Student athletes preparing to go back to school may want to take time out to think about all the upcoming tasks and responsibilities that will soon face. Getting back on schedule with classes, after school practices, homework, and finding time for friends and family can be overwhelming at times, often resulting in a lot of stress to manage. Some kids naturally handle all of these challenges, but many do not, making the transition back to school one that every sports family should take seriously.
Student athlete stress
The general term "stress" is used when people describe the tasks and challenges that they interpret to be difficult and overwhelming. Stress symptoms are experienced in a number of different ways, from physical aches and pains, to emotional mood shifts and anxiety. Dealing with stress is often tough for adults, and can be even more difficult for kids who haven't yet developed successful coping skills to offset stress. Some of these skills include, but are not limited to, effective communication skills, learning how to multi-task and delegate, and even learning the importance of turning to others who can help during stressful periods in life (i.e. family, coaches, and school counselors and psychologists).
Student athletes might actually be one of the more "stressed out" groups of people when you think of the unique obligations and responsibilities they deal with on a daily basis. Some common student athlete stressors include the following:
• Academic concerns. These include making sure to get enough rest to be alert during class, as well as creatively finding pockets of time to stay on top of homework and outside class assignments
• Physical training & development. Unlike other non-athletes, student athletes regularly watch their food intake, as well as spend a lot of their time conditioning and working out in the weight room.
• Dealing with pressure to succeed. In many instances student athletes serve as the ambassadors for the school and community, resulting in high levels of pressure to succeed on the field or court.
• Travel. Long bus rides and occasional overnight stays are just two more examples of things student athletes must prepare for that can take away from studying, or even getting good rest.
• Downtime. Some student athletes feel so overwhelmed by their schedule that they can't find time to hang out with friends, or do other normal, social things that kids like to do. Finding time to relax and enjoy life are essential to positive human growth and development, but sports can sometimes take away from downtime that other non-athletes experience.
Stay in front of stress likely heading your way
While sports can be stressful for kids, the answer is not to quit sports, but to instead learn healthy and effective ways to deal with the stress experienced as a student athlete. Stress inoculation is a psychological technique that is used to help mediate the stress people experienced, and it can be successfully used by student athletes who feel overwhelmed by their academic and sport challenges. In essence, the basic idea behind stress inoculation is to simply think ahead to stressors you are likely to experience in the future, and then develop develop a strategy ahead of time to help minimize negative consequences caused by the stress.
Interestingly, while student athletes do often experience a high volume of stress, many of the stressors they face are actually quite predictable. A few examples of common student athlete stress is provided below, followed by a stress inoculation strategy to help.
• A big day of exams. In most instances kids know ahead of time when it comes to their exam schedule (potential stress), but some stress can be mitigated by simple developing a study schedule a little earlier than usual. Rather than waiting until the last minute, student athletes might study a few minutes each night weeks before the exams, or even take advantage of long bus rides to catch up on reading.
• A big week of games. Student athletes can look ahead and circle the big (rivalry?) games on their schedule, and mentally rehearse how they will handle those games well before taking the field on game day. Don't wait until the last minute to fix a piece of equipment or remember your plays, but instead think about the tasks that will need to be completed before letting things become too stressful.
There's no getting around that sports can be stressful, but many of the stressors student athletes experience are actually very predictable. What this means is that kids can prepare ahead of time by developing stress coping responses that help them succeed, as opposed to getting swallowed by all of their tasks and responsibilities. Of course, there will always be unforeseen stressors (i.e. an unexpected injury), but by taking care of the predictable stressors kids then have more time and energy to devote to the problems they didn't see coming.
Dr. Chris Stankovich is the founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems, an athletic counseling and human performance enhancement center. Sports parents, please check out The Parents Video Playbook and sports counseling services at drstankovich.com