Grass Roots special: Stressing the point of sporting anxiety

Can junior footballers have their enjoyment of the game taken away from them?

Can junior footballers have their enjoyment of the game taken away from them?

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One is an experienced international cricketing superstar, with almost 7,000 international runs and three Ashes series victories under his belt.

The other is a legal advice advisor for the charity Shelter throughout the week, before donning his cricket whites at the weekend purely for the love of the game.

Professor Ian Maynard

Professor Ian Maynard

In cricketing terms, at least, Jonathan Trott and Andrew Fisher are incomparable.

But the two were brought just a little bit closer late last month, when it was announced that Trott was leaving England’s Ashes touring party in Australia and flying home to Birmingham, suffering from a ‘long-standing stress-related condition.’

Trott, it was later revealed, has been suffering from an anxiety problem for some time, and felt that he could not continue to perform at the level he, and everyone else, had become accustomed to.

The feeling is one that Fisher can relate to. Although it is important to emphasise that he has not suffered to the extent that Trott has, he suffered similar anxious feelings on the field which threatened his enjoyment of the game he loved.

“From around 2002 to 2006, I was the opening bowler and batsmen for my club,” Fisher, who has played for local South Yorkshire Cricket Alliance side High Green Village since 1999, said.

“Admittedly it wasn’t the highest standard, but I had bowled a lot of overs for Huddersfield University, who I also captained, with a pretty decent degree of success.

“I never had a great bowling action, so perhaps the signs were there that things could go wrong at some point.

“And, when they eventually did, it felt pretty horrific.

“I remember bowling a couple of terrible wides towards the end of one innings, but not being overly concerned at the time. I just put it down as one of those things.

“But the next week I tried to bowl, and everything felt wrong; the ball was likely to go over the wicketkeeper’s head, land on my own toes or even hit the umpire at square leg.

“It was never an issue when I was batting, but it used to play on my mind all the time, particularly when games were approaching.

“My aim went from getting the batsman out, to not bowling a wide, and the more and more I tried to overcompensate, the worse it got.

“In the end, I took up wicket keeping because then I knew I wouldn’t be asked to bowl.

“It’s an incredibly frustrating situation, because I enjoy bowling and I can do it in practice, but not in a game situation. I would love to take the ball again but, due to something that went off between my ears which I have no control over, I doubt I will ever do it again.”

In a lot of cases, though, sporting anxiety does not always come from within.

As a youngster, I - like many thousands of other kids, up and down the country - took to the football field every Sunday, come rain or shine.

One of my team-mates, and a good friend, was with me almost all the way through, until he quit as a 14-year-old and never played again.

Although not the most naturally gifted of players, talent was not an issue. Enjoyment was.

“I fell out of love with the game around the age of 11,” he told me, asking not to be named.

“It was fine for the first few years, but after a while my father got more interested in watching me.

“That is when it all went wrong. He would shout at me from the touchline, and if I had a particularly bad game he wouldn’t speak to me for the rest of the week.

“I felt worthless, even at the age of 11-12. I became reserved in myself; if my own dad didn’t believe in me, how could I?

“There was no way out. The feelings would impact my performance - it was a repetitive cycle, and the only way to get out was to pluck up the courage to quit.

“My performances got that bad that my team-mates began to pick up on it, which made it worse.

“Football at the weekend was supposed to be a safe, fun environment, a haven if you like. But it became my hell, and I couldn’t wait for Monday to come because I knew it was then a whole week until the next Sunday.

“Imagine that? What teenage kid looks forward to a Monday morning at school? But that was me. I used to look down at the badge on my shirt, which said: ‘Football is fun, win or lose. Enjoy it’, and laugh to myself. How could I enjoy this?

“The final straw came in one game, when I was having a stormer. Nothing got past me that day, and we were cruising.

“Our manager had warmed up a couple of subs, one of them played in my position, and I found myself hoping and praying that I would be taken off.

“That’s when I knew for sure it was time to pack it in.”

Speaking to my former team-mate, it is hard not to see the effect his experiences have had on him. His confidence, he says, took a long time to rebuild.

Even now, he believes those cold, dark Sunday mornings changed his life and shaped the person he is today.

Again, it must be said that not each parent is a ‘pushy’ one, but the issue is one that affects a number of children in our region: another friend of mine, a former youth referee, has seen players reduced to tears on the field due to comments from their parents.

Professor Ian Maynard is an expert in sports psychology, and Director of Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Sport and Exercise Science.

“A lot of anxiety tends to be adult-driven,” Professor Maynard, who completed a PhD in anxiety and stress, told Grass Roots.

“There tends to be an expectation put on kids at a young age, no matter what sport they are playing.

“While playing sport, kids tend to focus on three key factors: winning, losing and the opponents. They are three things that we call ‘uncontrollables’, rather than concentrating on individual things they can control.

“The key is to focus on processes, rather than outcomes. Instead of ‘we have to win’, which is the outcome, focus on the processes that are more beneficial - such as move into space when we have the ball, close the opponents down quicker.

“But when you create a ‘must-win’ culture, the enjoyment is often suppressed.

“More often than not, the first question from parents is never ‘did you enjoy yourself?. It is: ‘did you win?’. And that puts a lot of expectation upon young children.”

Professor Maynard has worked with some of the country’s elite sportsmen and women, and is renowned as one of the country’s leading sports psychologists.

“It’s possible that the problem is cultural,” he added.

“That expectation comes from parents who are often living their own dreams through their kids, either because they were never any good at sport themselves, or they didn’t ‘make it’ when they think they should have done.

“It is true that, playing grassroots sport, you don’t always have 30,000 football fans baying for your blood, and you don’t always have Mitchell Johnson sledging you at The Gabba.

“But you don’t always need these triggers to become too anxious to perform.”

Professor Maynard is quick to point out that anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing - when it isn’t allowed to overpower you.

“We don’t live in a stress-free world,” he says.

“And in a lot of cases, that anxiety feeling is what gets us out of bed in the morning, to make us better than the next person. But there aren’t many parents able to sit back and just watch their kids, so it’s about getting that balance and making sure the anxiety remains a challenge, not a threat.

“The psychological damage can affect kids throughout later life.

“But, on the flip side, if you can deal with anxiety at a young age then the skills are transferable to things like exams, interviews and your driving test in later life.

“In psychological terms, we want the butterflies in the stomach, but we want them flying in formation!

“It’s important that you can control the anxiety, rather than it controlling you.”