Many parents and coaches don’t really understand that in order for a child-athlete to learn quickly and excel, they need to feel “safe inside.” This is not just some soft, emotional mush I’m talking about here! This is pure BIOLOGY!
As mammals, the most important thing to us is SURVIVAL.
Mammals don’t give a hill of beans about draining a 3, serving an ace, scoring a goal or registering a shut out. They care ONLY about staying safe!
When our nervous system senses danger, and this could be physical or emotional, (the fear of losing, getting embarrassed or humiliated, disappointing coach, mom or dad, etc.), we automatically click into self-protective response. For many young athletes, this isn’t the FIGHT or FLIGHT reflex that you might know about. In many performance situations, the athlete is blocked from protecting themselves by fighting or fleeing. (i.e you’re on beam trying to go backwards or behind the plate, getting ready to throw the ball back to the pitcher).
When you feel unsafe and can’t protect yourself by fight/flight, there’s a third, default survival option that clicks in: The FREEZE or IMMOBILITY response. Often when you see an athlete fall apart under pressure, choke, blank out, mysteriously lose their skills or continue to make the same, silly mistakes over and over again, they are stuck in freeze!
The only way that an athlete can get out of this freeze state and start performing like their “old self” is by feeling safer. And the MAIN way athletes start feeling safer is by HOW the adults around them, their coaches and parents, RESPOND to their performance difficulties.
Being kind, patient, RESPECTFUL and supportive helps athletes feel safer. Most coaches and parents really want to help their athletes. Their hearts are in the right place. But their frustration at not being able to help, at seeing an athlete continually perform below their potential or their disappointment in them gets in the way. Just remember, anything that you say or do that feeds an athlete’s insecurity when they’re stuck, will keep them stuck!