Do we need Psychologists to give children and adolescents the performance edge?

A couple of weeks ago I was intrigued to read the article by Richard Noone in page 4 of the Adelaide Advertiser (Monday 27th August 2012) entitled Kids psyched up for sport: Parents turn to psychologists to give children the edge. The journalist addressed an important and interesting topic regarding the ever increasing interest in the role of a sports psychologist in assisting up and coming sports people in becoming elite or professional athletes. What was interesting to me was to note how the sports psychologists interviewed ( John Crampton, Paul Penna and Tracey Veivers) all agreed that there was an increasing trend for parents to be seeking out the services of a performance or sports psychologist to give their children the best chance of achieving their goals. It is always interesting to me that performing artists often get left out of the mix when these discussions occur even though they face very similar challenges and also benefit greatly from these services.

Certainly in my work with gymnasts, dancers, vocalists, musicians and actors as a Performance and Clinical Psychologist, I have found a similar trend, but more so with teenagers and adults rather than children.  But the question that also crosses my mind that has not been debated at length in this article is how careful do we need to be to ensure that children are also able to be children and to enjoy sport or performance for the process and not just the outcome? Are some parents placing undue pressure on children and teenagers by giving them the message that winning is everything or pushing them to fulfil their own unfulfilled dreams? Do we want a generation of children who like some Olympic athletes believe that a silver medal is a failure? In my opinion, competition and goal setting has to be sensitively managed to ensure that it does not take away from the enjoyment of performance by creating a sense of threat. At what age is reasonable for us to be thinking about our children as in need of psychological support to give them the edge?

My experience has taught me that from about 13 years of age, performance often becomes far more challenging. Generally at this age, teenagers become more aware of their peers, more self conscious about their body and want to be accepted and liked. They will also do anything to avoid embarrassing themselves in front of teachers or friends for fear of judgement. As a result of these factors, performance often transforms from something that is simply fun to a threatening situation.

Exams or the element of competition may make teenagers more focused on potential outcomes and less focused on performing for the fun of it. The transition from childhood to adolescence therefore often presents many new challenges for the budding performer and parents must be careful to not push unnecessarily and to deprive children of the pleasure that comes with the joy of learning and experiencing performance.

Furthermore, the pressure of balancing training from a young age, school and friendships and the need to perform complex tasks requiring consistent focus would challenge any adult, let alone a teenager. So there is no doubt in my mind that the adolescents I work with benefit from the services of a performance psychologist.

Having experience in performance myself as a vocalist and public presenter, I know that performance is often unforgiving. We get one chance and we need to be prepared both technically and mentally to achieve our best. Athletes at an elite level understand that seconds may make a difference between winning and losing. Dancers understand that one incorrect placement of the body may result in injury or choreography messed up. Musicians understand that a poorly pitched note or incorrect timing can throw a song out very fast and result in a slippery slide downhill.

As performers we all certainly need to have that mental edge as well as technical mastery and will thus benefit from psychological input. What we must always remember however is that not every child wants to become an Olympian or be the best in their sport. Some children may just enjoy the sense of working in a team, the discipline of practice that prepares them for other tasks in the real world and the sense of achievement that comes with small goals achieved. For others simply participating is enjoyable and allows them to make good friends with a common interest.

However for those young people who are more serious about achieving success in their performance field, it is important to learn that one of the keys to this outcome is to continue to keep alive that childlike curiosity for learning and experiencing the world. Children have the ability to be mindful naturally when very young, but as the use of language and analysis develops through adolescence, so does the capacity to judge experience e.g.  to label  physical symptoms during performance as “anxiety” rather than “excitement” . This capacity poses challenges that if not carefully managed will take away the passion and the commitment and replace it with a sense of threat, danger and anxiety.

Here are 10 reasons why consulting a performance psychologist may give your adolescent the best chance to achieve their goals, maintain wellbeing and consistently enjoy their performance:

  • To help build mindfulness skills – focusing attention through being “in the moment”
  • To ensure that enjoyment, passion and complete engagement always dominates
  • To help build the mental toughness needed to cope with extensive training, and the highs and lows of performance
  • To assist with increasing motivation and commitment to regular technical and mental practice
  • To help develop realistic and meaningful short and long term goals that can guide training and performance
  • To teach ways to channel performance anxiety to achieve that mental edge
  • To teach ways of dealing  with distractions effectively
  • To ensure that work/life balance is managed carefully to sustain relationships and general wellbeing
  • To provide an opportunity to discuss and prepare for  any performance opportunities that pose particular challenges
  • To help reinforce a positive experience of performance, teaching them to learn from and then detach from unhelpful past experiences

I would love to hear your opinions about this topic, particularly your views of children accessing the services of a performance or sports psychologist. There is no doubt that both adolescents and adults will benefit from these services, but in terms of children this is less black and white. What do you think? Alexandra Frost provides performance psychology services for a range of students, amateurs and professional performers. Check out Services for performers and presenters for more information.

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