in your child reaching the peak performance state (the zone). The second perspective is acceptance-driven and through making value-based decisions learns to remain focussed on the task at hand, a precursor to peak performance. The first perspective views nervousness as something negatively effecting performance, therefore your child must be able to control it. The second perspective regards nervousness as something all athletes experience; as something that does not affect your child’s performance until they start to focus on it, resulting in a loss of focus on the task.

When your child experiences anxiety in general or before participating in sports events he/she will likely experience intense anxious physical and/or mental symptoms. The symptoms might also be noticeable for a fairly long duration; sometimes building up days before the event or resulting in symptoms for a few hours, event days, after the event. Your child could come up with reasons not to go or participate in these events. This usually gives you an indication that they are experiencing the symptoms fairly intensely. There is growing research indicating that performance development techniques (as discussed for nervousness) will not be effective for your child if they experience (sub-clinical level or clinical level) symptoms of anxiety. In such a case it is advisable to consult a registered professional for advice.

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