Thursday, August 23, 2012

Embrace the Fear or Quit?

Last night we went to the open house at Sam’s new high school. It was like PTSD for me. With his schedule in hand, we had to go to each of his classes for ten minutes. I am one who actually liked school, but after going until the 18th grade (what cool grad school kids call it), I’m done.


Just sitting in his biology classroom and talking about dissection and photosynthesis made me want to scream. Don’t even get me started on the references to cosine, sine and tangents in math class. Ugh. Sam already got in trouble in Spanish class for cracking his knuckles. “No tronarse los dedos!” (I had to look that up). We are off to a good start!

I didn’t get in trouble much in school, did you? I remember one time in ninth grade my geometry teacher threw an eraser at my face and I cried. I’m sure I didn’t deserve it. These days if a teacher did that they’d be burned at the stake.

Good luck, Sam. See you at graduation. Hope you don’t get arthritis from all that knuckle cracking (also, never swallow your gum or it will take 49 years to digest).

Speaking of kids and high school, a reader emailed me an  interesting question yesterday.  I thought you guys might want to weigh in.

“My husband and I are really struggling with my son and running high school cross country. He loves the practices but not the meets. He has anxiety and gets down the  week before he has to run a race. He says it hurts too much (he goes all out, and it would not be an option for him to not do his his best in every race). I think because he is our best runner he feels that pressure. He likes to run and everything else about cross country except what it does to him. We have already told him he does not have to do track in the spring. Coming from a Christian perspective I feel God has given him a gift and the anxiety and stress is not from God. We want to do what is right, but it is a tough call.”

At first I thought this was similar to a a subject I wrote about a couple of months ago in a posted title, “Should We Push Kids to Run?,” but then I realized it was quite different. That older post referred to kids who wanted to quit sports, but were “forced” into continuing for varying reasons. The above question, in my opinion, is about the mental aspect of pushing hard, and if it is okay to quit when we feel scared and inadequate.

I don’t know what I would do in this mom’s shoes, and I never ran cross country, but here was my stab at a response. Maybe it stinks, but it came from the heart:

“My rule of thumb with my kids is that I encourage them to not make decisions based on fear.  If they hate something, that is another story. So, if your son hated cross country, I would say maybe he should finish out the season and stop. But, it sounds like the issue is ultimately his fear of failure and being uncomfortable.

Yes, he has pressure and anxiety, but that is likely rooted in him feeling he might not do well enough. I think any athlete who has  excelled and given it their all (and who is the best in their school at what they do) probably feels this. Running hard and fast is very demanding. For everybody. That is why coaches work so hard with their runners on the mental aspects of racing. 

It is also very tough to always be the winner because you have to live up to that each and every time. Maybe he needs to give himself permission to lose a race, to take the pressure off. Before quitting, I'd suggest some remedies to get to the heart of the fear and to manage the anxiety. Is his coach aware of what is going on? What is his/her advice?

If none of this works then in my opinion, it is his decision. If he truly loves running, he will come back to it. Yes, he may have a gift of running, but he also has other gifts. Just because we are good at something doesn’t mean we have to do it if it makes us really unhappy. We just need to make sure we stop for the right reasons.”

Can you help this mom out with some of your suggestions?

Did you ever deal with this personally while running cross country or track in high school or college? What did you do?

What is the best way to combat performance anxiety (besides Viagra)?



  1. I had a history teacher throw an eraser at my head in 10th grade. Great late 80s early 90s education.

  2. I'm a teacher - so I guess I'm stuck with all of that talk forever - oh wait - I teach elementary students - yessss. :) p.s. I like your answer to the reader - that is what I was thinking.

  3. I really like your answer. If you stop any time something worries you then you'd never leave bed. It's a slippery slope once you start giving in to fear.

  4. This is kind of off the topic of your post, but seeing that picture of you reading the dictionary made me remember when I was dating a really dumb guy in college and he came to my apartment and saw a huge dictionary sitting on the table and said, "Whoa, that is a BIG BOOK. That's why I didn't take college."

    Still makes me LMAO to this day. We didn't date for too long. Ahem.

  5. I think you did a good job of answering her question. I think we come across this in everyday life as well. The fear of not doing our best. Part of growing up is conquering that fear and reaching our potential:) Nice work!

  6. As a cross-country coach myself, I think your advice is spot-on. I would love to know if one of our athletes felt that way about races. Then we could work together on strategies to minimize the fear and make racing fun. After all, having fun is what it is all about.

  7. My government teacher used to shoot people with staples from the stapler. Aaaaah, those were the days. :)

  8. Gawwwwd you crack me up with that picture. I too have complete anxiety when anyone talks about a "group project" as it brings me back to my graduate school days in biz school, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

    I love your advice, great job. I think as the coach above said, working with the coach with his coach would be good too. I think it's hard for kids to understand sometimes that their friends/family/peer athletes will still like them even if they don't "win."

  9. That's a good answer. Actually I think the fear is probably good: this is a safe environment in which to get over anxiety before big events or performances. He'll be glad for the experience in college or his career.

  10. I love your advice. I know that fear stopped me from racing and it stopped me from having good relationships and it stopped me from doing well at work. Until one day I realized that my biggest obstacle was myself and being afraid. I still get a good case of the nerves from time to time, but when I do I sit myself down and ask what's the worst thing that can happen. I allow myself to fail or have a bad day. I just ask myself to do my best and to have the confidence in my own abilities. And now I have a blast racing. I have the best friends and hubby ever. And I'm doing great at work. I just had to get out of my own way.

  11. Yep good answer. I was quite good at volleyball in junior high and I loved it. I'm tall, I had a great serve and I could smash that ball. Then we moved cities and I had to start fresh in a new high school. I showed up at the volleyball tryouts during the first week of school. I did great, was pretty much told I was going to make the team and then I stopped showing up at the tryouts because I was terrified because I didn't know anyone and I was the odd person out and didn't fit in. I've regretted that. Being part of that team would have made getting to know people and getting a great group of friends. That was 23 years ago, and that was the first thing I thought of when I read this post.

  12. At School I played Rugby years ago, but gave up as I didn't like the pressure of a team, I felt it was up to me (I don't know why) to win the match, So I ran... Yes my running was OK and Cross Country is a team event, but you race alone So I alway had the feeling it was only me, so if I ran slowly it was only me, the team didn't mind. (that said I don't like people beating me who shouldn't!!!) I know the School CC is very big in the US, but maybe he needs to run a couple of races easy with a friend and just enjoy been out there... That is the great thing about running if you are good, you can alway tack it easy at a race and help someone else run well, it not only helps you, but helps them...

    Good Luck

  13. I live in a very high sports competitive school district/community. I actually wrote a post myself about this a while back. I have a varsity jacket, varsity letters, and played sports all throughout elementary and high school. However, I never felt the massive pressure kids nowadays feel. Somehow either in my era or my military child upbringing, the pressure wasn't as strong with sports. Where I live now, however, it is so fierce. Sure, you won't make it to the Olympics without being obsessed and serious about the sport, giving it your "all". But odds are, the majority will never see an Olympics, so in the end, does it then matter? Other than having had a reasonably good sports season, earning a "letter" or other award, and/or doing pretty well ... what does it matter in the grand scheme? After high school, we all have to set out in the real world and earn a living so sports will become either obsolete or a secondary source of hobby/exercise. I just feel parents put way too much emphasis on sports here in America (I grew up in Germany where there is no sport in the schools, it is all done after school with private leagues). My husband, who was actually a track star from his high school years, always says ... it's better in the long run to be a "mathlete" than an "athlete" ... keep the sports and fitness for fun, enjoyment, and health. :) Here's a link to my thoughts back when I was writing about it. I had actually read your post back then when you had brought up the topic, it is a topic that is frequently a source of frustration in the community I live in. I see so many kids with so much "pressure" with sports here :(

    1. I feel the very same way you do. I am so taken aback by the amount of pressure that is put on high school kids in athletic programs these days! Sports were popular when I was in school (20 years ago) and of course our coaches wanted us to succeed...but I don't remember EVER feeling that the entire community was counting on me to excel.

      My husband is, oddly enough, a "mathlete" (HS math teacher) as well as a girls volleyball coach and girls track coach. His little stud high jumper won the state title...all four years. The entire state seems to know her name - that is so foreign to me! I was terrified this year when she competed because I knew all eyes were on her and expecting her to win. Although I don't think there was ever a doubt that she would, I also can't imagine the pressure she felt. And not just to win, to break the state record (she did not).

      My girls are young 2 & 3 and I worry immensely about what it will be like for them when they are older.

  14. I think anxiety before a meet is normal and may even help performance. However, that much anxiety a full week out may mean we're underestimating the severity of the issue. It's also possible that it's not just about running performance but deeper issues (especially since he seems to enjoy running). I'd recommend a counselor/therapist who might be able to suggest a few simple things to help when facing pressure and to better pinpoint the issue.

  15. You could have written that story about me when I was a XC runner in high school. I loved being on a team and practicing but when it came to meets I was literally making myself sick over the anxiety I felt. I was the top runner on my team and struggled between wanting to just enjoy the sport, and also feeling a lot of pressure from my coaches and parents to win. It sounds like odd advice, but what ended up working for me was giving over the top running position to another runner. I didn't do it for every race, but just relinquishing that control and pressure to be the first runner helped me a lot and allowed me to relax if I knew someone else could take that position. I think it also helps to make sure the coach knows how you are feeling so that they can hopefully take off some of the pressure as well and talk about where the anxiety is coming from. That may not work for everyone, but it worked for me!

  16. we're so busy pushing our kids to success, they don't get that failure is an option, and a true chance for learning. The poor kid is so busy trying to please everyone, he's making himeself miserable. I tell my son all the time to dance like no one is watching. It's so freeing. This poor kid should just run because he loves it, not because he's supposed to live up to anyone else's expectations for him.

  17. Great answer, it is never a good idea to make a decision based on fear. It would be interesting to know if the kid has told his coach that he feels that way; does the coach care more about the kid or about the team's success?

  18. I am the same way, I love practicing and training, but race day I just wanna throw up my insides! High school sports have a lot of pressure attached to them because we want to impress our classmates, our coaches, ourselves...maybe he should just run for fun because he obviously loves it. He needs to enter races where he absolutely knows he can't win (like with Meb or Ryan running), then he'll have a lot less pressure to carry his team to victory. Get more comfortable in his normal pace and possibly the race aspect won't be so dreadful after a while.

  19. What strikes me about this is the boy's motivation.
    What motivates him to run? It sounds like he may have two different sources of motivation
    If he is getting anxious before the meets, but not in training he may feel that he has to win for others. So his motivation in a race is extrinsic--from a source outside himself. If he loves the training then the motivation to train may be intrinsic--from within himself.

    One of the quickest ways to have kids quit sport is to put too much pressure on them. Now one way that kids (and everyone else) can feel pressure is to make it about winning and rewarding winning performances: whether with ribbons or other prizes or praise only for good performance. It may not even be overt, but the kid feels like he has to win. So giving more specific feedback on performance not just "great job! you won" I wonder if the coach is focusing on feedback about winning in races, but providing more specific feedback on performance for training.

    I would have a chat with him and find out how he feels about races and what he feels is a good or acceptable performance. Try and determine this and see what his motivation (or lack of it) is for the races. Maybe he needs to be told that it is enough to show up and do his personal best for that day.

    Is he motivated by achievement or motivated to avoid failure? If he wants to avoid failure then not racing is a good way to do that!
    Maybe his mom could help him break down his goals for a race. Instead of "I must win" it could be "I will race at a steady pace and have enough energy for a kick at then end" Try to switch his thoughts into small achievable goals to motivate him and take away that fear of failure.

  20. My son is on the high school cross country team also and struggles with similar anxiety issues, though he is not at the front of the pack. Some of his friends get so worked up that they puke before they even run. There is a lot of pressure on these kids to perform, but most of it they put on themselves.
    For his last race I told my son to stop sprinting out so fast in the beginning, to try to negative split, to see if if felt different, more comfortable. Most of these kids (I am also a youth coach for younger kids), go out way tooo fast-- it is a constant battle to teach them otherwise.
    So my son tried going out at a more comfortable pace and then started picking it up each mile and it worked wonderfully. He got a tremendous confident boost from picking off kids the whole race instead of running afraid of being passed. His time also improved.
    I don't know. Sometimes we have to give kids the tools to help them feel more confident.
    We all know that running is hard because we do it ourselves. And there is always someone faster. This will never change. But I do think teaching race strategy does help xc kids feel more comfortable on race day, and that could make a big difference in getting them to line up without being anxious.

  21. This is such a tough one! I think you did a great job at answering. I would have been fearful to give them one. ; )

    That said--I guess he has to go for it. I'd hate for my child to ever look back and regret trying something b/c they were anxious about it. You never know what he may take away from the experience--confidence being the biggest potential here and that's a great thing.

  22. I think you did a great job with your response. I would also like the mom to remind her son about the verse in the bible where it says..."cast all your anxieties on Him because He cares for you."

  23. Loved your answer Beth! I have a 7 month old & wonder how I'll guide him to be a strong, confident human being. This was a fantastic answer. Maybe I'll just email you my questions any time he asks, and you can tell me your answers, & I'll relay them to him as if they are my own :) Keep the deep insight coming. I need it.
    Heck - the fear comment will (should) help me day in & out at work! I'm always chicken of something, and I know that shouldn't stop me. I'll keep this in mind.

  24. I should learn from you to live a healthy life!

  25. I'm a sophomore in high school right now. I've been struggling with xc and if I should even continue. I don't hate the sport, it's just I'm very sore all the time and I'm uncomfortable with my body. I dread meets because of my beefy arms and I envy all those thin tall skinny runners. The coach gave me a choice if I should quit or never miss a meet or run. After reading your post, I think I"ll choose the latter.
    When I grow up, I want something where I'll be proud of. I think xc is just that.

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