Boys of Summer
Each summer, 12-year-old boys are thrust into the spotlight of the Little League World Series. It is a great thrill for most of them to be on TV and have the whole country watch them compete play against the best young baseball players in the world for what is truly a world championship.
Into the Pressure-Cooker
Players at the Little League World Series face several pressures, including:
Community Pressure: It isn't easy for kids to handle the pressure of representing their hometown.
Tough Competition: Playing at such a high level of competition causes stress.
Travel: All the teams have traveled a significant distance from home and spending time in a new and unfamiliar environment.
Handling the media spotlight. The glare of the media spotlight, both print and television, is intense. Kids aren't accustomed to being interviewed and having their answers captured on television or reported in the newspaper.
Pressure: A Part of Sports
Pressure on athletes, whether youth or professional, is a fact of life; no player in competitive sports is immune. The stories of athletes who succumb to the pressure are legion: In the 2001 World Series, for example, the Arizona Diamondbacks' closer, Byung-Hyun Kim, experienced a meltdown of monumental proportions, giving up dramatic game winning homers in the ninth inning of both Games 4 and 5 against the New York Yankees. He continues to be haunted by his failures, as does perhaps the most famous goat in sports history, Boston Red Sox first baseman, Bill Buckner, who booted Mookie Wilson's easy grounder in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, allowing the New York Mets to score the winning run, and eventually the Series. Eventually Buckner had to leave the Boston area after being tormented for years by angry Red Sox fans.
Media Pressure Is More Difficult for Young Players
Clearly, 12 year olds are a lot less prepared to deal with this kind of pressure than are professional players. It would be easy to make the case that 12 year olds should not be subjected to these types of pressures. However, even if Little League baseball chose to understand the problems their World Series creates for young players, the organization probably will not change the format or stop this style of competition.
Since the pressure of high-level competition in youth sports is here to stay, it is imperative that parents of young athletes learn about performance pressure and how they can help their child be better prepared to handle the stressors.
Like older athletes, kids remember their failures and successes in sports, and they have long lasting emotional impact. In my private practice I often hear stories from players who recall difficult moments and how they were severely impacted by the event. It might be hitting a batter in the head with a pitched ball; an injury sustained at second base while sliding in or a very nasty confrontation between an umpire and player. The young athlete is constantly being challenged to interpret events on the field in the context of his emotional foundation and personal values.
Strategies For Coping With The Stress
Here are several suggestions that parents can implement to help their young athlete deal with pressures of the competitive sports, whether it is the Little League Word Series or a regular league game at home:
Talk to your child's coach. Open a dialog with the coach, so that parent and coach can deal, as adults, about helping the child deal with the pressure. These conversations should happen away from the playing field. The parent should alert the coach to potential problems his or her child has in dealing with the pressure.
Teach a balanced approach to sports. Help the young player to put sports in perspective and develop a balanced approach to life, one in which his or her self worth is not determined by their performance on the athletic field. Make yourself available to your child several hours after the game to talk about any diffult situations that arose. This is an opportunity for the parent to listen and not talk. Processing information means listening and helping the child understand the situation. It does not mean telling the child what she did wrong and how you would have done it.
Teach your child how to handle mistakes. Unfortunately most coaches believe that if you yell at a player after they have made a mistake they will be able to correct the problem. This is not a sound coaching philosophy. When yelled at, most young players are more likely to become more anxious about making another mistake. The key performance principle for overcoming mistakes is to learn from the mistake and then let it go. The longer a player stays focused on the error the more likely they are to repeat it.
Teach relaxation under pressure. At all levels of sports, the ability to relax under pressure is a key skill. Yet most coaches don't have an idea how to coach this way. As a parent you can help your child learn this skill. Learning proper breathing is particularly important, and, for young players, is pretty easy to do. You can help your child experience the relaxation of the muscles that comes from exhaling. As you help them learn to be comfortable about focusing on exhaling they are more likely to remember this skill during the pressures of competition.
Develop a media strategy. Work with your child's coach and league administrators to develop a media strategy. This should be done ahead of time so that players can be protected from too many probing questions and too much attention. It is also important to help players get refocused on the reason they are at competition after talking to the media.
Competition for young players is probably here to stay. As parents and coaches our job is to help young athletes learn how to handle the pressure. When young players are taught how to handle the stress of competition, they will enjoy the game more. When kids are embarrassed or made to feel stupid or that the loss was their fault, they are more likely to quit playing the sport they used to enjoy.