Helping Kids to Cope with “Self-Intimidation”

When young athletes psych themselves out before competition, it is called self-intimidation. Self-intimidation starts its destructive power at the very beginning of the match, or may even be something the athlete starts working on weeks before the game. Self-intimidation can cause athletes to lose composure and lose focus during the competition. This in turn can lead to poor performance.

Symptoms of Self-intimidation

Self-intimidation can have many different causes. It is important for the athlete to identify when this intimidation is happening and what the cause might be. Here are some common signs to look for in your young athlete to see if she has self-intimidation.

  • Feel pressure to perform perfectly or win
  • Doubt their own level of skill competing at a high level
  • Compare themselves to other athletes who they think are better
  • Worry about competing against a ranked or well-known athlete
  • Get caught up in the importance of a game

I, Dr. Cohn, played high school football at a small school in the city of Buffalo. Many of us had to play on both offense and defense because of our small school size. We relied on quickness and smarts to win games.

When we went to play bigger teams in the country, they most often were stronger and larger than us city folk. It was easy to look across the field and see how many tall players they had compared to our small team.

These mental comparisons that our football team made with the other team are similar to the errors that my students make today. They may:

  • Worry about the reputation or record of the opponent
  • Compare their skills against the skills of their opponent
  • Watch their competition warm up and lose confidence
  • Doubt their ability to play well against their competitor

Our football coach was well aware that some of the players on our team were gawking at the other team members and mentally making comparisons. He could tell that we were becoming intimidated by their size and numbers. I remember the coach telling us to focus on our warm up and not pay attention to the other team in the pregame.

As my coach suggested then, kids should focus on their own game and their own strategies for winning. They should concentrate on what they have to do to prepare for the competition. Kids should avoid gawking at their opponents. A triathlete for example, may think about racing the course to the best of his ability instead of racing named athletes in his division or class. Talking about the possibility of self-intimidation ahead of time can help kids to anticipate the distraction. It helps to see your competitors as just humans. What are they thinking and feeling? Could that ranked athlete feel nervous to lose their position? By getting inside that competitor’s head, kids will realize that all players have mental game issues that they need to deal with.

Parents can help on the day of the competition by bringing their kids back to their focus. Acknowledge the situation, it’s a big game, the other player is highly ranked, or they have a good record, and then bring the athlete back to the focus. Self-intimidation can be minimized by kids having their own game plan, having confidence in the plan, and keeping their focus on the plan.

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