Child psychologist on stress in professional sports: what sentence should be forbidden to parents.

Updated on 02/19/2022 at 10:29 AM

  • After her failed freestyle, there were bitter tears: 15-year-old snowboarder Camila Valleoa could not stand the pressure at the Olympics and finished fourth.
  • Previously, she had caused a public uproar with her doping offense. In an interview, a child psychologist explains how much stress children can handle and how to impart a healthy approach to performance – even beyond the athletic field.

Russian figure skater Kamila Valeeva, who has caused a stir for days due to her doping, has failed massively in free skating at the Olympics. The Real Gold favorite and the “Miracle Runner” fell a few times and ended up only finishing fourth. Is it not possible to call the performance when the stress is too great?

enough: In fact, a certain amount of pressure is necessary to be motivated and able to perform. Because pressure is nothing but pressure. This only arises when the goal is personally important to us, failure is upsetting and one’s abilities are judged too low. Low pressure motivates us to move forward. However, too much stress can actually lead to people feeling overwhelmed and denied access to achievements and skills. For example, the ability to focus can be severely affected.

Vallewa’s case impressively shows the pressure placed on young professional athletes. What does that pressure do to a 15-year-old?
enough: Excessive stress can increase stress levels. Constant exposure to increased stress has many negative effects on the body and mind. These include increased blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, lack of sleep, and stomach ulcers, as well as sleep disturbances, irritability, fears, low self-esteem, and social withdrawal. The risk of developing various mental illnesses, such as episodes of depression, anxiety or eating disorders, increases. In competitive sports, it is not uncommon to notice that athletes associate their self-esteem with their accomplishments and failure is hard to bear.

Camila Vallewa’s failed freestyle capped an emotionally unprecedented day with Michaela Schiffrin and Daniela Meyer. The world is horrified at what is happening to the 15-year-old in and out of the ice. Former Olympic champion Katharina Witt can’t calm down.

At what point does it stop being normal – how much stress can children and teens handle?
How much stress a child or young person can handle depends on many individual factors. Whether stress is seen as a trigger or stress depends on how the child learns to deal with stress.
What aspects play a role in this?
You should ask yourself the following questions: Does the child receive social support from the family, from friends, from the coach, from the team? Are there enough opportunities to recover from the stress of performing through other hobbies, free time, and getting to know friends? How does the environment deal with errors and failures? Is failure seen as a human being and an opportunity to learn something from it, or is it forbidden? Can you express your weaknesses, fears, and concerns and are they taken seriously? In general, are the needs of the child in full view enough? Does the child get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, enjoy what they are doing, and are self-motivated to achieve it?

In general, this sounds very dangerous. Is pressure in the professional sector always negative?
No, competitive sports can also be positive for the psyche of children and young adults. They act responsibly early on, learn to be independent early on and organize their daily lives. Success can contribute to an increase in self-esteem and prevent the development of mental disorders. Team sports also allow for early and better development of social skills.

After her performance, Valeeva put her hands in front of her face. Former figure skater and today’s ARD expert Katharina Witt analyzed: “She should have protected her. She was a shadow of her.” What special protection measures are needed for children in professional sports?
In recent years, a lot has been improved to protect children. However, this is still expandable, since most of it has to do with physical factors. For example, age limits have been raised in international competitions, and coaches are better trained, for example in terms of pedagogy. Children and young adults are cared for by multidisciplinary teams made up of physiotherapists, nutritionists, sports doctors and coaches. There are also regular checkups to check for negative physical developments, such as weight.
What to do next?
It is also advisable to engage sports psychologists or child and youth psychologists in order to be able to identify and address psychological changes. Training content and training plans should also be adapted to the age of children and youth.

Acrobatics to Zumba: Is there more stress in certain sports than others?
There is no comprehensive answer to that. It ultimately depends on what the child wants and whether he likes to do it and is well looked after. But some sports focus more on perfection than others, whether it’s the execution of the sport itself or the body image to be achieved – think figure skating, dance, and gymnastics. Team sports have the advantage that children have peers with whom they can share ideas and receive more support.
How can you teach children how to handle achievement and ambition in a healthy way?
Managing stress well is the most important thing. It is always helpful to cultivate a culture of discussion in the child’s environment, where problems are not taboo and the child’s needs are taken seriously. In this way, parents and coaches can set boundaries that do not overwhelm the child and young person. You can motivate the child, get rid of his worries, and support him in his plans. Failure should never be punished and meeting needs should never be linked to success. Sentences like “You can’t do anything unless you win” should be taboo.
Are there any warning signs that caregivers can look out for?

Yes, warning signs can be physical, such as headache or stomachache, difficulty sleeping or increased tiredness, or decreased or increased appetite. In terms of behaviour, a child can be more irritable with even tantrums, social withdrawal, crying, and anxiety. However, this varies from child to child.

More news about the Olympic Games can be found here

Can parents also protect their children from their ambitions? After all, it’s not just parents who put more pressure on them.

It is important to talk with the child about why he is so ambitious. Why is a particular achievement so important to a child? The focus should always be on joy and fun and not on the child thinking he has to do it to be of value. Healthy ambition is important and must also be maintained. It is important to have good social support and, above all, calm the child in case of defeat and encourage him to continue to pursue his dreams. Therefore, a healthy attitude towards failures and mistakes is the most important thing. Errors are natural and human. They are good and important to learn from.

About the expert:
Tarika Reichen She is a psychologist at the Ruhr University in Bochum. Engaged in the practice of treating children and young adults.

Sources used:

  • Interview with Tarika Reichen
Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin, spokesperson, Russia, Moscow, press conference, 2022

The tragedy that surrounded the Russian snowboarder Kamila Valeeva is affecting people all over the world. Now the Kremlin is speaking. Before that, it was much less serious – when athletes say things unsupervised in the heat of the moment. (with material from dpa and afp)

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