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How to understand and help your child deal with nerves

Nerves are ok! There, we’ve said it, they are not to be frightened of or think they are a sign that your young athlete is going to perform badly.

Nerves can be displayed very differently from one person to the next and there is no right or wrong way to show them, but one big piece of advice to give your child is for them not to fear nerves but embrace them and learn to control them.

As a parent we naturally want to fix things and it can be so hard to watch your child before a race who may be very quiet, not wanting to eat anything, they may be shaking, say they’ve got stomach ache, look worried, bite their nails etc. Knowing how to deal with them when they are nervous can be challenging but it’s important not to dismiss the nerves or say things such as “Don’t be nervous” or “There’s nothing to be nervous about” – this trivialises the issue and is not a great deal of help to them.

2 things you can do to help your young swimmer:

1. Acknowledge their nerves and tell them that nerves are ok and a normal human reaction - they are there because the body is preparing them to race. Nerves are a natural human reaction; the key is to normalise them and learn to control them. As a parent, tell them even though every person can display nerves differently it doesn’t mean that they aren’t feeling nervous.

2. Tell them not to focus too much on the outcome of the race eg “Am I going to win?” “Will I get a pb?” “What if I get disqualified?” Most athletes that focus on the outcome are more likely to perform badly. Instead tell them to focus on what they are doing right now which can not only help to control nerves but takes the pressure off worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet (the outcome).

Tips to help your child control their nerves:

Leading up to race day:

Preparing ahead of a competition helps the swimmer control their nerves:

a. Your young athletes must pack their OWN bag – this is not your job as a parent – if you do this you are taking away their responsibilities and their preparation which helps to control these nerves. Should you be worried they may have forgotten something allow yourself a sneaky look, but they must take ownership of this. We will add to this, please let your children make mistakes – if they forget something they will learn from it and never do it again (someone will have a spare) and in life we learn more from mistakes than we do success so treat this as an important life skill.

b. Decide on 3 target times for each race– it’s important to have realistic expectations for races and by planning for 3 target times, one you’d be happy with (not far off your PB), one you’d be really happy with (v close to your PB) and one you’d be ecstatic about (a new PB) can help manage these expectations. The achievements at each meet is dependent on lots of factors – the conditions, the training leading up to the meet, how they are feeling, any issues outside of the sport i.e. school, friendships etc (writing in the Journal leading up to the race is so important to help you understand anything that’s happening or patterns that begin to occur before races).

c. Think about the venue before the day – knowing where you are racing can help control the nerves, where the changing rooms are, the toilets (those nerves again!), the layout of the venue and seating, where marshalling is, where teammates are sitting, where the start is etc. Getting to the venue early enough on race day can help if your young athlete isn’t familiar with the venue.

d. Competitors – yes acknowledge you are racing against others but don’t dwell on it. By focussing on others takes away your preparation. Yes, they are there, what they do shouldn’t impact your race (we have all seen those keen to look over at how their competitors are doing during a race!). The focus should be on you, your race, your lane – race against the last time you did and not on whether someone else in your heat/final is going to do better.

e. Visualise –one of the most successful things to do to help deal with nerves. In the days leading up to the competition or on the morning of the race take some time out to visualise the complete race from start to finish, visualise your race where you are strong, confident, powerful, finish hard and always visualise a good result. This is one of the most successful ways of dealing with nerves as it helps the brain rehearse the perfect race and dispel any negative thinking.

On race day:

a. Get there early so they don’t panic about missing warm up or when they are racing.

b. They could have positive notes in their bag that reinforce a positive mindset which they can read just before going to the start.

c. Have a routine – some elite athletes have the same routine before every race – touch their toes, arm swings, step up on block with same leg each time, stare down the lane etc. Let your young athlete find one that works for them (if they have a great race ask them to recall what they did beforehand and get them to write it down – this may become their routine and help control nerves in the future).

d. Power breathe behind the start – this fools the body into a relaxed state. Big breath into the belly through the nose, exhale through the mouth, repeat 3 times.

e. Enjoy it! This is what all the hard work is for!

By doing all the above helps control nerves which in turn helps them to be in control and build confidence.

What if they didn’t do as well as expected?

As a parent, first and foremost you must support them wholeheartedly without adding any more pressure that they may already be feeling. Step back and have a reality check, your son or daughter doesn’t go out to there to perform badly, they want to do their best. All sorts of reasons can help explain a good or bad performance but don’t be quick to judge, don’t attempt to ‘fix’ things by telling them all the things they did wrong. Wait until after the event (this may even be a few days later) and ask them what you can do to help, let them explain what they think went wrong, get them to write it down.

What about the car journey home?

If they haven’t had a great race, don’t talk about it unless they want you to, don’t tell them about everything they could have done better, don’t be angry or disappointed, don’t tell them all the things they need to work on, don’t give them the silent treatment, it’s just a race and they may feel terrible enough already,


Make them feel you love them anyway, let them know in your voice tone, words, facial expressions and posture that their feelings are more important to you than their performance. Talk about anything else other than the race unless they bring it up, let them listen to music if they don’t want to talk, they may need this time to process stuff, help them keep it in perspective because in the big picture it’s not really what’s important here….your relationship with them and their emotional wellbeing IS!

What about your nerves as a parent?

Some shout (and wow do some shout!), some can’t watch, some are very quiet, some shake, heart races, and some can’t sit still, It is only natural that you feel nervous just as your young athlete does but accept this is normal and not to be feared. You cannot affect the outcome.

Our feelings are directly linked to our thoughts. If you feel sad there’s a thought that brought it on, if you feel excited there’s a thinking behind it, if you feel nervous there’s a link to your brain that’s made you feel that way. So, what’s your thinking behind those nerves? Are you thinking ‘oh my god what if they get disqualified?', ‘what if their goggles come off’ or ‘what if they perform badly’ You are thinking about things that are in the future and focussing too much on the outcome and not the here and now.

Stop your thoughts from taking over, think more excitedly and relax - yes you can power breathe, yes you may fidget or scream loudly so express your nerves how you want but don’t dwell on what may or may not go wrong and when they finish that race be as proud as punch regardless of the outcome- No athlete goes into a race to perform badly on purpose! In the days after, try and figure out why - did nerves get the better of them?, what do they think they could do differently next time (get them to write this in their journal), how can you as a parent help and support more? Work together to help for the next race.

Reality check – it’s only a race, the sun will rise and set again tomorrow

In Summary:

To do their best your young athlete needs to believe in themselves, know they have prepared well, treat those nerves as excitement and focus on the controllables (i.e. what they are doing in the present and not on the uncontrollables (i.e. other competitors or the outcome of the race). Provide unconditional love and support and help them to control their nerves without extra pressure.

Good luck for the next race!



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