Simple skills to improve sports performance

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Playing sports is an opportunity to meet new friends, learn how to compete and have fun. As kids begin to play organized sports, usually between ages 4 to 6, the focus should be on the basics: having fun, learning sportsmanship and being a good teammate.

When do kids begin to pay more attention to being competitive and honing their athletic skills, as opposed to playing just to have fun? In my experience, sometime around middle school children begin to transition from simply having fun to mastering athletic skills. The transition to serious sport competition typically happens gradually, and by high school (especially these days), kids are almost expected to know the basics about mentally preparing themselves to play to their best ability.

This month I would like to introduce a few basic concepts you can teach your child to help him or her play to the best of his or her ability and have more fun, too:

* Help your child understand that sports require three interrelated aspects of training: physical training, technical instruction and mental preparation. It's important kids begin to learn the basics of a healthy diet and safe ways to improve their strength and speed as well as understand the basic plays and strategies associated with his or her sport (the technical aspect). Mental training involves playing with confidence, having proper focus and staying composed when things do not go so well.

* Helping your child with focus can lead to immediate skill improvement and consistency. Take a few moments to help your child identify what is relevant while playing (i.e. knowing what to do with the ball, what player to cover, etc.) versus what is irrelevant (i.e. who is watching the game, the color of his or her uniform, etc.). Oftentimes, kids get caught up paying attention to things that don't really matter when they are competing while overlooking and taking for granted other things that do matter. This simple exercise can help kids quickly build confidence by making more plays -- and possibly winning more games, too.

* Simple imagery is another skill that will help with focus and skill acquisition, amongst other things. While there are numerous ways to use imagery, I find that simply prompting kids to think about the upcoming game and some of the successful plays they are about to make really helps (as kids grow older there are more advanced ways to use imagery). Imagery helps with focus and confidence -- making a good play in your mind can be experienced emotionally in a very similar way as it is in real life with just a little practice.

* Kids can learn how to relax under pressure by practicing a few basic skills. Probably the easiest way young athletes can learn to calm down is by taking two to three really deep breaths into their lungs when they are beginning to feel nervous. This simple skill is amazingly effective and can be teamed up with imagery for maximum results. A second skill is progressive muscle relaxation, a technique where they start with any one muscle group (i.e. biceps) and then tense and relax only that muscle group for three to five seconds. While tightening and relaxing each muscle group, focus only on that particular muscle group and do one to two repetitions. Your child can quickly complete the major body muscles in just a few minutes (i.e. arms, legs, chest and back) or may want to use a modified version of just tightening and relaxing the hands if he or she plays a more finesse sport such as golf or bowling.

These tips and techniques are designed to introduce you to the wonderful field of sport psychology and some of the basic skills kids can begin to learn as early as junior high school. Just like learning how to throw a ball accurately, these skills will improve over time with a little practice. Good luck.

Dr. Chris Stankovich is an expert in sport psychology and has co-written two books, The Parent Playbook and Positive Transitions for Student Athletes. If you have a sports question,chris@drstankovich.com, visit DrStankovich.com or call 614-561-4482.