TrueSport Resources

 Sports Performance Anxiety in Youth Sports

Sport Performance Anxiety

In youth sports

Youth sport advice tends to focus on improving athlete nutrition and training. But even in a “fun” league, sometimes the most harmful stressors aren’t in athlete’s bodies, but in their heads.

For many kids, sports provide their first taste of anxiety: the stress of taking a game-tying free throw, the tension of running the anchor leg of a relay, or just butterflies in the stomach before a big game.

Anyone who has played sports has probably experienced sport performance anxiety, sometimes called ‘choking,’ at one point or another. But with their brains and self-awareness still developing, sports can be particularly stressful on the minds of youth athletes. This also means it can be especially challenging for parents and coaches to try and soothe these nerves.

The most serious sport anxiety can also make kids lose interest in playing sports altogether. Thankfully, the growing field of sport psychology has given parents, coaches, and athletes ways to understand and calm the pre-game jitters.
What Causes Sport Performance Anxiety

Mental stress on gameday is typically rooted in at least one of several factors. Many of these have more to do with everything surrounding the game, before and after, than the actual game itself.

Having an audience (particularly one that is loving and supportive): Athletes can become overly self-aware of every decision and play they make when they’re on the athletic stage.

Fear of disappointing others: Even when a parent or coach is supportive, athletes may be anxious about disappointing them.

High expectations: Every athlete wants to do their best, but internal self-talk might create stress when they set expectations that anything less than a perfect play is failure.

Post-game analysis: Whether it is from a coach, parent, teammate, or themselves, the post-game analysis weighs on an athlete’s mindset.

Recovering from an injury: After an athlete gets hurt, it can take a long time to restore their confidence.

How Youth Athletes Can Cope

Sport anxiety’s kryptonite is preparation. Athletes should arrive early and go through the same warm-up routines they do in practice. During warm-ups, they should try and visualize themselves playing well while taking some deep, slow breaths. This will put their heads in a focused and relaxed place.

During the game, focusing on the next play, rather than the result, will help keep athletes in the moment. Another simple trick to stay relaxed, even in high-pressure moments, is to smile. If you go through the physical motions of having fun, the mind will follow!

What Coaches and Parents Can Do

Parents and coaches can help reduce sport performance anxiety with the language they use before, during, and after games. Be wary of only praising athletes when things go right – a good rule of thumb to avoid adding stress is to praise effort instead of the result. As a coach, it can help to avoid instruction that adds extra pressure to a game situation (e.g., “we have to score in this next inning!”).

Studies have shown that we stay out of our heads more when performing actions we might describe as “muscle memory.” At practice, having athletes do many repetitions of the movements they will be expected to do on gameday (e.g., fielding ground balls) is a good way to ensure they become second nature.

Coaches can also simulate game-type pressure in practice by playing music or recorded crowd noise, having parents stay to watch, or adding in other elements that will get athletes used to performing under stress. It’s important to make sure athletes are familiar with and confident in the strategies that are going to be used on gameday.

As a parent, be sure to keep specific post-game comments positive and remember that the time to make corrections is at the next practice, not immediately after a game in the car ride home.

TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.

 Setting the Stage

Setting the Stage 

5 pre-game activities to boost sportsmanship 

Although some pre-game traditions have come under scrutiny in recent years, there is still no better time to set the tone for good sportsmanship in youth sports than in the minutes before a kick off, tip off, or first pitch.

The challenge, however, is to make this activity more engaging than a half-hearted cheer. Making pre-game acts of sportsmanship mandatory often diminishes genuine actions to something done just to appease parents and officials.

Pre-game rituals should go beyond just looking good to the adults in the stands; they should actually mean something to the kids on the field. Americans long for youth sports to teach values like honesty, fair play, and respect. Inspiring better behavior during the game begins by changing what is done before it.

Re-thinking the Pre-Game Greeting

While post-game handshake lines are a staple in most sports, having the entire teams greet each other prior to the game is less common, but perhaps more effective.

A pre-game greeting helps put names to faces and shows your athletes the other team is made up of kids just like them, rather than being some nameless ‘enemy.’ Even better is providing time for athletes from both teams to meet, chat, and goof off together for a few minutes before adults issue any formal statements of sportsmanship.

An easy way to accomplish this might be to have the athletes stand in alternating fashion (as opposed to being divided by team) a few minutes before the national anthem plays and during any other pre-game announcements.

As a coach, shaking hands and chatting with the officials and opposing coaches is also important for setting a good example for your team. Some coaches go so far as to have their players greet and thank officials and opposing coaches prior to the game. Not only does this encourage sportsmanship, it also helps younger athletes practice the components of a respectful greeting, including eye contact, a few polite words, and a firm handshake.

PA Announcer for A Day

Many (if not all) high school sports associations make a customary public address announcement about sportsmanship prior to a game, similar to this one from the Alabama High School Athletic Association:

“Good evening, (name of school) welcomes you to (name of field) for tonight’s game. We remind you that interscholastic events are an extension of the classroom, and that lessons are best learned when respect is shown to all. Please let your good sportsmanship show during the game.”

Unfortunately, announcements like these often fall on deaf ears amidst pre-game excitement. One solution to get more people to pay attention is to allow one athlete be the honorary PA speaker, similar to how Major League Baseball games have a young fan announce the first batter in the lineup. People pay attention when kids take on a role usually held by adults, and this way they (and their teammates and opponents) might actually listen to the message being communicated.

Cross-Sport Sportsmanship

In high school, sportsmanship should not only be encouraged between opposing teams, but also between athletes from different sports within the same school. Pairing up teams that have parallel seasons and having them support each other with pre-game activities (such as forming a tunnel) and then staying to act as a cheering section can help create a connection between athletes that might not otherwise interact or publicly support one another.

For instance, if a school’s baseball and softball teams are paired, the players attend each other’s home games, and vice versa. Some schools also pair up teams that have different seasons (e.g. boys’ basketball and girl’s tennis), if teams in the same season have too many coinciding game days.
While getting an entire team to attend every home game is likely impossible due to other sports, school, and life obligations, assigning a few team ‘ambassadors’ to each game can still provide some consistent representation. It could also be something done on a volunteer-basis, with a prize of some sort going to those who went out and supported their classmates the most.

Sportsmanship and Safety Huddles

Some youth sports leagues, like the Northwest Junior Football League in Washington, do a pre-game ‘safety huddle‘ with athletes, parents, coaches, and officials. During this time, officials and coaches deliver a message about sportsmanship to the group, in addition to covering rules and concussion symptoms and protocol.

Similar to the PA announcement example above, this idea could be taken a step further and given more meaning if athletes were somehow involved in the meeting beyond just listening to adults talk at them. While CTE is nothing to make light of, having a few athletes act out what concussion protocol and good sportsmanship looks like could be a better way to have the message actually paid attention to.

Pre-Pre-Game Sportsmanship

Many admire sport’s ability to reveal a person’s true character and the ways they respond to adversity. But, the foundation of character isn’t only formed during pre-game warm up or even in the locker room; it develops and grows at home, in school, and throughout everyday life.

Thinking of sportsmanship as something you can only teach in the context of sports is a quick way to deaden the message. Sportsmanship is learned inside and outside of sports. As a parent or coach, the way you treat other people and your attitude when things don’t go your way are ultimately going to have a bigger impact on your athletes than any pre-game speech, no matter how friendly you are to officials and the opposing team’s coach.

In order for young athletes to keep sportsmanship top of mind during the action and excitement of a competition, the message needs to be reinforced frequently, consistently, and in a variety of ways. Pre-game sportsmanship activities are a great way to make the message of sportsmanship more engaging and to set the right tone for the competition ahead.

TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.

 Bad Calls

Bad Calls 

The best ways for coaches and parents to respond to bad calls  

Bad calls happen. They happen in youth sports, high school sports, professional sports, and the Olympics. Of all the places where officiating mistakes happen, youth sports are probably where they matter the least. But, it’s on the sidelines of kids’ games that we often see parents and coaches losing their cool.

Before we look at three categories of bad calls and how to deal with them, it is crucial for all parents and coaches to remember that the referees in youth sports are often volunteers. Even those who are paid are likely refereeing out of their love of the sport rather than the compensation. They are human. They make mistakes. They have feelings.

Making accurate calls is important, but if we are looking to youth sports to teach kids valuable lessons about sportsmanship, responsibility, competition, and handling adversity, then it is important to realize that missed calls play a necessary role in teaching those lessons.

Let’s look at three categories of officiating errors and how parents and coaches can best respond to them.
The Official Missed It

An official can’t be everywhere at once, and there is no instant replay in youth sports. Sometimes things like a handball in soccer, a travel in basketball, or an out-of-bounds in field hockey simply get missed because the referee wasn’t in a position to be able to see it. Play continues with this type of error even though the correct call would have resulted in a stoppage of play. The players involved often know the error occurred, and parents and coaches who happened to be in the right position to see the foul know it occurred. So, what should happen next?


Don’t overreact to individual instances of missed calls due to unseen infractions. If it’s becoming a consistent problem, either in your team’s favor or not, have a calm conversation with the official during a stoppage in play. Officials want to perform as well as they can, and pointing out a consistent problem can help the official address it.

Your players’ attitudes and actions will reflect your response to missed calls. If you express anger or frustration, they are likely to respond that way as well, on the sidelines and on the field.

When talking to your players, use this type of missed call as an opportunity to point out that things don’t always go your way, but you have to keep playing and focus on what you can control. Another way to approach it is to encourage players to perform their best so the game is not close enough that a missed call would affect the outcome.


Try not to worry about it and absolutely don’t yell about it. Your job on the sideline is to encourage your athlete and all the athletes on the field or court. You’re there to enjoy watching your child. You’ll probably notice missed calls, but let the coaches and officials handle it.

When your child expresses frustration about missed calls, either during a break in play or after the game, you have the same opportunity as the coach to reinforce the notion that life isn’t always fair, things don’t always go your way, and you can only control your own play.
The Official Misjudged it

This category of officiating errors focuses on infractions the official sees, but misjudges in terms of severity. For instance, a shove, kick to the shins, or elbow to the ribs might look pretty benign from one angle, but very rough from another. Compared to missed calls, misjudged calls often have an impact on player safety.

In some cases, officials may be too lenient and allow rougher play that endangers athletes. In other cases, officials are hypersensitive to contact and call fouls that seem unnecessary.


If the official is being too permissive of rough play and your players are at risk, speak to the official immediately to encourage them to be more proactive about controlling aggressive play. You can also adjust your player matchups or game strategy, if possible, to reduce the frequency of contact with players who are being aggressive.

On the other hand, if the official is highly sensitive to infractions, work with your players to be even more conscious of how they’re playing. This can be a useful lesson on adapting to the situation.


Watching someone be rough with your kid is hard to handle calmly, but losing your temper isn’t going to help either. Let the coaches and officials handle it on the field, and if you feel the need to make your voice heard, talk to your team’s coach. Avoid the urge to yell at the official, and absolutely refrain from yelling directly at the opposing player.

If your player or team is getting called for infractions based on a highly sensitive official, use the opportunity to reinforce the idea that you have to learn how to adapt to the situation and find a way to perform your best.
The Official Got Mixed Up

Sometimes officials make mistakes, like losing track of the number of players on the field, counting the incorrect number of strikes or balls, or giving the ball to the wrong team. It happens. This is when the old adage, “It takes a village…” comes into play.


If you notice the error, bring it to the official’s attention so it can be corrected. Particularly in youth sports, these situations are best handled with a sense of humor. In competitive club and school sports, there may be a more formal process for correcting officiating errors.


If you notice the error, bring it to the coach’s attention instead of directly confronting the officials. The coach is the person designated to speak and make decisions on the team’s behalf. And in a loud environment with voices coming from all directions, the coach is the person an official will pay attention to.


Youth sports, even competitive youth sports, are supposed to be a positive experience for young players. Accurate officiating is important, but the big picture lessons that can be learned through youth sports participation are achieved through wins and losses, good calls and bad.

TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.

 Grit: How to Get Back up After Failure

Grit: How to Get Back Up After Failure

How to help athletes learn from setbacks and fail forward

Failures are guaranteed in life and in sport, but often times, the way coaches and parents respond to failure will either crush a young athlete’s confidence or inspire them to take advantage of a valuable learning moment.

To help kids develop greater resilience, perseverance, and grit, it is important to incorporate the following practices to encourage young athletes to fail forward and use failures as a catalyst for learning and positive change.
Support an Athlete’s Passion

Angela Duckworth, New York Times best-selling author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, define grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals.”

So, in order for your athlete to stick with a difficult activity, it has to be personally valuable. This means when your young athlete shows passion for an activity, encourage them to pursue it. If they are playing a sport they are not passionate about just to please parents, coaches, or peers, they are more likely to quit in response to minor failures.

When athletes ask Coach Bill Curry, a 4-time NFL Champion and former Head Football Coach at the University of Alabama, about whether to stick with football, he asks, “What’s in your heart?”

Grit, he also reasons, starts with passion. If a young athlete is passionate and ready to work hard, he should stick with it. In some cases, perseverance pays off. Even when it doesn’t, athletes still learn valuable lessons – about themselves, teamwork, relationships, and more.
Help Athletes Honor Commitments

When kids struggle to learn a new sport or fail to meet expectations, they sometimes want to quit mid-season.
Coach Curry advises parents to help kids develop grit by encouraging them to finish out the season and honor the commitment they made to themselves and their teammates. “My first season of football I wanted to quit, but my father said I had to finish what I started,” he remembers. “By the end of the season, it was the relationships with my teammates that made me fall in love with football.”

Honoring commitments is an important life lesson that will benefit kids in all areas of life, and sticking it out for a season provides enough time to overcome initial hurdles to discover the aspects of a sport that do ignite an athlete’s passion.
Don’t Rush to the Rescue

Youth sports provide a great environment to learn how to deal with failure, but parents can hinder that process by rushing to rescue their child from adversity. It is important to help kids talk through problems and discuss potential solutions, but don’t just tell them what they should do. Let them figure it out and do the work.

Duckworth states, “A degree of autonomy during the early years is also important. Longitudinal studies tracking learners confirm that overbearing parents and teachers erode intrinsic motivation.”

She adds that “grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity. The maturation story is that we develop the capacity for long-term passion and perseverance as we get older.”
Give Constructive Feedback

Coach Curry emphasizes that supporting a player doesn’t mean a coach or parent can’t call athletes out for failing.

“Everything starts with relationships,” Curry says. “When you have a trusting and caring relationship with a person, you can push them hard and they know it’s because you believe in them. Those players will give you all they have.”

But, he adds, “Negative responses to negative performances can crush a kid when it comes from a coach or parent who hasn’t built a strong relationship first. And those kids never forget it.”

Failing is part of life. It’s our job to encourage grit as a character strength in developing athletes.

Watching your young athletes fail is challenging, but stepping into your support role as coaches and parents to turn that failure into a teachable moment is the most beneficial thing you can do for your athlete.

“I’m an expert at failing. I’ve done lots of it as an athlete, a coach, and a person,” Curry summarized. “But every failure makes you better, and a big part of our jobs as coaches and parents is to help kids turn failures into successes.”

Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).

TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.

 Stronger Team Mindset

Stronger Team Mindset

How to get back in the game with a stronger team mindset

All teams face challenges and disappointments, and one of a coach’s most important roles is teaching young athletes how to deal with setbacks and come back stronger. According to Dr. Jim Afremow, PhD, sports psychologist and author of The Champion’s Comeback: How Great Athletes Recover, Reflect, and Reignite, successful comebacks begin with a team’s mindset.

Afremow has identified what he calls the “Seven L’s” for creating a successful comeback:
• Let go
• Look for support
• Love the Game
• Learn, Labor
• Learn optimism
• Lean on your mental game

While you can learn more about all seven in his books, three of particular interest to coaches are: Let Go, Learn Optimism, and Lean on Mental Game.

Let Go

“Ruminating about our mistakes and failures is like holding on to a brick,” says Afremow. Some young athletes benefit from a more literal demonstration, so he recommends bringing an actual brick to practice, discussing the importance of “releasing the brick” and being freed from the weight of past mistakes. Some teams adopt “release the brick” as a mantra and even pantomime dropping a brick as a physical cue following an error.

Coaches have to set a consistent example to reinforce the “let go” attitude, which means not dwelling on setbacks. “Getting over a tough loss or a poor performance is about moving forward,” says Afremow.

Encourage athletes to shake off mistakes and focus on the next play. After a loss, acknowledge what went wrong, but emphasize what went well and what can be improved.

Learn Optimism

“Optimists see success as personal, permanent, and pervasive, whereas failure is situational, short-lived, and specific,” says Afremow. “Optimists are more likely to sustain success and bounce back when knocked down.”

Humans have a natural inclination to be critical and learning to be consistently optimistic can require a great deal of positive reinforcement. Dr. Afremow recommends adhering to a 5 to 1 praise-to-criticism ratio when providing feedback to individuals and whole teams.

Expressing five positives for each negative may not always come easily, but the impact on young minds is worth the effort. It is a good idea for a coach to occasionally track comments (or have an assistant coach do so) to see how well they are actually balancing positive and negative feedback.

Lean on Mental Game

Developing an effective mental toolbox during childhood can help prepare athletes for success throughout their academic, personal, and professional lives. Dr. Afremow reminds coaches of three techniques they can teach to help young athletes develop:

• Mindfulness: “Mindfulness is paying attention to what’s happening in the moment,” says Afremow. Find moments during stretching, breaks, or practices for athletes to be quiet and mindful in the moment. Focus on fully experiencing what’s happening now instead of what just happened or is about to happen.
• Visualization: Visualization is doing mentally what you do physically. Effective visualization requires training and practice. Facilitate brief exercises with individual athletes and the team. Guide them through the process of “seeing” and “feeling” themselves executing particular skills and achieving success.
• Body Language: “Body language is nonverbal communication through postures, gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements,” says Afremow. When athletes exhibit positivity they invite positivity, even following mistakes.

In all areas of life there will be wins and losses, triumphs and setbacks. Teaching young athletes to lose and come back stronger is as valuable as teaching them to win.

To read more about Dr. Afremow’s Seven L’s and his newest book, The Young Champion’s Mind, look up Gold Medal Mind.

TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport® inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, by creating leaders across communities through sport.