How a sport psychologist can help youth athletes

Young athletes can be hard on themselves and each other. A missed pass, a dropped ball, a slow swim time can lead to feelings of “I’m not good enough” and that they let their coach, teammates and even parents down.

While no athlete is immune to anxiety, teens seem to be particularly vulnerable to the effects. The pressure they put on themselves can be intense, and unfortunately they’re not necessarily able to manage it. And it can ultimately affect their performance.

UW Health sport psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains that anxiety causes us to think less clearly, have slower reaction times, tense our muscles and even be less willing to take risks. All of which can affect an athlete’s performance during the game.

And making the situation even more challenging is that anxiety has a certain amount of “stickiness” – it can be difficult to move beyond a mistake so the anxiety increases the next time around with fear of making the same mistake again. Think of the kicker who freezes before a field goal attempt, the basketball player who hesitates at the free throw line or the diver who pauses at the end of the board.

“A lot of time is spent learning the physical technique of the sport, but very little on the mental aspect of the game,” says Mirgain.

Developing the mental skills to handle pressure and recover from mistakes can help teens in all aspects of their lives, whether it’s managing the pressures of competition, their school work or ultimately the pressures of a job.

While there are many different strategies, a few mind-body skills that Mirgain recommends include:

Developing a Mantra

Using a mantra can help calm anxiety and refocus the mind. Repeating something simple like “Do your best, forget the rest” can quiet negative self-talk.

Centering Techniques

Taking a few minutes before a game to do some breathing exercises can help an athlete focus before the game. And it doesn’t have to be obvious. Some teens may feel self-conscious and worried what their teammates might think but whether in the locker room or on the bus, closing their eyes and focusing on their breath can help calm nervous energy and allow them to refocus their mind.

Visualizing Success

Thinking about how the game will play out can help players anticipate issues. This includes thinking about setbacks as well – how can a player recover from a dropped ball or a missed goal? Being removed from the heat of the moment can help players think through the best scenarios.

Reflecting on the Game

Having a post-game strategy is important.

“Focusing on what happened, highlighting what went well and identifying what can be done differently can help reframe the negative thoughts that teens may have,” comments Mirgain. “Often they beat themselves up for how they performed. Instead, direct the conversation to the next time.”

Mirgain urges players and parents to keep some perspective. Many high school athletes will not go on to become collegiate ones, while many collegiate athletes may not focus on sports post-graduation. So it’s important to remember to focus on the personal growth that is developed through sports participation and not necessarily the sport itself.

Managing Sports Anxiety Class: July 17 and 24

This summer, Dr. Mirgain will offer a two-part class for teens to help them learn to manage sports anxiety. Held Mondays, July 17 and 24 from 9-10:30am, teens will learn mind-body skills to help manage anxiety and what to do if anxiety is interfering with performance. The class is covered by most health insurance plans. For more information, contact Michele at or (608) 890-6464.