Anxiety, intensity and the young athlete

Just a short article today to help you start thinking a little differently about anxiety and young athletes.

There’s a myth out there that anxiety is always the enemy.  That anxiety always gets in the way of being in “the zone” and disrupts an athlete’s focus and concentration.  This is not entirely true. Anxiety in an athlete comes from an excess of unfocused or nondirectional energy.

As any true performer will tell you, there is a level of anxiety that is considered “directional” anxiety in psychology speak, that is, you focus the energy of the anxiety toward a desired outcome–a desired direction.   This type of anxiety is often referred to as being “psyched up” or “keyed up” before a game or performance and can often be felt after the performance is over as well.   After the game or practice, if things went well it’s excitement, happiness, enthusiasm, and if things didn’t go as the young athlete intended that anxious energy can be felt as anger and frustration, either self-directed or outwardly directed, or both.

The emotional maturity of the athlete, which is partly a function of age but not entirely, will in large part determine how this energy is felt, interpreted and expressed.  In an emotionally mature athlete, it will be channeled into self-directed messages and physical activity with intention: intention to correct, to improve, to master.  In an emotionally less-than-mature athlete it can come out as undirected anger, even rage, anger focused inwardly or outwardly at others.  It is the lack of focus and intention to channel the energy into improvement and mastery that separates the two.  Again, age is only a part of the question of emotional maturity.  Many of us can remember the days of John McEnroe and other professional, highly talented and highly motivated, intense athletes who lacked the emotional maturity to channel this energy in a productive manner.

It is important to help the young athlete learn to focus the energy as soon as they are able to do so, and progressively gain mastery over the energy, to avoid the emotional/chemical rewards of intense anger from becoming a habit.  Anger and rage create amazingly powerful chemicals in the body that plug into reward/pleasure receptors, and that is why some people become “hooked” on feeling anger or rage. While it is in an odd way pleasurable to the individual in the short term, in the long term this is emotionally and psychologically destructive both to the individual and to their families, friends and team mates.

When you have a young athlete in your home, it’s important to recognize that their intensity, while it may not (yet) come out in ways that are focused and productive, that intensity is part of what separates them from the average young athlete.  I have had parents come to me looking to eliminate that intensity “or we’ll stop them from playing.”  The answer is not to stop that intensity, but rather to help train the emotionally immature young athlete to focus the energy toward self mastery, both on the field of play and off.  What goes into “how” to do that is much too broad of a subject for a short blog post (in fact, books have been written), and is part of the work that we do with athletes of all ages.

So in short, if you have an intense athlete in your home who experiences pre- or post-event anxiety that is making others uncomfortable, the ultimate goal is not to eliminate the energy that is being expressed as anxiety/anger/frustration, but rather to help them learn to focus that energy in a productive way toward further self mastery both on and off the field of play.

 

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