The formula for Performance is defined as: Performance = Potential – Interference.
One of the greatest personal dilemmas that interferes with optimal performance and negates an athlete’s true potential in their sport is performance anxiety.
Last year, performance anxiety was the number one reason athletes and their parents visited my office. This form of anxiety occurs when the athlete perceives the sport challenge as a threat and is a significant predictor of dropout in young athletes, increases the risk of injury, and is also associated with depressive episodes. Whilst the factors that contribute to this dilemma are complex, it is the real or perceived experience of pressure that nearly always leads to this form of anxiety.
Many parents and coaches ask me if there are things they can change in their communication with their child when they learn their child is suffering performance anxiety. Questions I frequently hear are:
“Am I placing too much pressure on my son/daughter some how?”
“Should I reduce my expectations?”
“Will it help if I back off?”
While asking such questions, it’s not uncommon for parents to express worry that their child will become lazy or complacent if they do “back off”.
What is being questioned here is the ‘intensity of involvement’.
The intensity of your involvement in your child’s sporting endeavours can actually have a positive or negative effect on your child’s sport experience depending on the nature or the content of the pressure. Given the research results, we might naturally expect that parental pressure will have a uniformly negative effect on children’s sport experience. However, recent research suggests this is not the case, and it is actually the focus or content of the pressure rather than its intensity that is at the heart of the issue.
The key question all parents should ask is, “what is your child being pressured to do?”
Being pressured to give maximum effort and demonstrate self-improvement may have different consequences than being pressured to outperform others, because the outcomes in question differ in degree of controllability. When a parent is focused on self-oriented outcomes this has the effect of enhancing the athlete’s feeling of control over their performance and creates less evaluation apprehension. This focus establishes a ‘mastery climate’ where effort, enjoyment, and learning skills is emphasised, and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to grow. On the flip side, a ‘performance climate’ is built when parents base the criterion for success around the comparison to others, praising winning even when effort is lacking, and mistakes are viewed as unacceptable. While the intensity level of parental pressure within these two climates might be similar, there are two vastly different forms of pressure being established and likely with it, very different effects.
Daniel O’Rourke and colleagues at the University of Washington argue that parental pressure is like a double-edged sword. These researchers studied anxiety levels over the course of a season in 300 US youth swimmers ranging in age from 9 to 14 years. The study found that anxiety significantly increased from the start to the end of the season in those athletes who perceived parental pressure to be high and with a ‘performance focus’. While that’s not surprising, what is more interesting is that the study also found that athletes with the lowest levels of anxiety throughout the season perceived parental pressure to be high in intensity but with a ‘mastery climate’ focus. The message here is that high parental pressure is not always harmful, particularly when the focus of your engagement in your child’s sporting activities directs their focus and motivation to the process of their performance.
Set the tone for performance expectations based on the demonstration of adaptive behavior such as responding well to unpredictable events including bad weather or court conditions and bouncing back from errors with positive body language and emotional control. Focus on helping your child develop excellent pre-shot or pre-race routines that lead to professional habits and actions. After all, there is absolutely no point in expecting a certain score or time, or ranking from your child because they have done it once before, especially when they have not established a level of discipline, conduct, or self-awareness in their sport that propels them to achieve such results consistently.
When intense focus is placed on the process of their performance, even at a young age, they learn to respect the game and learn what sport is truly all about.
Author: Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS. She completed a Master of Psychology at California State University, Fullerton and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Sport and Exercise Psychology at The University of Western Australia. She is a member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and is registered with the Psychology Board of Australia.