By Rebecca Smith, M.A.
The Swim Meet Crisis Action Plan: Your Child is in Tears on the Pool Deck. Here’s What to do.
Ever sport parent and one time or another has seen “that kid.” They had a bad race last time, or they’re trying a new event they’re not comfortable with. The nerves kick in. They turn from your sweet, hard-working swimmer into someone completely different.
Some swimmers shut down. They don’t want to talk. They feel like they’re gonna throw up. They want to go home. Parents are left with NO clue how to help this version of their child. Next time you find yourself in that situation, here’s what to do:
Step 1: Acknowledge
Do not minimize your child’s distress – it is very real for them.
- Do not say: “calm down” or “it’s okay”
- Say things like, “I know you don’t feel well, and this feels scary. I will help you get through this and it will end soon.”
- Offer hope. “You will not feel this way forever. Hang in there.”
Step 2: Normalize
- This is the same thing that happens when you go up a rollercoaster. Your brain is supposed to tell you when it thinks there is danger. The feeling is real, and it isn’t fun, but it isn’t bad either. This is a normal reaction.
- The smoke alarm in your house goes off when the house is on fire, but it also goes off when you burn toast. Your body gets nervous when you’re being chased by a tiger, but also when you get ready to play your sport.
Step 3: Breathe
- The way you tell your brain it’s okay and there is no tiger is to breathe deeply and focus on only what is right in front of you. Be in your body, be here now.
- Breathe deeply, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Pretend your belly is a balloon, fill it up with air when you breathe in, push out all the air when you breathe out.
Step 4: Relax
- Relax your shoulders and feel your feet on the ground. Keep breathing this way for a few minutes to tell your brain there is no tiger.
- Feel the muscles in your body and notice if any of them are tight and tense. Squeeze them extra tight for 3 seconds, then relax them.
- Keep breathing deeply.
Step 5: Identify
- Once the body has calmed a bit, identify the thoughts that are making you feel nervous.
- Are you overestimating (assuming something highly unlikely is about to happen)?
- Are you catastrophizing (imagining the worst possible thing)?
- This is often related to social concerns, like embarrassment
- Questions to ask:
- What would be so bad about that?
- What would that lead to?
- What would happen then?
Step 6: Question
- Is your child OVERESTIMATING (believing that something highly unlikely is about to happen)? Questions to ask:
- How many times have you had this thought before a race/meet?
- How many times has it actually happened?
- Next time you have that thought, how likely is it that it will really happen?
- Is your child CATASTROPHIZING (imagining the worst possible thing)? Questions to ask:
- How bad is it really?
- Is it just annoying or is it terrible?
- Will it make a difference in your life a week or year from now?
- What could you do to cope if it did happen?
Step 7: Reflect
- Later on, after the energy has returned to normal, reflect on what happened by asking the following questions:
- What went well?
- What could have gone better?
- What did you learn?
- Reflection turns every situation (good or bad) into a learning opportunity
Step 8: Prevent
- Have a plan – know what triggers the nervous feelings and expect to experience them. Decide in advance what you will do before these feelings strike and when they start to come on. Here are some examples:
- Before you get nervous: take 5 deep breaths before you get out of the car, read a list of positive thoughts before you warm up, listen to a song that makes you happy while you stretch, etc.
- Make a list of what is helpful when the nerves strike. Examples: watch your favorite video on youtube, play a game, think about your pet, joke with friends, etc.
- What can the parent do to help prevent meltdowns?
- Help boost your child’s confidence
- Help your child cope with fear of failure
- Help your child identify “self-limiting” expectations
- Help your child deal with distractions
- Help your child cope with setbacks
- Help increase the fun factor
- Help encourage self-motivation
- Leave the coaching to the experts
- Model the ideal behavior – increase your mental toughness
The Swim Meet Crisis Action Plan Recap:
During the meltdown:
After feelings have returned to normal:
Rebecca Smith, M.A. is a former competitive gymnast and High Performance Coach in the SF Bay Area. She specializes in mental toughness training for athletes age 10-18 and their parents.
Are you giving your young swimmer the best chance at success?
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