Boosting Their Mindsets
A healthy mind gets kids the most out of sport, play, and the school season. A clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience working with children and families, Dr. Angharad Rudkin shares tips to help kids overcome the pressure to perform, cope with setbacks, develop a healthy headspace, and more.
Conquering the Pressure to Perform
Ever felt so nervous it seems like people can hear your heart thumping in your chest? Clammy hands and shaky knees making it difficult to do the things you want?
This is all part of the pressure many kids feel to perform.
Whether it's running a 100-metre race, dancing in the school talent show, or presenting to an entire classroom, wanting to do something just right is a powerful drive—but one that comes with pressure. Fear of not doing something well can be overwhelming and get in the way of kids performing as well as they want.
Talking them through their feelings and letting them know it's ok to feel nervous helps. Nerves arise because we care about what we're doing. We can stop nerves from escalating with a simple technique.
When we feel anxious, our breathing changes and we take in shorter, sharper breaths. This triggers our 'fight or flight or freeze' response.
To combat this, tell your kid to focus on exhaling: blowing out long, slow, controlled breaths. This will help bring about calmness, activating the body's 'rest and digest' system. As they breathe out, it can help kids to imagine they're exhaling a golden thread, pushing it further and further into the horizon as anxiety fades.
From Setback to Bounceback
In sports, kids learn more from losing than from winning. But those lessons can be tough to process. People often equate success in sports with worth and happiness, and children get this message very early on. So when they lose, it can feel like the end of the world.
To turn this feeling around, we can help our kids realise losing is just part of the game, and part of life's journey.
Play is a perfect way to practice losing. In imaginary play, kids can encounter challenges they have to overcome. For example, “will England lose in the imaginary final to Brazil?”. In more structured play, there are always winners and losers too: “who’s first over the finish line?”.
In all these cases, children experience the disappointment of losing early on, but also see that life goes on afterwards. The game resumes, their friends still want to play with them, and their parents still love them.
If you as a parent find it hard to manage failure, your kids may observe and do the same. Notice your everyday shortcomings and reflect on them with your child, whether it’s missing a deadline or turning up to the wrong meeting. Talk to your kids about what happened and how it felt.
Sometimes, we don't give our kids the chance to learn how to fail and this can stunt their progress. Teach them to be their own coach and develop slogans to help them get through challenges: “I’ll try my best and that will be enough”, “I have 0% chance of winning if I don’t take part, and some chance of winning if I do.”
To take the pressure off winning or losing, it helps to reward effort over outcome. That way, kids will learn that praise and reward comes from what they put into something, rather than whether they win or not.
Finding Their Spark
Some kids define their interests early, while others discover what moves them well into adulthood. Their ‘spark’ can evolve over time. What’s important is to create space to find out what makes us feel good.
Organised activities are one way, whether it’s dance football, or swimming—whatever it is that makes kids happy, excited, calm or hopeful. But that doesn’t work for some kids—which is where play becomes a way to explore.
Some kids immerse themselves in an interest deeply, then move on. Others are more gradual, trying a number of things in the same period. Whatever your child’s personality type is, give them time and space to explore many different activities, both inside and outside the home.
The body reflects emotion, and whether a spark is real or not. Draw an outline of a body with your child and give them different scenarios. For example: “how would it feel to take the last penalty in a big cup final?”. Let them indicate their feelings on the drawing. Odds are they’d feel nervous and excited, with a
racing heart and stomach butterflies. When they’re watching their favourite show, they might say their body feels calm.
Ask them about the activities they do, the hobbies they have. What does their body feel like when they do them? Chances are they’ll never have thought of it in this way. Helping them tune their body can help them be more mindful of how they felt, and whether an activity is truly their spark.
Taking Part in Group Activities
In sports, there comes a time to step up to the plate. It can take a lot of confidence for kids to put themselves forward to be part of a group, team or even a casual playground kickabout. It can be hard for them to dive in without thinking of all of the things that could go wrong. So how do we combat this?
We can talk to our children about the imaginary lenses we all wear during the day. If they're tired and anxious, they could be looking at the world through gloomy glasses, always assuming things will go wrong. But the lesson here is: they can choose to change their lenses. They can switch their lenses to a more hopeful outlook.
If your child struggles to join in on games or try new things, ask them to change their lenses. They could draw their glasses for you and tell you what effect this change could have in terms of their mindset.
By acting as if they're the kind of person who joins in on things, they'll gradually start to think of themselves in that way. If your child just has to act like they're comfortable offering to join in group activities, over time they'll start to think of themselves as someone who can and does do that. That boost to self-identity will stick with them forever.